Four types of developer community

January 16, 2020

Author Matthew Revell

DevRelCon founder and CEO of Hoopy, the content agency for the developer economy.

Barn raising

Barn raising

An effective developer relations strategy depends on understanding the motivations, structure, and rewards of the developer community that is touched by your programme. The trouble is, developer communities come in all shapes and sizes.

Thankfully, most developer communities fall into a few broad types. Once you recognise the type that applies to your developer community then it becomes easier to understand the roles that your programme and the community play for each other.

So, what are those types?

Barn raisers

Icon of a barn

Barn raisers

The original developer communities, Barn Raisers exist to build something. Such communities tend to:

  • be non-commercial, yet may have individual members who are paid by third parties for their contributions
  • distribute power through a community process
  • exist primarily to solve a particular need through software.

The name “barn raisers” comes from the idea of a community of people coming together to build a barn that would be impossible to build otherwise. While not everyone has the same motivation for taking part, the ultimate goal of raising the barn (or delivering the software) guides the community.

Examples of barn raising communities include Debian, Apache Kafka, and the Ruby programming language.




Some Guilds can appear a lot like Barn Raisers. However, in a Barn Raiser community the motivations of members come second to the overall mission. Guild-type communities exist to further the interests of its members in relation to the software.

Guilds often have the following characteristics:

  • a commercial or non-profit entity that ultimately decides the direction of the product
  • power to affect the product is granted by the controlling entity, other power could come from the community or the entity
  • it is understood that people and companies take part to further their own interests
  • participation in the community might be used as a mark of legitimacy for those looking to sell services related to the software.

The name “guild” comes from those medieval guilds that were seen as the source of learning and legitimacy for particular trades.

Examples of guild-type communities include React and the OutSystems developer community.




Academies are those developer communities that exist primarily for the exchange of knowledge. Usually, they:

  • involve gaining social capital/karma through a points system
  • are backed by a commercial entity
  • grant power to those who have been around longest or who are most tenacious in arguments
  • feature a disconnect between those who answer questions and those seeking help.

Examples of academies include Stack Overflow and the many large crypto chat groups.




Ambassadorial communities exist to help a vendor bring their product to market. In most cases, that’s not exploitative as there are benefits on both sides. Community members stand to gain professional standing, skills, and an expanded network. Academy-type communities tend to:

  • be run by community professionals funded by the vendor
  • distribute power from the top down, although larger communities can become somewhat separate from the vendor
  • gameify participation, whether explicitly through a points model or more subtly
  • help members to meet their own goals
  • struggle with long-term, deep member commitment as the ongoing returns for members often diminish once that person’s initial need has been met.

Ambassadorial communities are common. Look at pretty much any community that is organised around an API product, for an example.

Is there a fifth type?

True communities offer an authentic experience where all members have the opportunity to contribute and feel that they benefit from their participation. There is a fifth type, though, that shouldn’t be called a community but often is.

That fifth type is “Your Cousin’s Wedding”.

Your Cousin's Wedding

Your Cousin’s Wedding

Think about it. The parallels are remarkable:

  • You only said you’d go out of politeness
  • It’s a bunch of people you don’t know
  • There’s too much cheap alcohol
  • You know it’s a sham and it won’t last six months.

If you haven’t yet been to a developer meet-up like that, then you know someone who has. There are programmes that call themselves developers communities but are inauthentic and miss the entire point of what a community is meant to be.

If you’re worried that your community might fit into this type, then ask yourself two questions:

  • Can and do members of my community interact with each other without my/my company’s involvement?
  • Do things happen in my community that benefit the members but don’t necessarily benefit me or my company?

If the answer is no, then you need to find a way to turn your promotional campaign into a community. If the answer is yes and you’re still worried then it might be time to audit your developer relations programme to find room for improvement.

Photo by Randy Faith.

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