Whether you’re a company in need of development work, or someone with an open source project that needs contributions, leveraging a developer community can seem like a simple and cost-effective solution.

The promise of having hundreds or even thousands of independent, talented workers solving your development problems around the clock appears to be a dream come true.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work that easily. You can’t add the word “developer” to your website and expect hundreds of developers to suddenly support your initiatives and grow organically.

Developer communities are called communities for a reason — they are beneficial to everyone involved and take a lot of work to both grow and maintain. Work that includes time, transparency, and in some cases, significant funding.

After weighing the options, if you’re still convinced that building a developer community is what you really want to do, here are some tips to help ensure your vision and hard work show.

First step: the vision & the expectations


First, define what you’re trying to do and what makes what you’re trying to do different.

Communities of any kind need to have focus. What are you trying to accomplish, and how will you stay away from exploiting those with the development talent?

Second, determine what your relationship with developers will be. It’s most important to not abuse the most vital asset, which is the relationships you will develop with the people that contribute value to your community. This is where transparency and honesty play a role. Be transparent about what you’re trying to achieve and honest about whom it will benefit.

Third, figure out which players will take on which roles. What will be the responsibilities of others in your community? Will you be paying for the work that’s being done? Who will finance this work?

If your ultimate goal isn’t to make monetary gain from this community, then good for you. But it’s likely that you’ll need initial funding from someone. Start with possible benefactors of what the community can potentially produce and put your business development skills to work.

All of this is starting to sound like a time-consuming task. Developer community development is not a new concept, and there is a lot of great information out there on what makes a great developer relationship.

For as much output as the community has, it will require at least twice as much effort from you and your team. In other words, the community doesn’t exist for you; you end up existing for the community, and you can’t focus solely on what personal gain you’re trying to obtain.

No skilled developers will want to help you out unless you can take care of them. You have to build something the community wants to play in, not something you want them to play in.

Maintaining & sustaining your community


Within your developer community, you must live out your mission statement. In other words, if you’re a crowdsourcing community, crowdsource your marketing materials. If you’re into Azure, don’t forget to build your website with it.

But most importantly, get the word out enthusiastically. Creating buzz takes legwork. You need to attend relevant events and informal meet-ups, and don’t be afraid to talk to influencers and do some personal networking.

It’s also important to engage your developer community at all levels and not just support early contributors. You never know who the next rock star contributor will be.

To help achieve positive engagement, reduce your conversion funnel. Make it easy for people to participate, sign up, and get recognized. At RedMonk’s recent conference, Monki Gras, Kohsuke Kawaguchi, developer of Hudson, drove this point home, by reminding the crowd that every possible community participant starts as a visitor and customer prior to deciding whether or not to participate.

It’s important to provide easy opportunities to for people to participate; this includes having great documentation, easy build scripts, and APIs.

Lastly, people like getting credit for their work and developers are no different. So showcase their efforts. Remember: the community exists for the members, not the other way around. The success of your developer community hinges on how you can make it better.

Dave Messinger currently works managing external development resources for Appirio, a professional resources company for cloud-based services. Previously, he was chief architect for TopCoder, a developer community where hackers participate in online coding competitions.

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