Best Practices for Rapidly Scaling an Engaged Data Pro Community – The New Stack
Anna Filippova tends to the dbt Community Garden of over 30,000 people at dbt Labs as Community Manager. Prior to dbt Labs, Anna created the first analytical engineering team at GitHub. Today, she writes about the intersection of modern data tools and open source in Analytics Engineering Roundup.
Modern software engineering has always been inseparable from the open source software communities that have shaped the way engineers work today. From the time Linus Torvalds released Linux source code to the world in the early 1990s to the democratization of web development through WordPress and the ensuing explosion of web frameworks, software engineering communities are always formed around critical technological advances and new ways of working.
It was absolutely true for me. Everything I learned about computers, software, and open source, I learned through online communities, peeking under the hood at other people’s code, remixing and reusing examples from others to create something new. Whether communities exist as virtual discussion forums or in-person technical encounters, software engineering communities are places that allow engineers to learn from each other, build on each other’s work, and find opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
If you hear everyone around you talking about the power of community and wondering if investing in community is worth it for you or your business, the answer is always yes! I’ve been part of, built, studied, and grown communities for over 15 years, and I’m now the Community Director at dbt Laboratories. Here are a few things I learned along the way.
Find an underserved niche
Communities increase the rate of innovation in an industry or practice. Yet if you look at a field slightly adjacent to software engineering – analytics – you’ll find that even five years ago the data analyst and engineering communities were almost non-existent.
I became a data analyst at GitHub in 2017. I remember struggling to automate repetitive tasks that challenged me and other team members. Unfortunately, most of the tools we have were not designed for automation. I longed for others to share their best practices, but all of my colleagues were stuck in the same boat.
Analytical work has long been the domain of largely proprietary Business Intelligence (BI) software. BI solutions were plentiful, but with little cross-compatibility between them. As a result, it was hard to find other humans who had solved similar problems, and difficult to share code and learn from examples from others. Many analysis teams found themselves largely on their own.
When dbt first appeared as a framework for data analysts, it changed the way analysts like me worked (the same way Ruby on Rails did for software developers in 2008) . Before long, there was a thriving community around this new way of working – dubbed the practice of analytical engineering – which fulfilled the primary role of helping analysts learn from each other, build on the work of each and to advance together their common practice.
Today, the dbt Community Slack group has more than 30,000 analytical engineering practitioners. More than 7,000 people gathered last year at the annual Analytical Engineering Conference to discuss the state of the industry and the latest best practices. More than 6,000 dbt Meetup members in 15 cities and 10 countries meet regularly to share what they’re learning locally, build new relationships, and connect to opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have found.
If you want to invest in a community around your own product, look for spaces with low access to information. These areas often need the specific value that communities provide.
Create value for others
Ask yourself: what problem are you or your business trying to solve and for whom? Which humans (users, customers) do you most want to connect with?
And then find out what they expect from you.
It’s not about what functionality to create next or what new product to develop. It’s about understanding the humans you want to build a relationship with and finding ways to create value for them.
What do they need you most that you can do today? Maybe it’s just a space to get together regularly, so people can meet other like-minded people, find support, and build new relationships.
Over the past two and a half years, many of us have struggled to maintain existing social relationships, let alone create new ones. At dbt Labs, for example, we’ve found that right now one of the most impactful things we can do is create opportunities for people to make these new connections, especially with the uncertainty impending labor market.
Investing in the people you build for will have a multiplier effect on you and your business over time. By helping people build new relationships and helping them succeed, you prepare them for new job opportunities, new projects, and new collaborations. As people expand their social reach, so can you – through them.
Meet people where they are
The boundaries of a community are not defined by the boundaries of the platform it lives on. A great community uses a variety of tools to help its members succeed. The dbt community, for example, lives through Slack, GitHub, Meetup.com, Twitter, and many interest groups for non-dbt-specific data.
Where do people already spend their time? How can you present yourself in a way that creates value for people on these platforms?
Are the humans you want to reach enjoying a good meme on Twitter? Do they stay logged into Slack or Discord because of work? Are they already part of various Meetup groups and looking for new social events to attend on a particular platform? Make it easier to connect with you by doing what is already easy for them!
And most importantly, what other types of communities are people already members of? You don’t have to build a community from scratch – very often, creating value in an authentic way is best done by supporting existing local or virtual communities that people are already part of. Sponsor their conferences or hackathons. Help us organize fun activities to do together. Volunteer to help when existing communities need resources. For in-person meetings, this may include, for example, helping to set up chairs or transport pizzas.
Focus on depth of engagement, not volume
Reddit, GitHub, Stack Overflow and other mega social platforms attract millions of users. Yet, as much as we need and love these networks, bigger isn’t always better. The bigger and louder a community, the harder it can be for someone to analyze the noise and find answers. Five committed community members working closely together on an issue can be far better and more effective than a thousand.
Smaller communities are popping up all the time, often around emerging technologies that may require new skills. This is often how entire industries, new technologies and new roles are born.
Create a safe and welcoming place
If you choose to start your own community, focus on creating a safe, useful, and welcoming place (not just the number of humans there).
dbt Labs, as guardians of the dbt community, work hard to demonstrate the positive behaviors we want to see in others. We assume good faith and work with someone to help them better understand how to live community values. And we make it clear when something is unacceptable by taking prompt corrective action.
Some values we defend:
- Be authentic and come as yourself. Let people know your company affiliations, but focus on presenting yourself as a human who can add value to others, rather than as a representative of your company.
- Show empathy for the experiences, backgrounds and situations of others. Welcome and encourage the diverse voices and perspectives of others.
- Create more value than you extract. Answer difficult questions, as well as questions that have nothing to do with what your business does. Participate in a way that advances a discussion or idea.
Together, these principles have helped the dbt community continue to be a safe and welcoming space as it has grown to tens of thousands of participants. But most importantly, these principles, the boundaries and new territories that the dbt community explores, are all defined, iterated on and shared with the community itself. Community members take an active role in shaping the sequel, giving their input on what’s wrong and deciding when something needs to change.
And we wouldn’t want it any other way.