Programmers, Assemble!

I think a lot about how to build effective communities for software developers and software users. It’s personally important to me to connect and empower people and I figured it would be a good time to write up some of the things I have learned about building community since I’ve been involved in the technical community as an organizer/leader for about three years. Ready? Here goes!

Meaningful Metrics

Communities, like non-profits, governments, and every other kind of organization, need to have meaningful metrics for success. What is your main goal with launching your community? What are some problems that you would like to address? How can you quantify these problems? If you aren’t entirely sure what you want to achieve or change in your community, then you might want to spend more time thinking about it. These metrics will guide what kind of events, activities, sponsorships, and speakers you bring in so it’s good to have them figured out earlier. It’s not enough to say that you are building a community for users of X programming language or Y framework, you need to have a specific goal for building that community.

The Importance of Inclusiveness

Communities need diversity in order to thrive and engage. If your community consists of a homogenous group of people, consider what you might be doing that might discourage marginalized individuals from joining the community. Codes of Conduct are an integral part of healthy, technical communities and if your community is lacking one, you might be pushing away more people that you realize. In addition to having a Code of Conduct, you also need to vigilantly enforce one. Making the effort to include diverse speakers and mentors can go a long way towards making marginalized individuals feel welcome and valued in your space.

Consistency is Key

When it comes to community events, it’s better to maintain a small set of consistent and repeatable events than introduce lots of different events. People take time away from their busy schedules in order to attend community events, and it’s important that they have a strong understanding of what they are going to get out of an event before attending it. This kind of understanding can only come from providing similar events on a regular basis for community members to participate in and identify what works best for them.

The Variety of Venue

Although maintaining consistency over the type of events is important, the host venue should be as diverse as possible. By hosting events at different locations, you encourage people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to trek to the “central” location in town to attend your events. I made the mistake of insisting that events be hosted at central locations in my hometown (Chicago) numerous times before realizing that a different location doesn’t discourage people from attending, it just encourages a different group of people to attend.

Never Say Meetup

I don’t like to use the word Meetup. Whenever possible, I like to call the non-digital communities that I develop just that, communities. Meetup associates the age-old concept of connecting and growing together with a fairly new technology. Meetup is the vessel but which communities organize, it is not the community.

The Power of Purpose

Last, but not least, you have to have complete dedication to the purpose and goal of your community. Whether you want to enable the next generation of Common Lisp programmers or bring the art of calligraphy to the mainstream, you have to have the personal dedication to the cause. I’ve seen too many Meetups fizzle because people wanted to claim the title of “founder” of a Meetup, develop their own connections in the industry, or push their own product/startup/agenda. Communities are not made for you, they are made for people. Building a successful community can be a tiring and self-sacrificing process and you have to be willing to recognize that you are there to help others, not yourself.

These ideas are opinions based on my experiences alone but I think they are pretty accurate and reflect some good insights. I’ll add to this blog post as I pick up more tips for running successful communities.

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