Building Developer Communities: My Journey as a Community Professional (Part 1)

by Anna Munhin Jun 7, 2023 News
Building Developer Communities: My Journey as a Community Professional (Part 1)

Some of the dynamics and nuances of building, growing, and sustaining developer communities are discussed.

  • Part 1 (You are here): My Journey as a Community Professional
  • Part 2: Community’s First Principles
  • Part 3: Community Starts Within
  • Part 4: Community Strategy Red Flags
  • Part 5: What You Lose when You Invest in Community
  • Part 6: Appendix of Community Resources

In the first part of the series, I will talk about my professional background as a way to start the series.

I'm Hello! My name is Austin.

Over the last five years, I have worked with and led community teams at three different tech companies.

To get there, I followed a long and winding road that included a journalism degree, a Master's degree in Creative Writing, some editorial work, and a few other odd jobs here and there.

I visual timeline of my career in community, starting with my forays into journalism and winding up as a community leader in various tech startup environments. Includes simple icons/logos to refer to each step in the journey.
A masterpiece of PowerPoint design that outlines my winding career path

I moved to the Boston area in order to get a fresh start after a long time in the south. My brother introduced me to a good friend and colleague of his who was just co-founding a startup. I didn't understand what a tech startup was.

At the beginning of my tenure, I worked for a company that focused on providing machine learning solutions and tools for mobile developers.

I began my career as a contractor, researching tech conferences for speaker slots, and picking off bite-sized marketing projects that the engineers and co-founders didn't have time to do. I was the tallest of the 5 employees.

A group photo of the original 5 members of the Fritz AI team.
The original Fritz crew (I’m the tall one on the left)

I didn't know what I was doing or what I was trying to accomplish. Slowly but surely the work became a role centered on community and content. Content Marketing is a fancy way to refer to the Inbound Marketing framework.

The idea of community building as a legitimate business function was new to the tech sector. A few companies were leading the way in terms of using user-generated content to increase brand discoverability and building active communities of developers that shared technical expertise with their peers.

For the next half decade, this intersection of community and content will be my career life. I led the creation and evolution of a contributor-driven publication that was the central community space and artifact.

At its peak, Heartbeat was bringing in close to 250k views a month, and featured a rich library of technical content from more than two dozen countries around the world.

I was able to experiment with email campaigns, paid social ads, industry reports and e-books because our team was small.

I ran community functions at two other growth-stage startups, one of which was in the machine learning space. I was able to bring a lot of my experiences with me because of the marketing departments in these organizations.

The true nature of the work

I was surprised by the skill set I used on a day-to-day basis. It wasn't what I thought it would be. I was not trying to automate everything, nor was I using layers of marketing strategies, nor was I using enterprise scale tools.

I was not a growth hacker.

A meme of Marty McFly staring off into the distance with the text: “NOBODY. Nobody calls me a growth hacker.:
Meme source

I was empathizing and learning. I was making something. I was trying to find and advocate for projects that would offer long-term value to the communities I managed and the companies I worked for. I was campaigning to get more resources for my teams.

This work was human-centered more than anything else, and there was a lot about it that I liked.

It was not easy. I am a highly sensitive person and I like to process and feel things. This set of personality traits has been a blessing and a curse, and it taught me a lot about myself, the tech world, and the realities of high growth startup world.

I felt lonely when I invested so much of my emotional self in an industry that wanted to be scientific and data-driven. I felt a bit of a token when I waved at the idea of community.

The collection of valuable experiences instilled in me a nagging sense that the work of community-building remains misunderstood. It has become a bit of an organizational buzz word, as many tech startups want to build a community, but nobody agrees on its parameters or goals.

I think I'm not the only one who struggles with loneliness or feels unable to advocate for themselves and their work, and that I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Why this blog series?

There is a lot of content out there that promotes community as a low-cost way to grow, but I haven't seen as much about the nuts and bolts of community work.

I am taking a bit of time away from this work in order to dig into some of the topics and use my own experience as a jumping off point.

That is what I intend to do in this series, but first there are a few assumptions I want to make.

  • Caveat: I’ve only worked in seed- and growth-stage tech environments. I don’t have experience managing communities at more mature organizations, or in other domains.
  • Caveat: Much of this series will be conceptual in nature. As such, I won’t spend too much time on tools, tips, or other how-to content. Instead, I’ll spend a lot of time trying to tease out the broader context of community work—things like first principles, organizational concerns, and social and emotional challenges.
  • Caveat: Related to caveat 1…I don’t have any definitive, one-size-fits-all answers to some of the questions and challenges I’m raising in this series. But I feel the urge to explore them, and I hope some folks find that exploration useful. So, exploring-in-public it is!
  • Assumption: If you’re reading this, you’re more than likely a stakeholder in building, growing, supporting, or being a member of a tech and/or developer community of some kind.
  • Assumption: I’m likely wrong, misguided, or otherwise blind to other ways community teams operate in similar environments. I love being surprised and proven wrong, so let’s assume I’ll miss some of my shots.
  • Assumption: You’re willing to read. The kind of discussion I’m embarking on isn’t something I’m prepared to capture in a slide deck or reduce down to bullet points or a flow chart. Also…I just don’t want to do it that way, so I’m going the old fashioned route that will demand some of your attention and time—both of which I’m hoping to earn.

Here again, the plan of attack is in place. I will note any additions along the way if new ideas strike me or the act of writing encourages me to write more.

  • Part 1 (You are here): My Journey as a Community Professional
  • Part 2: Community’s First Principles
  • Part 3: Community Starts Within
  • Part 4: Community Strategy Red Flags
  • Part 5: What You Lose when You Invest in Community
  • Part 6: Appendix of Community Resources

I hope you enjoyed the post and series. I encourage you to follow me on eitherLinkedIn orTwitter. I am always up for a conversation about this stuff.