DevRel insights from 650k developers


Jon Gottfried

Job title





DevRelCon London 2023

Jon GottfriedIn this DevRelCon talk, Jon Gottfried, co-founder of Major League Hacking, shares insights from a decade of working with 650,000 developers.

He provides evidence of how getting in early with developers can set long term preference that then feeds into purchasing decisions.

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Key themes

  • Major League Hacking (MLH) is the largest community of early career developers in the world.
  • MLH’s mission is to empower hackers by helping them build real-world technical skills outside of the classroom.
  • MLH has served 650,000 developers and has had a significant impact on their lives.
  • MLH conducts standardized surveys and analyzes projects to gather insights about developer communities.
  • Community events are early indicators of tech trends.
  • Developers have a strong affinity for the tools they use and this affinity lasts a long time.
  • Developers have influence over purchasing decisions, even early career developers.
  • Giving great swag creates exponential brand impressions and fosters loyalty among developers.


Rebecca Marshburn:

I’m a pretty big fan girl of, and so I’m really excited to introduce this next speaker as well. He is a co-founder of an organization that I’ve been a big fan of for many years now, but his bio is a type that you read and you’re trying to figure out if they’re playing two truths and a lie. This person was featured on both a 30, under 30 and a 40 under 40 list at the same time for education and entrepreneurship respectively, and recently starred on the Great American Baking Show season six. As far as I know, the coolest part is I’m pretty sure they’re actually all truth, so I would’ve lost because I was like, which one of these is not? It? Turns out they’re all real. So next up to talk about insights, he and his team learned from 650,000 developers is co-founder of an org that I’ve personally been a fan of for a very long time, who I think embodies so many of those principles you spoke about Wesley, co-founder of Major League Hacking. Welcome to the stage, John Gottfried.

Jon Gottfried:

Thank you. Wow. I’m really excited to be back here. The last DevRelCon I was at was 2019. I very distinctly remember getting tacos with Wesley. It was delicious, but this always feels like a family reunion to me. I see so many familiar faces and get to meet so many incredible new people who embody all of those same values that Wesley talked about. So this is a pleasure and I’m honored to have some of your time. So as Rebecca mentioned, I’m going to be talking about some insights that we’ve learned. Before that I’ll do a quick intro of myself. So outside of baking, which is very fun party fact, I also was an early developer evangelist at Twilio with a couple of friends here in the audience, which is wild. I know DevRel has evolved a lot in that time span, but it was a formative experience for me and certainly cemented a lot of my views on community building and DevRel. I also have built a lot of non-corporate hacker communities like Startup Bus Hacker, Olympics, hacker Union, and all sorts of other fun groups that do things that don’t make money.

Now, how many of you here have heard of MLH before outside of this talk? Awesome. A really good number. Well, I’m excited to introduce it to those of you who haven’t. Major League Hacking is the largest community of early career developers in the world. We are a public benefit corp, and our mission is literally codified in our operating docs. It’s to empower hackers to us, that means helping people build real world technical skills outside of the classroom. So we do that through programs like hackathons, workshops, fellowships, all of the applied learning experiences that a developer needs to actually build their career. About 91% of our community said that they learn skills through MLH that they can’t learn in class. They are just not being taught those things in class. And more than that, we’re actually celebrating our 10th anniversary this year, which is wild to think about, and we’ve served 650,000 developers. Thank you.

More importantly than the number though, is that almost 50% of those people have said that our programs changed their life in those literal words. That’s something that we’re super proud of and honestly keeps us going through all of the good and bad times. Beyond that, we’re starting to hit a critical mass. About a third of all computer science and students in the US do our programs every single year, and it’s quite a bit more globally, and nearly 60% of our community identifies as part of an underrepresented group in tech. So this is core to our D n A is changing the makeup of tech as a community, and it’s something that’s really important about a work. But with that introduction, I would love to transition into the actual meat and potatoes of this talk, which is how do we actually measure the impact of DevRel and developer communities over a long period of time and what can we learn from the data that we’ve seen over 10 years that could inform your strategies and approaches to DevRel?

In terms of methodology, we do an immense amount of standardized surveying. We’ve been doing this for 10 years. Every six months, we do a massive survey that about 10,000 people fill out. We also analyze about a hundred thousand projects that people have built. So literally looking at what are people doing, why, how do they describe it? And then we also incorporate on the ground feedback. So we have staff at all of our events similar to you. We collect qualitative feedback to inform a lot of the data that we’re seeing. So let’s dive right in. I have four big learnings to share with you, and the first one here is that community events are early indicators of where tech trends are going. So what do I mean by that? Let’s use React as an example. This chart is the popularity of React in Hackathon projects over the years.

We look at about 10 to 15,000 projects a year. Starting in 2016, react was the 30th most technology amongst all of the projects we saw that year in 2022. It’s now the fifth most popular. This probably makes sense intuitively to a lot of you, especially if you’re in the JavaScript community, but I’ll get to what’s a little weird about it. If you compare this to Stack Overflow is popularity rankings, and you look at React versus Angular, you see both of them start to rise going into about 20 18, 20 19, and then Angular starts to become a little bit less popular. I know a lot of people still use it. I don’t really have a strong opinion either way, but it starts to dip in popularity on Stack Overflow and React continues to rise. This is about 2019. The really interesting thing that we observed is that our data showed this trend about two years earlier.

So even though there was this lag on Stack Overflow where questions continued to be asked people continue to engage with React in projects, it dropped dramatically starting in 2017. What does this tell us? So this tells us that you have to actually watch what people are using. Certainly there’s corporate mandates for what technologies to use. You don’t always have a choice, but if you look at what people are using by choice for fun that they find interesting, it starts to reveal these nascent platforms that you can invest in as a Devra person because we’re all supporting a variety of developer communities, and a lot of these patterns can come from direct engagement with those community members and what they’re building.

Our second insight kind of feeds directly off of this, which is that the tools in the developer’s tool belt, which is this concept a lot of us talk about, are really sticky. Again, something that a lot of us might feel intuitively, but we’ve proven out with data. So let’s look at the popularity of a W S or other cloud platforms. This graph is based on when you went to your first MLH hackathon. So what that means is if you went to your first event in fall 2015, you drastically prefer a W s. From 2015 to 2018, they were investing heavily in the student developer community to build their reputation. In a lot of ways, reinforce it because they were already a market leader at that point. But the crazy thing about this is that even many years into the future, like six years later, the developers that were introduced to a W s at that first hackathon in 2015, still massively prefer it over anything else. Now, where this starts to get really interesting is when things change. So what do you think happens when Google starts to get more involved than a w s?

Well, that brand preference switches almost overnight. So for people who started going to hackathons in fall 2018, when Google began to get more involved than a wss, they prefer Google Cloud and they prefer it for many, many, many years into the future. In fact, people who went to their first event sponsored by Google Cloud prefer it 50% over any industry baseline we could find. So what does this tell us? It tells us that developers affinity for tools. They build familiarity with them, and that familiarity, affinity and love for their developer tools lasts a really, really long time. And so you have to continuously invest in those communities as soon as a w s divested, and I don’t mean to call out a w s because I love them, but as soon as they divested from the community at that time, they lost that brand preference and they lost it for an entire generation of developers, which is wild.

The next insight feeds directly off of this. So this is like the holy grail of DevRel in my mind, which is that developers have influence over purchasing decisions. I have an asterisk here. Even early career developers influence purchasing decisions. This is something that a lot of us believe implicitly. We all have our anecdotes about this happening where you meet someone at a conference and six months later they become a great enterprise customer. We’ve been measuring this. This is core to our belief as well. So what we have found is that almost 40% of our alumni have introduced something they learned at the hackathon into production on their job. So you think about those Google Cloud developers, there’s a w s developers. Six years later, those people are bringing those technologies to work with them. Obviously, that’s a long tail. It doesn’t affect you next quarter, but we’re talking about waves of developers adopting technologies.

And to be successful in the long term, you need to have the awareness affinity and adoption that carries you into the future. And these technologies are widely varied. Sometimes when people say they introduced technology, it’s a commercial a p i. Sometimes it’s an open source framework. Sometimes it’s this thing, Vivado, which I hadn’t even heard of before. A student told me they learned about a hackathon and brought it to work. But this affects all of the different tools developers use. And if you are not where developers are at, you’re missing that opportunity to build that loyalty. So I’m asking all of you to focus on short and long-term r o. I know that right now there’s a lot of commercial pressures on DevRel to prove your worth this quarter that is shortsighted by your employers, and it means that they’re losing a massive future opportunity in exchange for a short-term win.

The last insight we have is perhaps more of a fun one, but it’s one that is very close to my heart, which is that giving great swag creates exponential brand impressions. This was heavily informed by my time at Twilio back in the day because as many of you know, Twilio is actually a t-shirt company, but that hast formed MLH’s outlook on the world as well. And I know that none of us want to be producing a bunch of stuff that people throw in the trash. The antidote to that is to produce really good stuff that people want. So at MLH, obviously we work with a ton of developers every year. They love our shirts and our swag. We see these out in the wild all the time. I see it riding the subway in New York. I see it here in London. We see it all over the world.

The way that we keep this fresh and interesting after 10 years is we change the logo every year. So we actually have a season mascot every academic year that we reveal to our students. At the beginning of the summer, we started doing a naming convention here that’s alliterative. It’s kind of fun bit the bot crypto chameleon. My favorite ducky debugger because who doesn’t love a rubber duck? And then this year we announced a new one. I’m going to let people guess the letter is H. Any guesses? It’s like a Pokemon. Okay. Yeah, it is a good outline there. It’s Hanson, the hardware hippo. It’s really cute, right? A little cyborg hippopotamus. Thank you. I didn’t design it, but I love it.

Now, how does this affect our view on DevRel? Obviously, there’s a really cute logos. We have a really good designer, really good artists. So here’s where things get interesting. Four out of five MLH alumni wear one of those t-shirts at least once a month. And you can’t really read that there, but it says 36.5% wear it every week. I hope they’re washing it, but that’s wild. Think about someone wearing your brand every week. What do you wear every week? Hopefully sweatpants if you’re working from home. But whatever you’re wearing once a week is meaningful to you, right? It’s part of your identity. So we did some math, right? And I love this little Jupiter notebook, but we have about 150,000 participants a year right now. Let’s say 20% of them get a t-shirt. Of those 20%, 36.5% say they wear it every week.

That’s about 11,000 people wearing it every week. Let’s say you’re an average college student and you run into 200 people a day. How many impressions is that? That’s 2.2 million impressions per week. You can’t even buy that kind of advertising in person, right? Think about that. You have tens of thousands of people walking around repping your brand because they love it that much. That creates millions and millions and millions of brand impressions. That’s really, really powerful. And so I see people doing this, but I think that people should treat a DevRel brand as a real brand. You’re like supreme, you’re like, I dunno, other cool brands that people wear. But if you create really high quality, meaningful things that represent your values and your brand, people will feel that, right? And they’ll be willing to represent it and it will mean something to them. So I’ll leave you with a quick summary here.

Look to community events and community members for early indicators of tech trends. That’s really important. You have to have your ear to the ground, get in early and continuously with developers because tool belt preferences are incredibly sticky and long lasting. Believe and prove that developers influence purchasing decisions. We all know it, right? That’s really how DevRel gets justified a lot of the time. But it’s true and it is provable in the data and create really high quality swag. I just got my challenge coin. It’s going to go on my shelf of meaningful items from conferences, but treat your DevRel brand as a real brand. People will resonate with that. If you want more data, we have a cool report we put out recently and we have a really fun link shortener hack pack wow slash DevRelCon preport. Love for you all to check that out. We’ll release more every year, but really, I want to thank you all. We couldn’t do the work that we do or have the impact that we have without all of you. Many of you’re our customers, many of you’re our friends, and your support is incredibly meaningful. So thank you all for listening to me. Thank you for supporting our community and happy DevRelCon.


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