What is a developer program and what does it take to build one?

Emerald Blue I, II, III, 1961 by Joan Miro | What’s with the random art?

If you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you’re well aware of the level of importance that I place on developers. We currently find ourselves in an interesting place where the thought of ‘software eating the world’ is no longer shocking, in fact it’s old news. Software has eaten the world and has taken a foundational seat in ANY and ALL types of business. Though it has taken almost twenty years, developers hold the fates of every major fortune 1000 company, every emerging disrupter, and every struggling turnaround, with the ability to shift entire markets with a few lines of code. For the enterprise, developers are a key person to include in growth strategies, but it’s much easier said than done. Developers require a very different type of marketing that has led to the emergence of marketing activities that focus on technical end-users which we call ‘Developer Programs’. This post will explore developer programs and what makes a good one.

In earlier posts, I outlined how the developer persona relates to sales and marketing, how open source impacts developer marketing, and the developer budget debate. If you haven’t read those posts, I would suggest that you take a moment and read through them. In this post I’ll make the assumption that we share a basic understanding of developer marketing, the developer persona, and the open source business model.

Developer program definitions

Marketing terminology is ambiguous at best and incomprehensible at worst. Throughout this post, I will be using several marketing terms that will be interpreted differently from one reader to the next. To mitigate confusion, lets standardize on a few of terms. A ‘Program’ is defined as an integrated marketing effort targeting a single audience. Programs have dedicated budget and headcount, and generally operate outside of the broader go-to-market, to achieve a very targeted objective. Program headcount usually extends beyond the roles in a marketing organization to include product managers, technical advocates, and even dedicated engineering teams. Programs are comprised of ‘Elements’ and ‘Campaigns’. A ‘Campaign’ is a marketing activity which has a defined start and end date. ‘Elements’ are the opposite, they’re an activity which does not have a defined start and end date. Elements can extend beyond a marketing activity to include assets that require ongoing investment, like a software plugin hosted in a competitor’s library. I should also note that programs have a defined membership status, individuals are either a part of it or not a part of it.

Developer program advocates, tools, and marketers

Developer programs are a collaborative effort between developer advocates, developer marketers, and in most cases an engineering team focused on developer tools. When working properly, these three roles create a virtuous cycle. Developer marketers push a solution into the market, developer advocates receive feedback on the solution, the feedback is incorporated by the engineering team, ultimately being pushed back into market completing the loop. It should also be noted that the developer advocacy and relations role play an unequally important role. Developer advocates often times direct the organizations unique point of view and communicate it to customer developers, crafting a vision for how to use the tool and shaping the buying vision. Without this guidance, marketing is generally irrelevant and the product will struggle to gain adoption.

Developer program content and product offerings

Developer programs can be distilled into two main components, content and product. Content includes everything from social posts to speaking engagements. Product includes the software that you are bringing to market and the program offering (e.g. $100 of free compute, a login page, a member only site functionality). Content is the most important aspect of a program, developers devour content, and programs that are able to satisfy a community’s consumption needs are able to grow at an incredible rate. When creating a content strategy, it’s important to balance your investments across three types of developer content, product content (docs, release notes, roadmaps), marketing content (thought leadership, SEO, feature/partner announcements), and educational content (eBooks, cheat sheets, tutorials, workshops). It’s also important to diversify content across multiple mediums (short and long-form written, video, presentation). Content can be viewed as a way to attract and build community; however, a poor product experience will quickly undermine the success of your content strategy (that includes documentation).

Product is what separates the programs that thrive long-term from those that are just a flash in the pan. Developer tools are difficult, it can take years to gain significant levels of adoption, all the while navigating a rapidly evolving and shifting landscape. Similar to content strategies, product strategies need to balance investments in several areas. The first area is understanding the current developer tool landscape and integrating into that landscape seamlessly. The second area is predicting which emerging technologies will shape the future landscape and crafting a strong POV on that future state along with the tools to back it up. This is where having a strong open source strategy can pay dividends. Open source is where innovation happens, making it far more beneficial to investing in monitoring what’s happening in open source communities over what your competitors are doing.

What makes a good developer program?

The quality of a developer program is dependent on the program’s ability to create business value without compromising developer affinity. Programs that prioritize business value over developer affinity will come across as pushy and have a hard time retaining their audience, an early indicator of this is program unsubscribe rates. Programs that prioritize developer affinity over business value end up being a drain on the organization, an early indicator would be the adoption of developer tools or MAUs. Programs should drive measurable product adoption, affinity, and expansion, adding significant value to the organization’s bottom line.

As with everything in business, the output will reflect the input. A developer program is often the sum of the team behind it. This will change based on the type of talent your organization is able to attract, but I believe that most programs can function with a core team of five.

  1. The DevRel - Generally speaking, your developer relations team will be the face of your program. They should have an excellent stage presence and a pre-established following; reputation is everything with DevRel folk. They should have a very strong POV that aligns well with the organization’s vision and be able to balance virtual and physical communication strategies.
  2. The PM - A strong product manager will be foundational to the success of your developer product offerings. They should be able to balance the DevRel strategy, the product vision, and the product roadmap, combining them together and delivering solutions that are easily adopted.
  3. The Dev Marketer - This is usually a PMM (product marketing manager) who has developed a very strong understanding of developers, most of the time that understanding comes from a background in some level of development. They have a knack for community building, understand the online communities where developers hangout, and have the ability to communicate to developers effectively.
  4. The Editor - Programs are built on content, making an editor a vital role on your team. Most of the time it will be almost impossible to create all of your content from inside your team, having someone on your team who can work with technical authors from across your organization, consume that content, and transform it into content that appeals to your audience is really important.
  5. The G2M - Go-to-market (G2M) is one of the most misunderstood roles in marketing/product organizations. G2M is an extremely strategic role, a good G2M will include market analysis, pricing strategies, competitive intel, positioning, messaging, and much more. In a competitive landscape (which is every tech landscape) having a G2M’s guidance is worth its weight in gold.

It goes without saying that there are many other valuable roles like an event manager, a web manager, and even a project manager, however, the team above will allow you to build out the foundational aspect of your program.

It should also be mentioned that most of the value that you will gain from your program will be directly tied to the metrics that you focus on driving. Developer marketing programs should focus on three main metrics, 1/ program growth, 2/ product adoption, and 3/ community engagement. Program growth is how many developers are joining your program vs community attrition. Obviously, you want to see a positive growth trend and it’s important that as you drive community growth that product adoption and usage increases. It’s also important to track how engaged your community is because it indicates of the health of your community and how impactful or detrimental your marketing efforts are. Maintaining a firm understanding what actions drive these metrics forward will keep your team focused on balancing developer affinity and business value.

Conclusion

As we continue our journey into this tech forward world that we live in, developer programs and developer marketing will continue to increase in importance. At the end of the day, every business is either an end-point-solution that is integrated into a platform or a platform solution that offers the ability to integrate into it. Attracting developers to build those integration ecosystems will play a key role in the future success of almost all enterprise businesses.