Building Community for Fun and Profit

Sustainable communities, burnout, and why we should pay our community organizers

Before I joined IBM as a Developer Advocate, my husband and I volunteered a good chunk of our time to tech community building efforts. For me, this included building community through outlets such as Code for BTV (a Code for America Brigade), the Civic Cloud Collaborative, Vermont Code Camp, Northeast PHP, Vermont Community Access Media (VCAM), BTV Ignite, and BTV Gig. Even though it was very rewarding work, I have almost completely stopped my volunteer tech community work since becoming a professional Developer Advocate. This is the story of how I’ve worked to find and craft a role as a professional community organizer.

Model View Culture recently published a piece highlighting burnout among tech activists. I think this burnout phenomenon applies more broadly to anyone doing tech community building work. Before starting my job as a Developer Advocate, my husband and I had already begun to slowly realize that our volunteer tech community work was not sustainable. We simply couldn’t continue to volunteer thousands of hours of our time, run a business together, and focus on our relationship and having a life.

So, in October of 2014 I joined the nascent Developer Advocacy team at Cloudant, which had recently been acquired by IBM. I had the privilege of joining a great team with awesome leadership (👋 Brad Noble). We’ve since grown from four Developer Advocates to a twenty person team, gone through two reorgs (both surprisingly positive for our team), and significantly expanded the scope of our work (we’re now IBM Cloud Data Services, a portfolio of managed services for data and analytics). When I started as a Developer Advocate I decided to focus my tech community building efforts around my full time job, rather than my “free” time. A big question for me, though, was would I be able to continue to do meaningful tech community building work as part of my full time job?

There were many reasons why I decided to take a job as a Developer Advocate. For one, it was a natural fit for me. I had found myself speaking at conferences, writing books and other resources for developers, creating sample apps to demonstrate technologies that interested me, and, of course, doing a lot of community building work. Becoming a Developer Advocate was an opportunity to do more of the work that I loved, but as the main focus of my job rather than as a distraction from my job.

But, how big a role would meaningful tech community building play in my work as a Developer Advocate, as compared to my other job responsibilities? What would community building look like in the context of my job? Would my employer be willing to make the long term investment needed to build and sustain a community with no promise of an immediate payout?

In order to answer these questions, I first needed to explore what had motivated me to do volunteer tech community work. Why did I care so much about building community? I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I think at the core of it is that I’m not happy with the status quo. The tech industry puts much emphasis on technologies and tools, but relatively little work into community. Our communities are broken, homogenous, exclusive, or non-existent. I think I want to help fix what I can, to make the world we live in a better place (as clichéd as that may sound).

That’s what motivates me, but what would motivate my employer to invest in this community building work? Sam Ramji, CEO at Cloud Foundry Foundation, gave a great talk at ApacheCon North America 2016 on how open source is a positive-sum game. As a Developer Advocate I have the opportunity to find positive-sum games on which to align the interests of my employer and the interests of developer communities.

Sam Ramji’s ApacheCon North America 2016 Keynote: Open Source is a Positive-Sum Game

So it is that I found myself helping to build a community around the Offline First movement. It started with a few technical talks on PouchDB, then more technical talks about Offline First, then connecting with key people in the Offline First community, and most recently co-organizing Offline Camp.

I 💙 this tweet from Gregor Martynus of Hoodie about our team’s Offline First community building work.

But why Offline First? I’ve been a big fan of CouchDB for years (I wrote a couple of books about it). The most exciting thing about CouchDB to me has always been its peer-to-peer replication capabilities. PouchDB then made good on CouchDB’s promise of bringing data closer to end users by extending CouchDB’s capabilities to web browser and Node.js environments (Cloudant has also created open source sync libraries for iOS and Android platforms).

Remember what I was saying about positive-sum games? IBM Cloudant is a great fit for Offline First apps (Cloudant is based on Apache CouchDB and employs several CouchDB contributors). By helping to build a community around Offline First, we are growing the mindshare around an approach to app development which lends itself well to one of our offerings. This is just the beginning of our community building work around Offline First—there’s a lot more to come.

I had the privilege of finding a job in which I can do meaningful tech community building work. I’m proud of the work that our team has done to help start to build an inclusive, welcoming, and diverse community around the Offline First movement. But, how do we create more paid tech community organizing jobs? The approach that I’ve taken is to align the interests of a tech community with the economic interests of my company. There are a few key pieces to making this approach work:

  1. It has to start with an individual (or individuals) who has a genuine interest in a particular technology or approach. For me, this was Offline First.
  2. The economic benefits of building and growing a community around this technology or approach must be made obvious to the company (or companies) involved. There is a direct line from Offline First to developers using IBM Cloudant.
  3. The company (or companies) must recognize that community is not something that they can buy off-the-shelf and that community won’t “just happen” without a lot of intentionality and paid hard work. I and two other members of our Developer Advocacy team spent a lot of time on community building around Offline First leading up to Offline Camp and will continue these efforts beyond just this one event.
  4. The company (or companies) must work to recognize the diverse motivations of each member of the community and continually seek to align everyone’s interests. The enthusiasm from participants around Offline Camp was not only a validator of our efforts around Offline First, but it also gave us insight into the individual motivations of community members. Many are motivated to create better user experiences. Some people care about creating decentralized systems. Others are more concerned with privacy and security. Still others are interested in specific focus areas such as offline-enabled maps.

My experience of being an unpaid tech community organizer brought me to the conclusion that volunteer community building work is unsustainable. We have a shared responsibility to support those doing community building work as best we can and to not take their work for granted. Community organizers are the hearts and souls of our communities. We should also recognize that our communities will be less diverse if we count solely on unpaid volunteers, as not everyone has the privilege of being able to volunteer their time. We will all be better off if we can find ways to fairly compensate community organizers for the important work that they do.

I encourage tech community organizers to seek out support from companies working on related products or services. I encourage companies to find ways to economically support the work of community organizers. This can be as simple as buying pizza for a meetup, all the way up to hiring full time community organizers. It’s investment that can benefit both companies and tech communities.

Campfire at Offline Camp in the Catskill Mountains. Photo courtesy of Jason Pelletier.