What developer communities have taught me (and it’s not coding skills)

As part of a maker-culture track, I’ve been recently invited to speak at Suomi Areena (Finnish largest public debate forum) about developer communities and share my experience at Android Aalto. While I mostly talked about my journey at Android Aalto and how it once became the largest community of developers in the Nordics, I also interact in one way or another with many other communities in my area, thus I decided to take some time to reflect on the role these communities have had in my professional and also personal life and write this text.

My beginnings in Android Aalto

Officially established in 2010 by Claudio M. Camacho and Maksim Golivkin, Android Aalto was one of the very first Android developer communities in Europe. What started as an informal meetup between some friends and a few Aalto students who wanted to learn more about this new mobile platform, capable of enabling concepts and ideas that weren’t possible before, soon grew up to be home for a team of +10 volunteers and over a thousand Android enthusiasts. Ever since I was little, I have always been into technology and although at the time I was very active at learning things by doing (working on DIY projects, taking things apart then putting them back, reading a lot, going through online forums and tutorials,…), these activities were solitary and done on my own. Whilst online I could clearly see that there were people sharing the same interests and working on similar projects, it never occurred to me to relate that to the offline world. But I had just also formally moved to Finland not long ago (at the time I mostly knew no one in the country) and I guess that triggered my internal process of connecting the dots, which made me step up and start to actively look for people who would like to get together to experiment and play around with new technologies.

So one day I found an ad in one of the university buildings about an event for people who wanted to learn about Android. What came next? We started to host more and more events, industry talks, hackathons, meetups,… and we noticed that not only more and more people were joining, but also those who joined once, repeated. Without us realizing it and sort of by accident, we had a community in our hands.

What made it happen? Essential resources

Looking back, what did it take us to build such a thing? For starters, you need the technology, a platform to focus on, and good, quality content related to that platform. You need to take care of infrastructure: pick a location that is convenient for the audience you are targeting (places around the university campus worked well for us) and make sure the venue where you host the event is technically well equipped (screens, projectors, power supplies,…). You also need partners, companies that will sponsor you and contribute covering the costs for drinks and food, but which can also bring their expertise to the table and spare a couple of developers to hang out at the events if needed. And you need to spread your message using all the possible channels you have at hand. From offline channels like university bulletin boards, flyers, and posters, to social media, mailing lists, Slack channels, other meetup groups, you have to ensure that the word about the community and all its activities it’s out there. However and most importantly, you need people. I get this statement sounds a bit of a cliché, so I’ll elaborate.

Community people

Per definition, a community will not exist without people. Besides holding common interests and interacting with each other to pursue them, there’s a tacit understanding about the type of people you should be searching for when building a developer community. Whether it is participants, volunteers or members of the organizer team, you should aim to find people who are passionate about developing and creating new things, people who are active and eager to learn. Find people who also want to connect with others and want to enable conversations, who really love to talk about their projects and what they are building, and how it is that they are building it. Look for people who understand that by being part of a community, they can achieve more as a group than as an individual, and value team’s success over their personal accomplishments. But once you come across the right people how do you win them over?

Start by empowering them. Give them a voice and make sure that they get everything they need to succeed and that there are no blockers in their way, that they will have access to all the tools they need to make their ideas happen. And once they’ve created and built something, make certain that their work and effort is recognized and that everybody else will know what they have achieved.

Keep them engaged. Provide them with new challenges and set up regular meetups, hackathons, talks. Ask them to be contributors of the community, not simply participants and encourage them to share their experiences and their expertise. Help them interact and collaborate with other communities and expand their boundaries.

Support and educate them. Relevant coaching and content is a must. Create guides, tutorials, portals, FAQs, sample apps, documentation, examples… Make them realize that that they have a mission and that they understand that their contributions do not only have a local impact, but in the rest of the world. Have them ask for feedback so they can learn and improve.

Personal takeaways

The points above summarize my experience with Android Aalto, and a lot has happened since our first encounters in 2010. In 2014, Android Aalto became Google Developers Group Helsinki, a community that as of today is still quite active, run by Ramon Sadornil with some help from my side and other Android Aalto organizers. I have also been fortunate enough to work in a company that understands that we are not part of a bubble, where my colleagues are aware of the value of communities and where we get to cooperate and support different local tech associations like Girls in Tech Helsinki.

Being part of these communities has accentuated my bias towards action and the ability of building and failing fast and learning even faster (too many hackathons to count 😊) and also the ideal that we should not work in isolation, that is always beneficial to have somebody next to you that will challenge you and by exchanging feedback you’ll reach the smarter (not necessarily the best, or cheaper) solution to a problem. A quick example, if you are a supporter of MOOC courses as I am, complement your learning by joining an offline community about the topic of your interest in your area. In the case of Android Aalto, developers were joining us because we were offering something that no one else was able to offer: we were able to provide expert, hands-on, and face-to-face coaching on topics that 1) were not covered in any university courses and 2) training companies would charge thousands of euros for an instruction session. Additionally, we did it for free, because we believed in what we were doing and at the same time we were also learning ourselves . We never charged for an event, and this wouldn’t have been possible without volunteers and also without companies like Elisa, Futurice, Tuxera, Rovio, Qvik, Google, or Microsoft who where there to help us. Some communities these days shy away of partnering with companies because they don’t want to be “branded” — in my experience partnerships have always done more good that harm (treat partnerships as a stock portfolio: diversify). We were very inclusive and accepted people from all backgrounds, not just developers, and made sure everyone interacting with us felt valued. We showed respect to our members and did not label them (i.e. while being a community we were not “androidians” or any other similar moniker, we respect people for who they are), and everybody was free to join and free to leave at any time. However, by seeing other communities and user groups, I can say that there is no silver bullet that will make a community successful, and that it’ll be frustrating at times. You’ll go trough the process of doing and failing many times, but what will matter in the end is how you recover and learn from those attempts. Whether you decide to start your own community, join an existing one, or start working on your own ideas, I encourage you to get out there and don’t be afraid to ask help from someone else. As scary as it might feel, it’ll pay off in the end.

Be kind to each other.