“If you take away the technology, right at the center are people, and we all have a desire for our work to have meaning and impact.”
Author, consultant, speaker and thought leader, Jono has lead and advised some of today’s leading communities. He’s currently founder of Jono Bacon Consulting providing community strategy and consultancy for Fortune 500 companies and startups including Deutsche Bank, Intel, Sony Mobile, and Mozilla. He was previously Director of Community at Canonical (Ubuntu), GitHub, XPRIZE, and OpenAdvantage, and advisor to organizations including AlienVault, Open Cloud Consortium and Mycroft. He’s an author of five books including The Art of Community, columnist for Forbes and opensource.com, founder of the Community Leadership Summit and a keynote speaker appearing at OSCON, LinuxCon, SCALE, and others. After getting a hold of his book (which we loved and every community manager should read!), we sat down with Jono and hear what he’s learned along the way…
OpenChannel: In your book you talk about how every community needs a story to tell. When starting a developer community, how does a company figure out their particular story?
Jono Bacon: There are so many different types of communities, it may be an open-source project, commercial project, support community or gaming community. If you take away the technology, right at the center are people, and we all have a desire for our work to have meaning and impact.
There’s a story from Dan Ariely about Microsoft, where they brought together top engineers to design what the next two years would look like. The engineers loved it and worked hard, but in the end the project was cancelled and everyone became immediately depressed. Even though they had been having fun, their work didn’t have meaning because the project had been cancelled.
Your story needs to make a connection between the developer community you want to build and how they can participate and do meaningful work. I like to initially shape this with personas which define key target audiences and their method of participation. Are they a developer, a documentation writer, an architect? When you can connect that persona and their skills to a story that will have meaning and impact, then you start building the real fundamentals of a strong community.
OC: Once a community has a story, how do they tell that story effectively?
Jono: I work to take a strategic approach to community building and break it into four areas – Awareness, On-Boarding, Incentives and Validation, and Psychology.
The first component is raising awareness of what your community is, why it exists and why developers should care. It’s your elevator pitch, your outreach, marketing, and how you talk about your community.
Next is an on ramp and how people get to the their first contribution. Once a developer learns about your community, what is the one thing they can do first? That could be a pull request for a developer, writing a piece of documentation for a docs writer, or for an advocate it may be organizing an event. This is one of the big mistakes a lot of developer communities make. They go to events, write content and promote their community, but once people learn about the community they get stuck because there is either no on ramp or it is too confusing.
The third piece is providing incentives and validation for contributions so that community members keep growing. Effective communities help people to do great work, build a reputation, and feel like their time in the community is an investment in themselves. When I manage teams (as a manager in an organization), I say “I have two goals, #1 is for you to be successful in the work you’re doing, #2 is to feel that your time here is an investment in your wider career.” Community is the same. When someone joins, they build something that has impact and meaning but they’re also improving themselves and learning. That’s what builds retention in a community.
The fourth piece is understanding the psychology and behavioral economics behind how and why people make decisions. Understanding that psychology is a big chunk of the work I do. The analogy I use is, you can’t build a great application unless you know the underlying platform, and in my world that is the psychology of how we build communities – we need to understand the dynamics of how people think and behave to build productive human systems . A great intro to the topic is the TED Talk Life Lesson of an Ad Man by Rory Sutherland.
OC: Your book also talks about the importance of being a good listener. As a community strategist, what are you listening for?
Jono: You might think you’ve built something rock solid, then people provide feedback and you realize it’s actually not as rock solid as you first thought. Feedback is a great way of seeing the gaps in your work. Receiving critical feedback can be hard, but as you grow, you have the hindsight to know that critical feedback will lead to better outcomes.
You also need to be a detective, because what people say they want and what they actually want can be very different. Often feedback is unstructured, so I’m a big believer in gathering feedback on a regular cadence.
One problem is that many community managers simply wait for feedback to be volunteered to them. If you do that, you either don’t get feedback or you only get people saying “This is good,” or “This is bad.” You need to reach out every month or two and say “How’s it going? What can we do better?”, and give people permission to give honest feedback in a safe environment
OC: For getting feedback on a regular cadence, are you just reaching out, or is there more to it than that?
Jono: There are structured ways of doing it, and a lot of people like to do surveys. I have mixed feelings about surveys, because they are a pretty artificial instrument for feedback.
As an example, I was talking to a client about a live event and they asked, “How can I figure out what people think of what we’re doing?” They had been handing out surveys the day after the event, which seems logical, but people have very a different perspective of an event the day after.
I prefer to look at the individual data points and pull that together. For example, which of the presentations were the most well attended? Which presentations did people sit closer to the front for? What kind of questions were people asking? How many questions were they asking? Even, what was the level of applause, or how often were people on their laptops or phones?
Structured feedback has limitations, so it’s not about getting the largest sample size, but about getting a large enough sample size and the right kind of sample to help us make informed outcomes that we can then roll out, test, and then gather more feedback.
OC: When working with communities as a consultant, what mistakes do you see companies and communities making?
Jono: A lot of companies don’t make community a strategic part of their organization. A company will identify a need, the product team will define the product, the engineering team will build it, the marketing team will promote it, and only then will the community team start to build a community around it. In this case, the community piece is at the end of that pipeline, which is a mistake: it needs to be part of the overall ideation, development, and engagement experience.
It is key to make community a strategic part of the company. It doesn’t have to roll up to the CEO, but you have to make sure that that you are identifying the needs of the community early, and that’s going to result in conversations and strategy with product, engineering and marketing teams.
When you integrate your community more strategically into the company, many challenges around community engagement are simplified.
Another element that some companies struggle with is where community participation fits in and the workflow that supports that participation.
There are two types of communities. You have READ communities where people come together because they share a common interest, for example fans of Taylor Swift or Game of Thrones. In READ communities, people generally can’t change the thing that brings them together. Then you have WRITE communities that can modify and improve the thing.
A challenge when building a WRITE community is you have to have hackable material, which can be code, text, documentation, etc. There has to be something that developers can make a contribution to. I’m seeing communities where there’s a lot of talking around building a collaborative community, but there’s not a lot of hackable material and this ultimately slows down progress typically.
OC: When managing a community, what metrics do you track and how do you improve them?
Jono: Metrics are tricky, there is a trend where people are sticking every conceivable piece of data into a dashboard. I’ve seen people spend 70% or their time pulling metrics together and only 30% actually assessing their value.
It’s more important to determine where the data can help you take a position on something that can be difficult to define. If you are running a developer community, it’s difficult to know if your developers are happy, or if the community is working as efficiently as it could. What I do is look at those questions and decide what numbers and data we need to take a position on those questions. You can do sentiment analysis, regular interviews with people, reach out and get feedback, even look at the number of likes in a community. By themselves they aren’t that valuable but combined they will be helpful.
OC: How will developer communities (tools, roles, etc) change over the next 5 years?
Jono: We’re seeing better tooling like GitHub, GitLab, Slack, Mattermost, and also things like Jenkins and Travis. When I was running the Ubuntu community we had to build a lot of the tools ourselves, because they just didn’t exist. It’s great because the better we understand how to build a community, the better we can use new tools to build stronger communities. There’s also more integration among tools, so people will continue to pull together the tools that fit their community best.
OC: What communities do you admire and why?
Jono: I’m a fan of the Fedora community, Kubernetes is also really interesting. People have been giving OpenStack a lot of flak but they’re doing amazing work. There are big formative projects that really change the game and OpenStack is one of them. I’m proud to say that Ubuntu is one of them as well, and particularly in building a community of people who are not just programmers. The Apache and Node communities are both amazing, and it’s been impressive to see the work in WordPress. There are so many good community stories to read and so many things to learn from them.
OC: What’s something you love to do that most people don’t know?
Jono: I think people probably know this, but I love recording and mixing music. I’ve played in a metal band since I was 16 and have a studio at home to record music.
The other thing is BBQ. I love smoking brisket, ribs, and pulled pork. I actually built a website with my best friend called BBQPad. It’s like a CMS to tracking cooks — and I also have a ludicrous sense of humor as well 🙂