How Twilio Became the Twilio of SMS and Voice

It’s rare that engineers are idolized in their own companies for everyday efforts. So, it’s especially notable when another company turns you into the hero. That focus on developers is the foundation of Twilio’s story. Many other API providers seek the adoption and success of this communications company that just went public.

Photo by Ed Yourdon

I have been watching from the outside, as a developer and API journalist, since 2009. Early on, and consistently through its growth, Twilio has focused on the entire experience of a developer using its service.

Further, it made developers the stars and kept them that way — from the “Ask Your Developer” advertisements to its embrace of “DOers” on its site. Twilio chose to shine a spotlight not on customer logos, but on individual coders making things.

As most companies scale, there’s pressure to “go up-market,” which in API Land is euphemism for “sell to non-developers.” I know Twilio has done its share of enterprise sales, but not at the expense of its primary audience. Due to this focus, consistency, and authenticity, developers have remained rabid fans.

API providers often ask me how to be more like Twilio. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Deliver a Quick Win

One reason developers love Twilio is that it helps them do difficult things with simple commands. The service is so easy to use, the company famously encourages all new employees to build something to demonstrate at an all hands meeting.

Due to the complex voice and SMS systems, it would have been reasonable (at least in a pre-Twilio world) to lock down access to only approved developers. Twilio went the other way, giving devs what they want: immediate, self-serve, trial access that they can ease into and pay as they go.

Deep dive into Twilio’s Developer Experience from Docs to Code

The video above walks through many of the ways Twilio’s site gets its developer experience right (and a couple minor areas for improvement — if you’re reading, Twilionaires).

Every developer survey I’ve seen lists complete and accurate documentation as the most important aspect of an API. Within a developer’s desire for good documentation is more than just a comprehensive API reference. You need a barrier-free signup process, and robust getting started guide that delivers a quick win. Next, you need sample apps and tutorials that take the developer to a more complete app.

When I look over a developer portal, I compare to the ideal API using a 13 point developer experience assessment, which then is crunched into a weighted score. Twilio is almost perfect, a nine out of 10, which sets it up for success every time a new developer registers.

Evangelism is a Magnifier

Perhaps the most visible team at Twilio is its developer evangelist squad. For the last seven years, this group has made Twilio a ubiquitous presence at hackathons, meetups, conferences, and other developer events. It might be tempting to get a bunch of friendly developers to trot out your API, as Twilio did. However, if your product or developer experience isn’t great, you won’t have the success you seek.

Developer evangelists and developer advocates magnify your product, signup process, getting started guides, sample applications, API reference, and every other aspect of your API. Twilio has some talented developer evangelists who magnify what is already a great developer experience. With a lesser developer experience, there’s either diminishing or negative returns. Twilio was able to scale its developer outreach — sometimes even using non-employees.

If you aren’t sure how good your developer experience is, there is one good reason to attend a hackathon or other hands-on event early on — for the feedback. You need to see how developers use your API and how they experience your documentation. Then you can improve it. In fact, the best APIs are always looking for new ways to do things.

Of course, none of this matters if the product itself is not compelling.

Right Product, Right Time

From the start, Twilio was a compelling product. Developers are typically difficult to impress. They know how stuff works and can visualize the steps necessary to reproduce many APIs. Since Twilio deals with telephony technology beyond what most developers know, they’re more likely to take notice.

“The fact that when we do a demo, we’re able to have code leap out of the computer and do something in the real world — make the phone ring — is fairly magical. Then it works to our benefit that we’re able to say this magical power that I just demonstrated is available in just few lines of code to any developer using our API.” — Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson on Building and Scaling a Developer-Facing Business

Twilio was also well-timed with several trends. For one, APIs had become more popular and widespread. Though voice was Twilio’s first product, it quickly followed with SMS, a fast-growing technology in 2010 when Twilio’s service was announced.

Developers Are Not a Strategy

In March, Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson wrote a great post about Your strategy’s last message to developers:

“The problem with building or buying an API as a ‘strategy’ is that strategies change, often rapidly. They shift with new leadership, they shift with corporate priorities, they shift with the breeze. When the latest boardroom talk is about APIs, you get an API strategy. And when attention turns to the next big thing (‘Drones!’ ‘Bitcoin!’ ‘VR!’), you get a new ‘strategy.’”

In it, he articulated the core of Twilio’s approach. “APIs are a long commitment,” he wrote. By extension, so is a focus on the people who use those APIs. With the company set to IPO, its S-1 filing as part of the process mentions developers 157 times. That’s commitment, not strategy.

If your API is a core part of your company (that is, the API is the beer), you would be well-served to ensure you’re following Twilio’s unyielding focus on what developers need, from docs to code. Even if your API is a supporting player, attention to giving developers a quick win will greatly improve your developer experience.

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