Ctrl+Alt+Delete: Developer Engagement


Jake Ward
Jake is the CEO & Co-Founder of DevMode Strategies.
You can contact him on TwitterLinkedIn, or by email

The success and failure of a software product, and often even the company that built it, can be traced directly to a company’s attitude toward and engagement of developers. This is not news or uncharted territory. Developer engagement as a priority and a catchall has become popularized among innovation-focused companies, and the universe of innovation-focused companies has been expanded dramatically by the ongoing  digital transformation. I wrote about that universe and the growing pains of companies in this space in last March.


In the interest of full disclosure and qualification, I have spent the past five years working with companies at the forefront of developer relations and empowerment. First as the co-founder of the Developers Alliance and now also as a founding partner of DevMode Strategies, a strategic communications firm specializing in developer understanding and engagement.

This is not an article about DevMode or how it came to be, but rather it is an examination of the rapid evolution of developer engagement, that make companies like DevMode possible. The times they are a changin’. The question we should all be asking is why and what happens next.

New Market, New Approach

In a traditional industry, a company’s success is determined by its ability to build a product and reach a target market. In the innovation industry where digital transformation is now an operational requirement, companies working to build scalable, sustainable businesses need developers to be the creators, collaborators and consumers of their products. This presents a multifaceted challenge for companies of all sizes and in every vertical. Before businesses can deliver to their ‘primary’ market, they need to find, engage, and empower their developer market. This is unquestionably a new kind of market and demands a new approach.

The days of developer relations through portals and hackathons came and went in the blink of an eye. That isn’t to say there won’t continue to be a place for dedicated channels and events, but the need for dynamic, two-way communication between companies and developer communities has led to myriad of tactics under the strategic heading of “developer engagement,” and a related prioritization of quality over quantity.

You can mark the maturation of a marketplace by the introduction of specialization. The more sustainable an industry becomes, the more likely specialists and consultancies are to find success. The growing reliance on software developers by companies across industries has spawned a burgeoning industry around developer engagement, and that industry needs strategic, professional service-styled support.

Questions, Answers, and Outcomes

To illustrate this point, let's take the example of a midsized B2B service provider that has built a business selling enterprise software. Prior to launching a new product, a company will work with its existing customers to identify need, make sales projects based on past performance, analyze available market, build sales collateral, reinforce the tenets of the product with its sales team, and develop a communications strategy to support the new product.

Let's assume they understand the importance of developer testing prior to full-scale product release and plan a six-month public beta for the product. They work with partners and communities to identify and engage the end users of the product, and schedule three months post beta to update the product if necessary. This is a common approach and timeline for a lot of companies, but even a well-intended engagement strategy is derailed by three realities.

First, six months is not enough time to build a developer community from scratch even with partners and a customer base, and it is more time than you need if you had a community already built. You either have the developer relationships or you don’t.

Second, whatever engagement or adoption goal they set is wrong. It’s not too large or too small. It is that the goal of developer engagement has to be improvement and innovation. Setting a goal on the size of is rooted in decades of marketing best practices, but this isn’t a normal market and size is not an inherent indicator of success.

Lastly, it is too late. Before entering into this process, a company must ask themselves a tough threshold question: am I willing to make changes or even kill this product based on developer feedback? This is a hard question to ask and even harder to answer, but until you do both no other answers matter.

Developer engagement can be as data driven as consumer marketing, but it has to be more segmented. It has to be done from the developer’s perspective. There are four questions that potential adopters ask themselves before moving forward with engagement, testing, adoption, integration, and usage.

  1. Does it offer something unique?
  2. Is it simple to use / easily integrated into my existing ways of working?
  3. Does the business model work for my situation?
  4. Does it work with required performance to meet SLA’s the developer is required to deliver to?

These questions, all of them, are fundamental touchstones for developers making decisions about adoption, but they are very often glossed over by traditional marketing that focuses instead on pieces of the larger puzzle.

Activate Your DevMode

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Most companies, regardless of industry or focus, suffer from confirmation bias. They believe in their products and are inclined to value its benefits over detractors. In the digital world the line that separates innovative, highly successful companies from middling businesses is set by their willingness to engage, empower, and listen to developers at every stage of product development. The world’s most innovative companies aren’t afraid of what developers have to say.

DevMode is the result of years spent watching the best get better and the rest get left behind. We believe that when companies and developers are able to work closely and honestly with one another, it benefits everyone. Now is the time for companies to see the world, their business, and their products from the perspective of the developers helping to build them.

How can DevMode help you engage and understand your target audience? Email me and let’s talk about it: Jake@DevMode.io