Training the community leaders of 2025


Joe Nash

Joe Nash

As coding becomes ever more enmeshed into curriculums, colleges are increasingly fertile grounds for developer relations folk to connect with the tech practitioners of tomorrow. GitHub is making inroads with the GitHub Campus Experts program, which encourages students to become stewards of their campus tech communities. It’s managed by upcoming DevRelCon London speaker Joe Nash, who helps to embed, support and scale the program.  

Whilst GitHub Education offers a free Student Developer Pack, The Campus Experts program goes further, helping learners connect the dots for how to make the best use of GitHub for their projects. This is important because universities are increasingly stretched in their ability to keep up with changes in the marketplace.

Joe notes that the majority of software graduates are coming out of university with computer science courses under their belts, not computer engineering. This should, in theory, give them a solid grounding in the fundamentals of the science behind the things they are using but it doesn’t reflect how software is built outside the lecture theatre. Things that we take for granted in commercial software development, such as a version control, aren’t always taught in higher education.

All of this can be hard to keep up with from the vantage point of the classroom. So, it’s all the more important for students to have the opportunity to be able to plug into the expertise of those already established in the industry.

Coding community into learning

Community is at the heart of the GitHub Education ethos. For Joe; “You become a better developer if you’re a part of a community. That’s the principle behind developer relations. We’re community builders for developers.” Campus Experts is an extension of this, teaching students to lead technology communities, “help their peers learn, and become better developers themselves.”

Joe is particularly well placed to help build this movement. His first taste of developer communities came when he was still a student himself when he “stumbled” into the world of hackathons. Soon, defying the stereotype of the lazy undergrad, he was rising at the crack of dawn to get (much more typical) “cheap, dirty coaches” to events across the country.

At the time, Joe and his friends would usually be the only students there. But, he says, “we got so much value from it, and it was such an incredible experience.” Spotting a gap in the market, they joined a small handful of other groups across the UK who were starting up student-only hackathons.

After graduation, an evangelism role at PayPal opened up student communities across the world for Joe. He was surprised to see that what was a nascent movement in the UK was something that tens of thousands of students were getting involved with in the US. Seeing such “massive” participation was, “super inspiring…and having been through that journey myself, and seeing how much those hackathons influenced me, that’s definitely been the driving factor in making it the focus of my career.”

Don’t call it a sales pitch

All companies deploy developer advocates with an eye inclined at least a little towards the prize. Accordingly, GitHub does nurse the hope that by helping students learn and grow with GitHub Campus Experts, they might harbour some interest in the company once they’ve graduated. However, Joe is keen to differentiate Campus Experts from other ambassador programs, which can sometimes be akin to unpaid sales roles.

Joe understands that students might be extremely eager to be affiliated with a certain company to differentiate themselves from their peers. And so, “they will be willing to do some things without any compensation that we shouldn’t take advantage of.” Sales schemes loosely disguised as advocacy don’t just take unfair advantage of eager to please undergrads desperate to climb the career ladder though. They can also poison potential recruits against a brand down the line.

Far better, Joe believes, for the whole core of relations to be “authentic and genuine.” To help encourage a more positive exchange, his team tries to emphasise the notion that helping to improve a software community helps make a project better. And that in turn helps to build its use.

“To become better developers, we need to become part of a community. And better developers use GitHub. So, if we have more communities making better developers, that’s, in the end, more GitHub users.”

Passing on cultural capital

Whilst writing code is the core of any developer role, the role demands a much wider range of skills too. Such as how to coherently present a technical concept; how to build a portfolio; or how to demonstrate a wider base of knowledge. Joe states; “if you’re a developer brand just building a student advocacy program, the best thing you can give them isn’t swag, it’s not sponsorship, it’s not your grant, it’s raw skills.”

For this reason, Campus Experts program starts with a very broad training program. The program touches the full “catalogue” of tech employer demands, with topics spanning from evangelist skills such as public speaking and workshop development to technical topics like GraphQL, Electron, Atom.

Keeping learners learning, and avoiding advocate burnout  

On to that scaling part. Campus Experts has recently shifted to a newer sustainable, online self-service model, which, Joe says, has changed his life. In an early incarnation, Campus Experts would accept 30 students at a time, who would then undergo eight weeks of training. All of this would be done via calls with Joe’s team, whatever timezone students happened to be in.

Now, Joe comments,  “I’m no longer getting up at stupid times of the day, but it’s also had a huge impact on the quality of the students’ lives. The students we’re targeting, they’re people who are getting high grades – they’re people who are getting the best internships. They’re people who are hosting hackathons, organizing clubs. And then we’re saying to them, ‘Hey, set apart eight weeks of your life to spend it doing exercises and calls with us.’

And that was really challenging for them, let alone me. So with this new model, this online self-service model, not only do I get more time to do what I need to do, which at the moment gives me more time to make more excellent content for them, but it also says to them, ‘Hey, you can do half this training now, and then you’ve got exams and that’s fine. You don’t have to sweat it. Come back later.’ And they can do it in their time zones in their time….It’s not only made it scalable for me, it’s made it scalable for them”.

Again, Joe suggests, this comes down to being useful and authentic. “We’re not making them hawk our brand. We’re not making them give up their lives to take part. They get a lot of value from it while still having a low footprint.”

See Joe’s talk at DevRelCon London 2017 on December 6!


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