How Virtual Coffee minimises the pain of community growth

July 26, 2022

Author Matthew Revell

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

Bekah Hawrot Weigel

For Bekah Hawrot Weigel, creating the Virtual Coffee developer community was driven by a personal need. 

As a recent career changer, Bekah had won her first role as a developer only for it to end due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Seeking the company of others in a similar position, Bekah asked on Twitter if anyone would like to hang out for a “virtual coffee”.

Bekah Hawrot Weigel tweeted, "Anyone interested in talking job search over virtual coffee tomorrow morning".

Two years later, that tweet has turned into a global community of thousands of developers.

Openness and vulnerability

On the community’s website, the people who run Virtual Coffee––maintainers, in their parlance––describe the group as, “An intimate community for all devs”. And it’s that commitment to intimacy that Bekah sees as one of the reasons for Virtual Coffee’s success.

We use the word “intimacy” because we feel that openness, vulnerability, and small group interactions are key to forming a community, to forming trust, and creating a safe space.

At first glance, it’s almost easy to miss just how radical Virtual Coffee’s approach is. It’s not that long ago that the default operating mode for many developer communities was hostility to newcomers. But Virtual Coffee formed as a way for developers to support one another, rather than as a way for old hands to demonstrate their superiority.

We have developers at all stages of the journey, from people who are learning through to founders and people who have been doing this their entire careers.

Growth from an initial idea

Those first virtual coffee sessions helped Bekah to see that she wasn’t alone. With schools closed due to the pandemic, Bekah was balancing interviewing for new roles with homeschooling and adjusting to a world that was suddenly very different.

I’d experienced a trauma previously and one of the things that I learned is that being in isolation is not going to help you heal and that you need to have community. But we were in a pandemic. You’re not allowed to go anywhere. You’re not allowed to see anyone.

The people I met through Virtual Coffee were all going through the same things on our individual journeys with our own stories and our own details. But essentially, we were all feeling this pain and many of us were job searching in what was a really challenging time.

It wasn’t long before people outside the initial group wanted to take part.

It started once a week and then people on the west coast were like, “Hey, what about us? You’re meeting early in the morning.” And it was like, okay, well, let’s add a second time and then it just kept going from there. We added lunch ‘n’ learns, we opened a Slack, and started a podcast. But it has always been about supporting everybody as they come in. 

Virtual Coffee’s organic growth contrasts with the grand plans that many of us create when hoping to spark a community as part of our developer relations programs. Bekah had no plan to create a community but instead to fulfil a human need.

Robustness through documentation

Roughly six months after those first virtual coffees, Bekah recognised that the burgeoning community might be around longer than she’d expected. One turning point was Hacktoberfest, which led many new people to benefit from Virtual Coffee’s support and guidance.

Aware that growth could risk the community’s original purpose, Bekah set out to formalise how the community worked.

We supported so many different members that it seemed natural to just keep going with the community. And so during that process of Hacktoberfest, we focused really strongly on documenting our processes.

For example, before becoming a member you have to attend at least one virtual coffee. That way you can see what kind of community we are and whether we are a good fit for your needs.

And we hit a certain point where introductions were taking the majority of each session. So we documented a process for using break out rooms so that multiple things could happen in one meeting. And for someone interested in Virtual Coffee, they can read that documentation to understand who we are as virtual coffee, as well as detailing the procedures that help us make space for everybody to have a voice.

Maintaining that documentation is an ongoing task that Bekah sees as vital to enabling Virtual Coffee to stick to its original ideals of trust and intimacy.

Pausing growth to protect what matters

Rather than risk losing what makes Virtual Coffee special to its members, Bekah and her fellow maintainers paused new memberships earlier this year.

A pause on membership gives us the opportunity to reevaluate our processes to make sure that we can continue to support people in that same positive and intimate environment that we have been.

It was a hard decision but an important decision. I’ve seen a lot of communities that haven’t done that, and they’ve just gone away. And it’s really sad because small, supportive communities, that are open to everybody are really important to the tech industry. We’re excited to be making progress on revising our processes, and to open things up soon again. But we want to preserve this community and what we find special about it.

Pausing growth was as much about ensuring volunteers had a good experience as it was about revising process.

One of the things that’s important to us is that we support developers at all stages of the journey. To do that, you have to have developers at all stages of the journey.

We were getting a huge influx of one particular segment of the tech population that felt like it was putting a lot of pressure on our existing members. We always have to make sure that we are not allowing the people who are supporting us to get burnt out. And they love the community as much as we do. But sometimes, in a more virtual  environment where you’re not walking into a door and seeing somebody, it’s much easier for people to just fade away.

Since then, the group has started to admit new members albeit slowly. Each existing volunteer can invite one new member per month. That not only makes growth more manageable but it also echoes the vouching system that many clubs and other groups use to give everyone a stake in the success of new members.

Finding roles for everyone

One part of managing the community’s growth has been to define roles that suit different people’s interests and needs. That has led to a variety of roles, such as room leader and note taker.

Onboarding people into new roles is one way that Virtual Coffee maintains its culture. Experienced room leaders, for example, mentor new room leaders in how to perform the role based on the community’s documentation. And while some less welcoming developer communities might venerate technical ability above all else, Bekah credits her broader experience as one reason for Virtual Coffee’s success.

When we bring on new room leaders, for example, we show them the format and the rules of how we participate. Part of that is helping them learn about discussion facilitation.

So, although there aren’t really rules for discussion facilitation, we have a lot of tips and tricks to keep things going and to make sure that people feel supported. I was a college English teacher. I’ve done discussion facilitation my entire career but, for many people, especially people who have been in tech their whole careers, that might not be something that they have experience in.

Winning awards

DevRel awards: most welcoming developer communityIn two years, Virtual Coffee has gone from a tweet to the winner of this year’s “Most Welcoming Developer Community” category in the DevRel Awards. And it owes its success to having a founding reason that resonates with developers.

Growing Virtual Coffee has taken effort to stay true to what made it work for those original people who joined Bekah for virtual coffee meet-ups during the early days of lockdown. By documenting the processes of the community and prioritising the wellbeing of existing members over growth, Virtual Coffee has shown that organic growth benefits from intentionality.

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