Student developer relations at GitHub


Joe Nash on the right

Joe Nash on the right

Students are a difficult prospect for developer relations programmes. Work well with them and many will remember your product when they have a relevant need during their professional career. But that’s also the problem: any investment will most likely take a few years to show a return. Even by dev rel’s standards, that’s too far out for many companies.

Joe Nash is GitHub’s Student Program Manager and he wants to convince every developer relations professional of the value to be found in engaging student developers. Since leaving university himself, Joe has made a career of developer advocacy targeted at students. As part of the Major League Hacking team he helped students to run hackathons and then at PayPal he was responsible for their student developer outreach.

I chatted with Joe in Beijing, just after we’d both given talks at DevRelCon Beijing, to understand more about his approach to student developer relations.

Students want skills to get jobs

For Joe, the first step to working with student developers is to understand their motivations. Whereas segmenting the general population of developers can be hard work, with students Joe says we already know what they’re looking for.

Joe: “We understand more about students’ needs and their goals: to graduate and get good jobs. That’s a really powerful thing to know because it tells us a lot about how we can help them.

“As developer relations people, we have knowledge on novel topics. Students need that kind of specialist knowledge to be able to say to a company, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve seen a talk before on this,’ or, ‘I’ve been involved with this particular DevRel person,’ and that’s really useful for them. They recognize that what they need from you are your skills and your education.”

Students battle test your stuff

Building on that understanding of what students need is knowing how to make tech available to them and reach them at their level.

Joe: “It’s no good rocking up to a student event with an API or a product that has a monthly fee because students just can’t afford it. So you need to make it available, we need to make it free or accessible to them, but more than that you need to make sure that it’s technically accessible as well.

“If you’re distributing your client libraries for your API through the latest JavaScript package manager, that’s very difficult for a student because students in universities aren’t being taught Javascript and they’re not being taught the cutting edge things in the Javascript ecosystem.

“Just provide the file, give a CDN. Make it easy for people to get a hold of. Don’t assume that you’ve got a full-time developer who has the time and is using your workflow. And that speaks to documentation, as well. With documentation, you really need to make sure that it at least links to the basics, or at least addressing things at a higher level of detail.

“Your documentation doesn’t work until it’s been through a first-year CS undergraduate.”

“They’re great to work with because you know whether your stuff’s successful. You know how good the UX of your developer experience is.”

Enthusiasts on campus

Developer advocacy with students is a two-way relationship. If you help them get what they need then they can help you build an audience for your software.

Joe: “There are thousands of campuses and you could spend your entire life flying to campuses and giving one-hour talks. But the nice things about students is they have clubs, they have what we call “societies” in the UK. They gather for events like hackathons and those are all led by students themselves.”

“So if you offer these student leaders the chance to be involved in your company at a more intimate level, the chance to learn from you directly, of course they’re gonna help spread your message on their campus. They can organize events for you, they’re going to go out and put themselves out there. And the other interesting thing about that is how surprisingly useless it is getting in touch with universities directly.”

Campus experts

Encouraging student leaders is something that GitHub has taken seriously, forming their Campus Experts programme to build up individual students who want to champion open source projects at their college or university. What started out as a way to encouage students to become advocates for GitHub is now a much broader initiative that starts with an eight week training programme and features students from across the globe.

Joe: “We give our campus experts the technical leadership skills they need, and if they want to use the GitHub brand then they’re welcome to, but there’s no expectation. They don’t ever have to mention GitHub. However, a lot of them want to get more engaged with GitHub, especially in regions that are underserved, like India and Africa where, as an individual, having the GitHub brand association is very powerful for them.

“And it’s given us a fantastic ability to scale. Not just at student events, but other engagements we do. For example, our education team at GitHub is just four people. We recently had 20 new students graduate from our training scheme and then go out to do forty events in seven countries. That’s a huge, huge uptick in the number of engagements we’re able to do.


Higher education has a seasonality to it. Not only are there terms and semesters but after two, three, maybe four years people graduate and leave their student lives behind.

Joe: “Every year a group of students leave and every year a new group of students come in. You lose knowledge, and you lose personal connections each time. So as a dev rel person, that means every year you need to be keeping up to date with who is the new student leader on campus. But the university needs to do that as well, and lecturers need to do that, and in some given years, the university lecturers may have less of a connection with the students than they did in prior years. So you can never rely on the university, but if you keep track and keep in contact with the students on campus you can ask them, ‘Hey, you’re graduating this year, who are you handing over to? Who should I talk to now?’ You’ll have much greater success.”

What’s in it for the company?

Joe’s clear that students can gain a great deal from working with developer advocates. They can get hands-on with new technology, learn professional techniques and expose themselves to software engineering as it happens in industry rather than only in academia.

But what are the advatanges for the companies?

Joe: “The most obvious one is recruitment. You’ve got these really talented students and you can get to them early. They’re gonna make great interns, great junior members of your team. But then that kind of speaks to the wider advantage: these people are gonna graduate.

“Earlier we spoke about students’ need for novel skills. If you are the one to teach them those novel skills, and those skills are geared towards your platform, when they get into a company and they want to prove themselves, they can show their new team that they have useful knowledge.”

So the return for a companies investing in student developer relations is similar to the broader return we see from developer relations programmes: developers who feel an affinity for your company and your product will ultimately use that product when the opportunity arises. The big difference is that a professional developer could select your product next week, whereas with students the return can take years.

Joe: “It’s a slightly long tale. It could take a year, two years for a student to graduate and to get a job. Maybe it won’t be in a company you care about or maybe that particular student isn’t gonna be one that’s gonna generate a lead for you. But you reach ten, a hundred, a thousand students and that potential grows a lot. And that’s definitely something that we’ve experienced at GitHub. Our student program has been running for about five years now and we can see that the students are going on not only to continue to purchase GitHub for their own use, but that they’re members of corporate accounts, they’re members of business accounts, they’re members of companies that are buying enterprise.

“So we know that we have champions who have been using GitHub for years from when we were providing it for free as a student inside those companies, which is very valuable for not only us as dev rel people, but for our sales teams.

“And then there are the more intangible benefits that are especially useful if you’re working on a content-driven platform. If your activities are focused around providing content, you find that students have an amazing capacity for free time, and they want to explore this stuff. I was talking to an open-source maintainer who contributes to Swift. And one of the comments he had about being a student open-source maintainer was that he has no commitments, he has evenings, he has time to go and do these things.”

Land and expand

Taking a developer relations programme into new territories usually takes a great deal of planning and investment. Learning where developers hang out in a new city is just the start of it. Joe says that working with students helps give you a short-cut to some of that preparatory work.

Joe: “You want to expand to a new developer community, you need to find the local meet-ups, find the local people, where you can get in front of them and tell them about your product. With students, you know where the campuses are. Universities are easy to find. If you want to expand to Cameroon, for example, find the local university and through them you’ll be able to find the local developer communities”.

Measuring student developer outreach

With a return on investment that’s likely to come in years, rather than weeks or months, what metrics make sense for student developer evangelism?

Joe: “The primary programme we have that’s open to all students is the GitHub student developer pack. If you’re a student you get GitHub for free, but you also get heaps of other software for free from our partners like Amazon and Microsoft. And obviously, straight away there we know how many students are using GitHub. When they sign up for GitHub, they can put in their student email address or their student ID card and get verified for the pack. When they graduate we know because they don’t renew the pack and we can see, for example, how many go on to sign up for premium accounts.

“Once they get off the student pack, what is our conversion rate there? We can also see how many of those, immediately after graduating, or a year after graduating, end up on business plans or enterprise plans. And what’s more interesting is how many of those are the purchaser of a business or enterprise plan. And so we can get a lot of information about how successful these people are as advocates and champions for us.”

See Joe’s talk online soon

The talk Joe gave at DevRelCon Beijing will be online soon here on the DevRel blog.

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