Tips for growing and nurturing developer communities


Katie Penn

In this talk from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019, Twitch’s Katie Penn shares her “Top 10 List” for how to interact authentically with developer communities.

Eating your own dog food, open sourcing your wins, and admitting your fails are just a few of the ways this can be done.


Transcript of Katie’s Talk

My name is Katie Penn. As I mentioned, I work at Twitch, which is a company owned by Amazon. And I am going to be talking about authenticity.

I see it as a buzzword right now, a lot of people are focused on it. I see talks that have been coming out around it. But really, when we think about Developer Relations, it’s a communication platform for us, right? We are speaking to a community and we’re advocating with a community. And the more authentic we can be, the more of a relationship we can build with that community.

So, I love to talk about personas. Let’s talk about a little bit about my persona and how I started.

The road to Twitch (and the rise of the streamer)

I’ve been working in dev rel for about 15 years. I started at Sun Microsystems. Anyone know about Sun Microsystems? All the old-school people in the room? So, I started as a technical content manager with Java, and got exposed to JavaOne, which was, like, a huge Dev conference back in the day, and ran a lot of the content tracks there, and then kind of discovered this emerging market of dev rel, and fell in love with it.

From there, I joined Salesforce as one of the starting people on the Dev marketing team. I like to call it my MBA or my master’s degree in how to do Dev marketing. I learned everything there. It was just, like, full on. I got exposure to all the different channels, worked really closely with the advocates.

And then I had an opportunity to go into Twitter. They wanted to restart their platform with developers and launched to the mobile app community with a product called Fabric. So, I was able to go over there and build out a Dev growth team with them. And I worked there for three years. And then I got kind of hooked on the big consumer communication products, and moved over to Twitch, where I’ve helped build out the Dev marketing team and the dev rel team there.

Opening up opportunities with dev rel

One other thing, I know we’re weaving in a theme around diversity and inclusivity. One thing I’ll say, as you build out your Dev Relations career, at different stages of your own life, you can get involved in a lot of opportunities, both with the developer communities that you work with to be inclusive, but also in the projects that you do.

So, I’m a TechWomen mentor, which works with the State Department on bringing women and advocating for STEM and tech into the U.S. and outside of the U.S., had the privilege of going to Sierra Leone this year and working with women there on STEM. I love developers so much I married one. I’m also a Parenting ERG Lead.

So, at different stages of life, you advocate for different DNI initiatives. Right now I’m on the Parents in Tech Alliance in the Bay Area advocating for parenting rights within companies. So, it’s really fun. There’s lots to get into there. So, why Twitch? Why am I at Twitch? Like I said, once I got into Twitter, I kind of got exposed to kind of the blend of working in dev rel on big platforms that reach a lot of people.

So, Twitch has… You know, I won’t go into all the… How many people here are familiar with Twitch? Awesome. So, Twitch is primarily gaming content, but what it does is it connects streamers and community viewers online in this amazing lexicon of video games, pop culture, and what I’d like to say is developer innovation.

Why I joined Twitch is I love the idea of working on products that actually reach lots and lots of people that love them and build communities. So, the closer you are, as you think of your career as of where you want to go, think of products that you love. It’s much easier to go reach out to developers and try to get them to build with you if you love the product, right?

Or if you love what the product does and represents. And so, what I’ve learned at Twitch, which is really interesting in thinking about dev rel, is that Twitch is tapping into a culture register that is changing, right? So, people that consume Twitch love Twitch because of the interaction they have with the content producer, right?

The person that’s actually streaming and the way that they interact with the people that viewing, is creating a way and expectation from the culture nowadays, that, “Hey, we want to be heard. We want the influencers to be able to react with us.” And what I’d like to say is that the cord is cut, and that the reason that Twitch is becoming powerful and these other social media platforms are becoming powerful, is that now the viewers and people that are consuming the content are driving and shaping the way that they consume it.

So, as you think of dev rel, and the reason that dev rel is now coming on to Twitchers is really, really interesting, is because you’re actually getting very, very close to the people that are interacting with you. And that’s why I’m talking about authenticity. So, if you’re being exposed, if the people that you’re actually sending content to now have platforms to speak back to you, they’re expecting you to be authentic and speak with them, right?

Tips for authentic developer community outreach

They’re expecting you to listen and they’re expecting you to respond. And so, here are my tips on being authentic when you’re working with developer communities. Number one, and this might be a little controversial, especially for my job, stop marketing to developers. Some people are going to have different responses to that. But what I’d like to say… and there are a lot of marketers in the room, and there’s a lot of advocates in the room, and this is always a little contentious.

And I’ve made a whole career of being a marketer. You need to start marketing for developers. You need to stop marketing to developers. Why? Because you need to know the customer. And developers are… I’d like to call them a unique flower.

And remember, I married one. So developers are a unique flower. They actually hate marketing, more than probably some general public people do. So, you need to think of the way that you’re actually bringing content and solutions to them, and understanding their needs. And the personas are a great example of that. So, who are developers?

Developers are builders. They’re problem solvers. And they think they are the smartest people in the room. So, when I say stop marketing to them, running banner ads to people that are probably the most likely people to have ad blockers is not going to work. So, what I’d like to do in the spirit of trashing hackathons is go into… so, a lot of my talk is around things I’ve done wrong.

So let’s talk about when you’re actually not knowing your audience. So, I worked at Salesforce, I was there during the pleasurable time of running the Salesforce $1 Million Hackathon. What we wanted to do is reach a new, cool audience of developers. We had enterprise developers. We had people that had built businesses with Salesforce. We wanted to go after mobile app developers.

So, it was a grand idea. And I’m really glad my old boss is not in the room. But there was a grand idea of doing $1 million hackathon. How would this resonate with the developer community of builders, problem solvers, and the spirit of hackathons that are typically with students, and not really wealthy people? Well, it didn’t go so well.

Outreach in the dark

We also had never run hackathons. So, we didn’t really know how to run them. And we hadn’t been given the guidance, like, “Go with a third party, so you can actually stay away from the rules and the judging.” Well, we got exposure, but not the exposure that we wanted. Right? So, we did finally end up on Hacker News, which was a win for us. But it wasn’t in the way that we wanted it.

We didn’t really know how to run judging. And there was just a general distrust among the developer community on why would we put such a large price tag on something that is considered a cultural spirit in the developer community, which is hackathons? So, that’s just knowing your audience, knowing like, “Hey, $1 million might really work for a brand campaign, but it might not work for a hackathon dev community.”

So, we got a lot of great press around it. They still continue to do them. But I think they went back to their community. They realized, “Hey, this might not work for mobile app people, but it’s maybe not going to work for enterprise. We just have to structure it differently.” Okay. This is one of the Twitch products that I helped release. Does anyone think there’s something wrong with the logo?

Raise your hand if you see anything wrong with the logo. Come on, one developer, hopefully. Okay. Okay. You don’t have to say what’s wrong with it. So, I thought this logo was great. I mean, I was like, “Okay. Problem solvers, builders, puzzle. I’ve got it.”

This logo was fine with all the marketers, completely triggered our developers. Do you know what’s wrong with it? Do you know what’s wrong with the logo? – [Man] It’s an open spot. It’s – [inaudible] – It doesn’t fit. We’re working with builders, and the logo doesn’t fit, every time we release this. And we still have continued to release it for, like, six months. Every time we released it, we would trigger developers. They’d be writing on Twitch, like, “This is stupid. This logo’s stupid.” You know, it’s a file and we had to bring it back to the product marketing team and be like, “We have to fix the puzzle,” right? Because we were not thinking about our audience.

I think that if you’d release this to marketers, they might have been like, “Great. Cool little logo.” Developers didn’t work. Okay. But beware of bias. I just listed to who developers are, but that actually is maybe traditional developers. Remember that developers are not all the same. And so, when you try to welcome in new developer communities, think about that, think of different learning paths for them.

Reframing the focus

Think of different styles of learning. To give Salesforce credit, they did an amazing job in the last couple of years of thinking about, “Hey, who are new developers we can reach? Well, we have admins. Let’s bring them into our platform. Let’s build an actual learning journey that’s more of a competition with Trailhead, so that they can actually learn in a more creative way, in a more visual way.”

So, just releasing dots might serve a historical context of developers, but it might not serve the new developers that are emerging in the market. So, think about that. Okay. Lead with solutions, not roadmaps. No one wants to go to your website and see your org chart. Okay, see the product org chart. So, if you are not leading with trying to solve problems for the developers in your community and going out there with those solutions, then you’re not actually marketing correctly to your developers.

So, try not to be, like, announcing extensions versus, “Want to tap into Twitter’s live stream? Here’s a way now to do it and reach streamers,” right? So, think about the way that you’re actually bringing your products to market. Oh, I love this. Eat your own dog food. So, like we said, developers are very clever.

There’s nothing more humiliating than developers discovering that you’re not using your own products. There’s definitely a lot of distrust in authenticity when you’re actually using other products, but then trying to ask developers to use your products. So, yeah, let your product be the canvas to tell your story.

Twitch as an outreach tool

Now, I’m going to dive a little bit into Twitch because kind of what a cool thing that I’m doing Dev marketing for Twitch, but then a lot of developers are coming, advocates are coming on to Twitch, so people in my industry are coming on to actually use it to reach developers as well.

But for us, like, we started with newsletters and sending email campaigns, and then it’s like, “Wow. This is really weird. We’re not actually going on Twitch to talk about our products, we’re sending emails.” So, we started going on Twitch, to talk about our products, to actually start engaging in dialog and conversation. It was really cool.

And I wouldn’t even say we started it because there were a couple of other advocacy groups doing it too. We saw other advocacy groups doing it. So, now, we’re actually, like, really justifying, “Hey, Twitch is really cool.You should come build with us. Hey, you can actually use it to actually communicate with communities as well.” And one of the speakers here is using it as well. Romain. We got Romain on it as well.

So, we’re just seeing a lot of people coming on to our own platform, which also then reconfirms why a developer should find interest in it. Okay. Find your champions and make them heroes. And I’m just going to show other companies that are doing this well. So, developer showcases, like, instead of just telling people to use your product, show how your customers are using it.

Make sure you have a showcase page up there. Make sure you’re celebrating the wins of the people that are spending their time building with you. Oops. Spinning. Cool. Yeah. When you go on the road, if you’re doing meetups and tours, bring the people in the room onto your platform, right?

So, use Twitter, interview them, hear their stories, like I say, like, celebrate the people that are spending their time learning, building, whether it’s nice, whether there’s companies, make sure that you are actually giving them the platform to share how they built. And then when you do press releases or you’re celebrating something that’s coming out, bring the developer into the story, right?

So, instead of us saying, “Oh, cool, we ran this Pokemon campaign,” we’re saying, “Look at what the developer did to make this part of our experience.” So, bring them into your press releases as well. Okay. Build communication channels, but they must be two way. This just goes again with that idea that our culture and our community is expecting to be heard and to be responded to.

Go to where your audience hang-outs

And then you can’t actually drive the communication channels that they’re on. So, yes, you can have your own forum on your site, but you need to go find the developers where they are. And one of my colleagues in the room will talk a little bit about that more. But, like, we use Discord, even though it’s kind of considered a competitor of ours because we know our developers are on it, right?

So, we want to hear from them and we want to talk to them. And when you think of different developers, different developers have different communication channels, so you shouldn’t expect them all to be on one platform that you’re providing for them. You actually need to be able to respond to them. There might be a demographic that’s comfortable with email. You need to kind of build out all those channels so that you can hear them. Because engagement is investment.

The more you invest in the people and engage with them, the more they will invest back in you. If they don’t get heard, if you don’t at least acknowledge some of the problems they’re having with your platform, they’re less likely to spend time on your platform. They want to be heard. This is one thing that I do a lot when I build out curriculums for conferences, go under the hood.

So, typically, I always recommend you will find when you start doing meetups or start running meetups, people are more likely to come to learn about how you scale the product that you actually build than why they should adopt your product. So, typically, I like to build into any curriculum at an event, some knowledge sharing, not about, “Come use our product,” but actually, “How did we build it?” right?

“How did we build the open-source program at Twitter?” “How did we actually manage scale at Twitch?” They will sometimes be the most attended events you have…I mean, sessions you have, when you run an event because developers want to learn. This is my favorite. Oh, yes. Be transparent.

Roadmaps as an engagement catalyst

Publishing a roadmap is the new cool. So, a lot of dev rel companies are now on Trello. We didn’t come up with the idea. We saw other companies do it, and we were like, “Hey, this is a great idea.” So, it’s okay, there’s a lot of internal buy-in when you start publishing your roadmap publicly, but it’s okay to say, “in progress and exploring,” right?

But this is just another platform for you to actually open up that dialog of why you might be building things and get that two-way feedback in of whether they’re interested or not. And you can take it into events. Socked did an amazing job at this at one of their developer events. They put the roadmap. They published it out here. And people were able to add feedback on whether they thought it was important or not.

I’ve seen some really cool things now too, where people are actually doing those strings and kind of getting involved in how they want to see the products built. So, let your community have some input into what you’re building. And take pictures. It’s okay to copy it. We did, right? You can copy things that you see that are really good out there that actually advocate for the community. So, then we brought it to our developer conference.

It was awesome. Okay. Admit your mistakes. They’re usually pretty obvious. When you’re working with a developer community, they’re pretty skeptical sometimes. You’re asking them to spend their time building with you. You need to address elephants in the room.

Surviving “the matrix of doom”

If you have actually done something… and let’s face it, I worked for Twitter, for Twitch. I’ve worked on really broad consumer products that sometimes change our relationships with developers, or are uncertain in terms of what they’re relationship with developers are going to be. If you’re in that situation, and you want to be authentic, people are expecting you now to be more human and more transparent around things you’ve done wrong.

So, I ran the Twitter Flight developer conference of 1,600 people. We had 1,600 developers in the room. We’d had a rocky history with developers. – [Jack] A little bit unpredictable. This culminated with what Anil Dash has named “the matrix of doom.”

And we want to come to you today, and first and foremost, apologize for our confusion. We want to reset our relationship. And we want to make sure that we are learning, that we are listening, and that we are rebooting.

And that’s what today represents. We want to make sure that we have a great relationship with our developers. We have an open, and honest. and transparent relationship, and that we’re fulfilling and serving every one of your needs.

Cool. So, I was to speak to that before I played it. Sorry, but it was very obvious that developers were skeptical of why they were in the room, and why we were asking them to come back. And so, instead of just ignoring it, and celebrating, and having a big developer conference, we kicked off the conference with an apology.

We actually addressed the problem in the room. Now, some people were still skeptical. There’s still a rocky history and relationship at Twitter with developers, but at least we were being honest with where we stood with them.

Addressing demo demons

This is another example. And this is something that I think dev rel people run into a lot. If you’re running a launch event with a product, right, often, it’s really, really stressful right before the launch of whether product was going to work, you know, is the website going to go live?

There’s tons going on. We ran into these when we were launching Extensions, which is the third-party apps that we have developers build for Twitch. The entire Twitch site went down, when you see how huge Twitch was the day before. So, up until the hour of our big reveal, no one knew what we’re launching, right until the hour before. Executives are trying to make the decision if they were going to let us launch this product because they were afraid it was going to take down the site again.

Sorry, that’s a little too much information about Twitch. But our VP at the time said, “Katie, should I cancel it? Should I cancel it?” And I said, “They know what’s going on. They know the site was down. So, just be honest about the fact that we’re not launching today, but we’re still going to tell you about it because we had a little problem.” I’m like, “Make a joke of it. Everyone in the room knows.”

And so, that’s what she did. – [Kathy Astromoff] As you probably heard, we had some site issues yesterday.

  • People laughed, right? That’s all she had to do versus ignore it. And this one is very dear to my heart because it happened two months ago. So, you know, I showed you my persona. I love, like, advocating for women. Well, we were doing a tour, and we had an event in Berlin. And it was an all-white male lineup.

And we got called out for it the day of, right? So, someone on Twitter called out, as she should have, “Hey. Great. Thanks for having an all-male lineup.” It’s very easy to ignore that tweet, right, to just be like, “Oh, that’s okay. We’ll have mostly men in the room anyways, let’s just go and have a great event.” What I did was, I found her.

I found her as soon as we got there. I saw her, I pulled her aside, and I apologized. I said, “I’m really sorry. I’m actually very embarrassed that we have this. And we’re going to work harder on this. I’m going to make it part of our KPIs that we never have an all-one lineup moving forward.”

And we did. We changed it for the next event. And how did she respond? She loved being heard, right? People want to be heard. Even though we didn’t fix it for experience at that event, she really appreciated that I listened to her, then she sent me an email with all these things that I should do for my events. She liked being heard.

Authenticity is only part of the solution

Sometimes it doesn’t go this well. But it’s that authentic dialog of actually admitting your mistakes and actually listening to your community that will respond with communities that want to build with you. And so that, I believe, is it. So, what I’m saying is developers plus authenticity is the new marketing paradigm. We are changing the way that we go to market with our products and the way that we communicate with developers, and that we need to be more authentic.

So, know your developer, lead with solutions, not roadmaps. Eat your own dog food. Find your champions and make them special. Be open with your communication channels. Go under the hood.

Be transparent. Admit your mistakes and have fun.

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