The Future of Developer Communities: Some Thoughts

Lately, I’ve noticed an increasing amount of discussion about the role of the “platform agnostic” developer – a developer who is equally comfortable across a range of languages and technologies, switching from one to another as each new project or customers requires. To call out just a few examples, Seb Lee-Delisle has been talking a lot about this subject, as well as Grant Skinner and too many others to list here.

It makes a lot of sense for developers to take this approach. In today’s environment, with significant fragmentation in the mobile world, lots of change in the browser environment, and new devices coming to market practically every week, sticking to closely to what’s worked in the past can limit your future options.

I wonder, though, what the role of community will be in this new world. Today’s user group model is focused very much around communities of expert practitioners within single technologies — ColdFusion developers form ColdFusion communities and come together to discuss CF-specific techniques, frameworks, and practices. Flash developers, the same. It’s all very siloed and very focused.

What will happen when that developer is working on an Android project one month, maybe an iOS gig the next, and then some Flash work after that? The old model doesn’t fit the need so well anymore.

One answer might be for that developer to find and join multiple communities to help support him or her in their work, but I’m not sure that’s the best answer. It’s hard enough to find and build relationships within even one community. I wonder if developers will have the energy or the time to create those kinds of connections across multiple communities.

So what’s a better solution?

A change in focus, for one thing. With more developers looking to expand their skillsets, I expect that we’ll see developer communities paying more attention to supporting new to intermediate developers coming into the community and a little less to deep-dives into expert-level topics.

And that changes of focus is already being reflected within our own community. We’re seeing an increasing number of people wanting to hold Camps – from Flash Camps to After Effects Camps and more. Camps are a great way to reach out to new community members and introduce them to new topics, as you have more time than a typical user group meeting. If this trend continues we”ll see a whole lot more Camps in 2011.

I also think our concept of community itself will evolve. We need to start thinking about defining communities less in single-tool silos and more in broader categories. “Adobe developers” instead of “Flash developers”, for example.

Some user groups are already changing to meet the needs of this new environment.  To name just a few examples, SanFlashcisco has been doing sessions on HTML5 as well as Flash in recent months. Fire On The Bay is expanding beyond Fireworks to focus on a range of web development tools. FlashBrighton is now dotBrighton, covering a range of topics from HTML5 to AfterEffects and beyond.

I don’t have all the answers yet, but we all need to start asking those questions.

What do you think?

12 Responses to The Future of Developer Communities: Some Thoughts

  1. I agree with MAX being a great place to chat. Adobe is such a huge organization, that it’s vital to have all the great folks that work there in one place to sorta get the conversation going. I still remember MAX Chicago where me and Jared were going up and down the hallway, recruiting people to join in on the Community BoF because we knew they’d be sad after the fact for missing it! Can’t wait to chat with the crew this year. It’s going to be relaxing to not have a speaking slot or unconference to worry about! 🙂

  2. RogerTheGeek says:

    Developers definitely need to explore alternative to their main technology area. Languages and frameworks have a life cycle and you can find yourself stagnant in a field that has passed you by.
    Multiple communities is normal, not the exception. Most geeks will become involved in various communities and have one or two that are their main interests. I think that is very healthy.
    The TACFUG in central North Carolina put on NCDevCon this year with generous sponsorship from Adobe. We had a number of varied technologies within the sessions with a wide range of speakers, levels, and technologies. It seemed to be well received from the feedback we received. If we don’t spread out a little, we will tend to preach to the choir rather than spread the word. Thanks for the support.

  3. Larry White says:

    Fundamentally the overall quality of software is going to fall. APIs are getting larger not smaller.

  4. George says:

    Great post Rachel!

    In our group we had a few sessions about non-Adobe technologies and I think people learned a lot from them. As you say, developers need to adapt much easier to different technologies and must realize that for some projects other technologies might be more suitable.

    @Tom
    You were asking if mixed-technologies user groups would still be supported by Adobe and quite frankly I wouldn’t see why not. Think about it, the swag, the groups portal, the free software, they are all branded Adobe. I was at a PHP and at a Java event where an Adobe evangelist spoke and gave away free swag.

    Adobe is doing a great job bringing the community together and I really hope this is not going to change.

  5. Hi Rachel!

    Great post and very timely! As you rightly say, I have been branching out, and I think that if you love your job then you’re going to explore the range of different options in your spare time.

    Although I’m not sure you have to necessarily be an expert in them all, but any additional experience in other areas is going to give you much more rounded skills.

    Of course this gives us a different challenge when it comes to user groups. FlashBrighton was built around the creative Flash developers and I’m not sure I’d be able to attract them so easily with our new name. But then we’re attracting other people who are unfamiliar with Flash, so it’s swings and roundabouts.

    Either way, we need to accept change in our jobs and our specialisms, let’s face it – at least it never gets boring! And it’s that sense of joy and sharing of technology that we try to bring into our group. Seems to be working so far! 🙂

    Seb

  6. Nice write up. Over the last 8 years I’ve spent most of my days as a Flash Developer and designer. In recent months I’ve had to expand my skill set to html / css / javascript / jquery / mobile dev / etc. While I thoroughly enjoy all of it, staying on top of each technology is a daunting task. My fear is that I will be spread too thin becoming “average” at a lot of things … sigh.

  7. Ed Sullivan says:

    Nice post.

    I’ve always been a staunch supporter of the concept that user group content/focus should be driven by user group members for the most part. That’s the entire reason the group exists…to support the local user community, right? Without the members, there is no group. So if the members of a local CF group suddenly find themselves looking to do more with Flex, the group manager would be wise to start incorporating those types of topics into the monthly meeting content, or risk losing the group’s members.

    However, I’m not sure that is a concept that can be broadly applied to every user group out there. Take the Fire on the Bay example in your post. It is great that the group manager has decided to expand the group’s focus beyond Fireworks to include a wider range of web development tools. However, if the attendees of that group do not share that same desire and would prefer to stay focused on FW-only topics, the group will quickly fragment and then dissipate as the monthly meeting content ceases to address the needs of the group’s members. So while expanding a group’s focus may breathe new life into a group in some instances, it could be a death sentence for a group in others.

    To me, it feels like this issue needs to be tackled on case by case basis. If the members of the Boston Flex user group want to expand the focus of the group to include mobile topics, that’s great and by all means the group manager should accommodate that desire. However, if the Chicago Flex user group has no interest in mobile, introducing mobile topics in that instance seems to make little sense.

    At the end of the day, listen to your membership. They are the entire reason your user group exists, so making any content decisions without considering their input is short-sighted and a recipe for disaster. Also, after years of working in communities, if there is one lesson that I learned it was: by trying to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. The same can be applied here…by trying to serve the content needs of everyone, you end up serving the content needs of no one.

    I think you made a very important point in your post when you said, “I also think our concept of community itself will evolve.” You’re right, it will. And if less siloed user groups is what the community wants/needs, the groups will evolve to best serve their constituents and move in that direction; but that evolution needs to happen organically based on the needs of specific communities/groups, it can’t be done for all user groups by flipping a switch.

    Ahh, feels so good to discuss community again. Thanks for the opportunity!!

  8. I think this is good, but let’s be honest. Adobe has never really been a fan of events, groups, etc that didn’t focus solely on one Adobe product or the Adobe family of products.

    Are you saying that is now changing? A user group that called “SilvaRIA” for instance that focused on Silverlight, Flex, HTML5 and JavaFX would still get free swag, UG page listing, etc?

    Let’s also look at the evangelism team. Had Adobe not converted Ryan Stewart from his RIA roots, he’d been all up in the HTML5 world. He would’ve been a big proponent of it inside tools like FW, DW, etc. Instead though, Adobe indoctrinated him into the corporate kool-aid. Are you saying that was a bad thing and he should go back to his roots, i.e. less “Ra, ra Adobe” and more “Ra, ra RIA”?

    • John Koch says:

      Speaking as a member of the Adobe Community Team, I think we’ve avoided a black/white approach to supporting user groups and events that have discussions on other technologies. I found some groups in Asia identified themselves around RIA rather than specific Adobe technologies, but because the core technologies they discuss in their meetings are Adobe technologies like Actionscript, we invited them to join the Adobe User Group program. Same with Flash Camp events, if an event organizer is going to gather people together and wants to introduce them to Adobe technologies like Flash, we want to support them. If an event organizer has an event that touches on many different technologies without any special focus on Adobe technologies, it doesn’t make sense to call that event a Flash Camp. It would set the wrong expectations with attendees who might think they’re attending a Flash-focused event versus a broader technology event. My point is that we try to evaluate each user group application and event application on a case by case basis, with our overarching objective being to reach those who have a desire to learn more about Adobe technology.

      • Correct, I sorta oversimplified it. I guess the main question I have is how does the Adobe Community team (you guys) handle supporting these new kinda groups, i.e. if I had an All Flex group and it morphed into a group that was no longer Flex based, do I still get swag bags, manager perks, Tech Weds, etc. Does venturing into new topics/products like Rachel says put the support of the community team at risk? If so, some managers may second guess modifying their group to satisfy changing needs if it means they lose “perks” from being just all Adobe all the time.

        I think Adobe has THE best community program and team (from days of old to present time), so it’s not a knock on the system or how you guys do your job. You guys rock and put it out of the ball park, but if the concept of community of changing, then those changes probably need to be shared/discussed officially in the programs so managers can make decisions on whether to morph or stay as they are.

      • Rachel Luxemburg says:

        Tom, thanks for commenting! I meant this post as the start of a conversation about how the industry is changing, not the announcement of a formal program change.

        With MAX so close at hand I’m really looking forward to having the time to talk about this (and many other issues) with everyone face to face and get more complete feedback from folks.