The secrets to providing a great developer training program


Joe Nash

Joe Nash

When providing training and education for developers, it’s easy to get bogged down in the detail.

Blog posts, how-to guides and demos may contain valuable insights, but what happens when all this well-intentioned information becomes overwhelming?

Perhaps, suggests GitHub’s Joe Nash, we should step back from the smaller stuff and look for the larger pathways that make up a developer’s training journey.

Find the overall themes

“At GitHub we have a variety of teams that are producing content. We end up with all of this amazing educational documentation in different subdomains, in different resources, in different documents,” he says.

“There’s a problem of discoverability there. And I think that’s probably something that a lot of companies struggle with, especially in dev rel. You have to have a new blog post, a new piece of developer content, a new guide and these just get tossed out into the void.

“Infrequently do people look at the overall themes of what they’re teaching and think of it as a cohesive developer journey.”

Make the links

This volume of content, Joe believes, runs the risk of preventing developers from getting the full educational value from the resources they have available.

“We’re not telling the greater story or giving people the tools they need to drive their own journey through and link those pieces together,” he says.

“If you’ve got that content out there as a blog post, as a piece of documentation, and you have the opportunity to increase engagement with an individual developer by providing them a path through that resource, why not do it?

“If you can stick it together into existing content, if not another training course, then that’s more value from that piece.”

Patterns make programs

At GitHub, there has been a conscious effort to look for cohesion and pull strands together to provide useful training.

“We look for patterns in support requests and produce content to address those patterns. And then we find a way to automate the disbursement of that resource and eventually turn it into a program,” he says.

An example of this pattern-inspired approach has been GitHub’s Student Development Pack, created after numerous requests from students asking how they could get GitHub for free.

“We released a process, a piece of content about how people could email us to get it free. Loads more people wrote in, so we automated it, stuck a brand on it, called it the Student Development Pack and now it serves over a million students, a bunch of partners,” he says.

Getting the story to make sense

Finding a theme comes through different ways: what are your contributing authors writing about, what features in your support requests and what are your customers asking you?

“You’ve got to work out what the cohesive themes are,” Joe says, “this is where a lot of these journeys will tell themselves.”

GitHub’s Campus Experts, a program to enrich technology communities across campuses, used this connectivity to improve its training package.

“Services training had previously produced an intro to GitHub, a GraphQL tutorial, an Electron tutorial. And those were all super useful for a technical student in their own right,” he says.

“But the bit that suddenly linked them together was a GitHub organization tutorial which explained how to use a GitHub organization to benefit your community.

“And that let those student organizers provide the on ramp for all of the other content to be useful for their communities. We had these four pieces and that one additional piece made the whole story make sense.”

Intentional design

On the flip side of the organic process of pulling together community suggestions, support requests or existing content, says Joe, lies the case for intentional design.

GitHub has recently explored this approach with new training for their students, offering a package designed and written as one intentionally planned unit.

“We interviewed subject matter experts that we thought would be interesting around the company, and while we were interviewing them around their experiences, we were noticing coherent themes,” he says.

“Five of our speakers had a similar journey in their community growth and how they’d gotten into the space, and so we structured the training around that. And although all five videos address different topics, inclusivity, public speaking, information design, they all follow the same kind of pattern.”

What’s the value?

Whether the training and education has been intuitive or intentional, there remains the integral question of value.

For Joe, measuring the ROI of training materials is more clear cut than tracking that of blog posts or content. It also means you can link your training back to a reward – whether that’s access to a program or certification.

GitHub’s Campus Advisers is a teacher-training program that provides certification which can be used as part of a teacher’s professional development. Its Campus Experts program requires students to build a GraphQL app that will benefit an open source community.

“So we get a lot of useful things but we also learn a lot about communities,” he says, “we’re giving them community-building skills but the training in that is all useable material by us.

“So that widens the definition of value from a blog post, where you’re basically just looking at page views and product signs ups, whereas with a training course you can get information that will allow you to action further sign ups.”

Authenticity and incentives

This wider value strengthens the case for authenticity in developer relations: balancing the need to get your product out to developers while assuring them of a mutually beneficial exchange.

“In my experience,” says Joe, “developers are much more likely to engage with your product when they have had a positive learning experience from it.

“So if you are able to actually take your developer education materials and weave them into a training course that describes the use case of the product and gives them a valuable way to use it that solves their problem, then they’re much more likely to use it.”

And from a business point of view, having a community of developers who have undergone a robust training program is a huge benefit. They are more likely to be motivated, engaged and incentivised.

Once completing their own training submissions, GitHub’s Campus Experts can then learn to review and certificate those of other students.

“There’s a really interesting effect whereby they’re incentivised to ensure that the people who complete the training are high quality,” adds Joe.

“They’re incentivised to enforce our reviewing criteria because if they let everyone get the review without being very hard on it, it lowers the value of the certification for them. We found it works pretty well.”

:: Joe Nash will be discussing the ways in which training programs can provide higher engagement and returns during his talk at DevRelCon London 2018.

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