Globalising a champions program

How Elastic took its champions program global.

Case study participant
Ully Sampaio
Contributor Program Manager
As a "free and open" vendor, nurturing the community around Elastic has been essential since the company's beginning in 2012. Ully Sampaio is Program Manager of the Elastic Contributor Program, working with developers and other community members across the world.

Establishing the need

Just before the pandemic, the Community team at Elastic began to wonder if they were doing enough to encourage and recognise the contributions made by their community. But they wanted to do things a little differently than some of the programs they’d seen elsewhere. The result was the Elastic Contributor Program.

For Ully Sampaio, then managing the Elastic Latin America community, the founding principle was to recognise all types of contribution and not only code.

“Luckily at Elastic, we have always had a very engaged community. People were already doing a lot of activities but we had no formal way to either recognise them or even to thank them. Instead, from time to time an engineer would message us on Slack to highlight someone’s cool work and then we’d send them swag. But it was very informal.”

That informality made it harder for Ully and her colleagues to grow the Elastic community.

“We wanted to grow our community organically. We wanted to have more organisers. We wanted to have more people presenting about Elastic. We wanted to have content created in different languages. We wanted to encourage developers but also people who had other skills.”

Rather than there being a specific instigating incident that led to the program’s creation, Ully says that “the stars aligned” to make it happen. As a community oriented company, formalising the community program had been a longstanding goal for the Elastic Community team but it was only once Ully joined that they had the bandwidth to run a pilot program in Brazil.

Drawing inspiration from elsewhere

Although this was the first such program within Elastic, Ully knew that other companies had created similar programs and  she wanted to draw on what they had done well.

“I drew a lot of inspiration from GitHub Stars, which is one of my favourites, as well MongoDB, Microsoft, and the Google Developers programs. We did a lot of research on how they did things but we made a conscious decision not to focus only on code contributions.”

With her manager and team-mates, Ully drew up a plan for a program that would boost contributions while helping community members to achieve their learning goals.

From local pilot to global program

That first year of the program in Brazil proved that the model worked. Specifically, the pilot in 2019 resulted in:

  • Over 300 contributions
  • 39 participants
  • More than 2,500 new community members
  • 70% growth in the Brazilian Elastic community
  • 5 new Elastic user groups

But what was good for the community in Brazil wouldn’t necessarily work for the rest of the world.

“In Brazil, people were contributing mostly by giving talks and running events. When we sat down to plan the global program, we saw that other countries were less focused on events and more on content.”

A core part of the pilot had been to award points for contributions, which could then be traded for rewards such as training and certification. The team recognised that to account for differences between the work required for a blog post versus a meet-up, for example. And some contributions were more valuable to the community than others, depending on what was needed at the time. As such, the Elastic Community team adjusted the points awarded for different types of contribution to reflect both effort and need.

Going global also meant catering to different languages and cultures, as well as creating legal terms and conditions that would suit a global audience.

Spreading effort and opening opportunities

Elastic today is an extensive platform comprised of Elasticsearch, Kibana, Beats, and Logstash, known as the ELK Stack. To ensure each solution in Elastic’s portfolio got enough attention from members of the Elastic Contributor Program, the team used the points system to encourage contributions where they were needed.

“We saw that contributions were concentrated on certain parts of the stack, while others were being neglected. So we made some features in the program to encourage people to contribute to the other areas. This was effective as we saw contributions towards the Elastic stack fall from 92% to around 78% and contributions to other areas rise to almost 30% from 8%.”

Similarly, the program is built to encourage everyone from absolute beginners to experts. The team found that newcomers were often reluctant to submit contributions, believing that their work wouldn’t meet the required standard. However, inclusivity has been a key part of the program’s ethos from the beginning, helping newcomers grow professionally. 

Adjusting to the pandemic

Things were going well until the global pandemic forced a rethink in early 2020. The team had always planned to recognise digital contributions, as well as in person events, but now those were brought to the fore.

“The pandemic was something unexpected, so we had to adjust to include more digital efforts. Obviously with the pandemic, events were not happening as before.”

One such event impacted by the pandemic was Elastic’s own conference ElasticON Tour. Previously, a trip to ElasticON was a reward that contributors could aim for. Without the in-person event, the team had to rethink how it recognised contributions.

The need to replace in person activity also gave the team the opportunity to include activity in social networks and other developer gathering places such as Stack Overflow.

Building an in-house management system

From the beginning, Ully and her colleagues had been using GitHub to track community contributions and to act as the focal point of the program. However, as participation grew they found that their solution was harder to scale. As such, an internal engineering team at Elastic built a custom portal for the program.

That in-house platform is still used today to gather contributions and track contributors. One of the key benefits of the new system was improved transparency. Specifically, contributors could see other people’s contributions and the leaderboard for their part of the world. The move to an in-house platform also gave the team the opportunity to launch new functionality, such as a forum.

“We wanted to encourage conversations between community members rather than for the Community team to act as a gatekeeper. Now people can browse through community contributions and easily learn what is happening in other parts of the community.”

How Elastic and the community benefit

Not only has the Elastic Contributor Program enabled rapid growth in content generated, code submitted, and events organised, but it has also driven an increase in diversity.

Between 2020 and 2022, the program’s achievements include:

  • 13% more participants
  • 38% more contributions
  • 11% growth in participating countries
  • 25% growth in the number of languages catered to.

For some members, the program has been literally life changing. Although recruitment was never an aim, to date four community members have taken jobs with the company. Other participants of the program have been recognised in the Elastic Excellent Awards for the work they have done in the community.

In a recent survey of Elastic community members, participants shared that they take part because they appreciate the chance to give back to the community and to improve their own professional skills.

What’s next?

Ully has big plans for the Elastic Contributor Program. She wants to build on their current success, establishing the scheme as an instantly recognisable brand alongside some of the big names of the industry. But it’s not about seeking glory. Rather, Ully sees a strong brand as key to the growth of the program, making it easier to spread the word about the opportunities, tools, and resources on offer.

“Everyone knows Microsoft’s MVP program. Our goal is for everyone to know what it means when someone says they are an Elastic contributor.”

At its heart, everything that Ully and her colleagues are doing is to serve the community. And while the portal today is focused on the Contributor Program, Ully wants to build it into the go-to source of information for anyone, not just developers or contributors, interested in the Elastic stack.

“We still have a lot of aspirations for the portal. We want the platform to become a developer portal one day where anyone can go to learn and also to get inspired and produce their own content. That, I think, is our ultimate goal.”