Upping Our Collective Game Part 1 – Why Communities Are Important

This post is a sequel to my article about how African developers need to up their game and how we need to create a critical mass of local developer talent that is globally competitive.

I have a few ideas about how to go about this. In the past week, those ideas have been undergoing cell division in my brain, and have officially turned into a three part series (maybe more), the first of which is this article, about the importance of communities.

I could begin with tired platitudes about how two nerds are better than one, but I’ll just cut to the chase. We agree that to be globally competitive, we desperately need to aggregate local developer talent at scale, right? I think that a great way to create a critical mass of local developer talent is to actively nurture developer communities.

I can already imagine how the phrase “developer community”, might inspire bizarre mental images of badly dressed geeks sitting hunched over computers and guzzling energy drinks. I assure you, that’s not what I’m talking about. The sort of developer communities I will describe in this piece are about much more than just coming together to chirp endlessly about code. Rather, I believe that the influence of these communities should transcend the tech babble and extend into all kinds of intimate interactions that allow people create lifelong friendships, business associations and generations of impact.

So why are communities important? I’ll attempt to describe a few things that communities do, and within the context of developers, startups and the technology ecosystem.

Communities set the bar

Communities validate progress against technical and creative standards, which might be clearly defined or loosely determined by prevailing tastes.

Simply put, members of a community are generally honest with each other and are not shy to let you know when your work is shit. Lone rangers, on the other hand, can get away with making crap because there’s no one to tell them it is.

It takes inordinate amounts of personal drive and existential awareness to accurately self validate. To be frank, most people just aren’t wired that way. Communities make sure that there is a bar against which every member can sub-consciously measure their work.

Communities inspire

Regular interaction with like-minded people and their work effectively enables a person to exist in a perpetual state of mental and creative stimulation. Creativity is infectious, and if you stay in that atmosphere long enough, you will often find yourself coming up with exciting ideas that you might have never contemplated, had you not been exposed to the ambient influence of an intelligent group.

Communities help you aspire

Creative hierarchies and leaderboards often emerge in communities, and when done right, there will usually be lots of mobility up and down those hierarchies, depending any number of parameters, from how much an individual contributes, to the quality and popularity of their work and ideas — maybe even how often their code/design is adapted — I believe the right term is to “fork”.

The competition that results from the desire to maintain your spot on the charts or reach the next rung of the ladder, so long as it is the healthy kind, can often lead to innovation.

Communities acknowledge achievement

It’s a fundamental human need, we all want the R-E-S-P-E-C-T, to be acknowledged for our achievements.

Before Zuck Dawg made nerdiness cool, the discipline of writing code was as arcane as they come. And it still mostly is, which means you’ll likely never be as popular as the neighbourhood sports jock simply because you happen to wear a hoodie. Just try impressing girl next door with your encyclopedic knowledge of SOAP protocols and REST APIs, see how far that gets you.

The one place where you’ll be truly appreciated for all your geeky awesomeness is where everybody else speaks geek, because geek cred is currency that you can spend only among geeks.

Communities help you stand out

Being part of a common interest collective helps you stand out. The concept might appear cognitively dissonant at first glance, but think about it, why do people join LinkedIn, a professional community of more than 100 million people? Very elementary. They want to become more visible/discoverable to a specific set of people, potential employers or business contacts.

Let’s assume for a minute that you are a technical recruitment exec, from let’s say IBM, and you’re hunting dev talent for a local project. But you’ve never been to Nigeria, and you don’t know anybody on the ground. How would you go about it?

I know what I would do first, I’d search online, go to the places where I’d expect developers to hang out. Right now that would be Github, Stack Overflow, Bit Bucket et al, no? And maybe Nairaland, under the Webmaster’s category, although that is not nearly as practical as using Github and SO as a filter to cut through the crud and get at a smaller subset of likely candidates, because of the profile information that these communities keep on their members.

You could say that being on Github and SO is not a definitive barometer of competence, and I would agree with you. But please spare me the equivocation on how they don’t afford developers significant visibility advantages — that would be like saying that having a resume, a LinkedIn profile and respected professional affiliations do not increase your chances of getting a great job, advancing your career, or hooking you up to lucrative business ventures.

All of that was about online visibility, and it has its uses. But what about offline visibility via communities? That also works in interesting ways. When investors, corporate interests and philanthropic organisations arrive in a country, they will typically make a beeline for the most visible communities that congregate around their industries.

That explains why the Co Creation Hub now routinely plays host to all sorts of technology multinationals. Today it’s Nokia. The day after, RIM. Next it’s Qualcomm, Intel, Microsoft. In the short space of one year, The Co-creation Hub has established itself as gatekeeper to the most visible mass of developer talent that can be found in the country. Ditto for Kenya’s iHub, Ghana’s MEST and a host of other technology hubs across the continent.

The massive opportunities available to a few people just because they have access to these hubs — incubation, acceleration, training, collaboration, validation, internet connectivity, job opportunities, exposure, and more — are not available to devs on the outside. And it’s not because they are more skilled than the isolated devs, they mostly just happen to be in the right place, at the right time, within a community that specifically caters to their niche and provides them with advantages that they’ll find nowhere else.

Communities give you wings

Communities allow us to pool our collective intellectual, technical, creative, and even financial resources to achieve significant economies of scale and exponential leverage on network effects. For instance, your app is more likely become ready for mainstream adoption after an army of advanced alpha testers have already put it through its paces and given you invaluable feedback that will spare you from making fatal mistakes when you finally venture out into the wild.

Communities can transcend time and space

I’ve met a good number of isolated hackers in far flung parts of the country who somehow got the notion that they are “alone”. I’ve even met a few who fancy themselves to be Nigeria’s Zuckerberg, despite their ignorance of mainstream technology trends, which gradually becomes obvious the more they talk, often because they assume that THEY are mainstream (as surprising as it may sound, many genuinely believe this). Afterall, being the best script kid in the whole of Ekiti state is no mean feat.

The effect of bursting their bubble and informing them about the real state of things, especially about what is currently happening in Lagos regarding software and technology, is often so profound that it’s almost heart-breaking to watch. More developers than we realise are missing out on critical learning, business and career opportunities because of where they are located.

While the internet is gradually mitigating this problem, a lot of them still fall through the cracks. Of course, there are exceptions to this phenomenon, but it doesn’t lessen the need to acknowledge that these guys are out there, find ways to engage them wherever they are, and bring them into the bigger dev community.

How to go about that? Quickest way I can think of is starting a Nation-wide campus developer network in higher institutions, with online and offline engagement nodes. I have a few ideas about this, but I’d appreciate if anyone else thinking along these lines could weigh in as well.

Communities have power

Whether it’s bargaining for higher pay, protesting against mercenary corporate policies, or frustrating government tyranny, people have long found that you stand a better chance of making things happen when you team up.

If we can’t learn that lesson from the real world, we can at least look to our own technology oyster for clear instances of the power of cohesive communities to cause significant change. Consider how the internet prevailed against U.S Congress and traditional media money bags in the SOPA debate. Or how the evolution of mobile from device centric to ecosystem focused has tied the fate of OEMs and software companies to the whims of developer sentiment.

When Twitter decided it’d screw developers in furtherance of its long term business strategy, Dalton Caldwell galvanised the community to help create a developer centric alternative. And that’s not nearly the craziest shit some people are plotting, I’ve even seen a declaration of Twitter independence!

If we had a stronger developer community, they could be plotting how to disrupt the Interswitch payments monopoly right now, instead of griping about it.

Communities manufacture serendipity

Most local developers spend all their time working on their personal startups and never have time (or just can’t be bothered) to collaborate on some informal code gig or open source project. I know that coding just for kicks will sound crazy, when maybe you’re barely a step ahead of broke. But it’s in those kinds of informal coding environments, sans the worries and headaches of figuring out business models, marketing strategies, and monetisation, that true magic often happens.

A lot of the software that now powers the web came out of projects whose creators didn’t conceive them with profit in mind, but were just doing on their free time or to solve personal problems. The really great ones catch fire within the developer community and get adopted by orgs like the Apache Software Foundation, a global dev community that maintains open source software.

Ushahidi is a profound African example of serendipitous software that has made global impact. I also know some guys working on an open source project at the CCHub right now. You’ll hear about them soon.

Communities let you stand on the shoulders of giants

One of the strengths of the bay area is that most of the living legends of technology you’ll find there live ordinarily, among everybody else. They eat at the same cafes, ride the same buses, and hit the same clubs. Feeling and breathing the same air with these legend types leads to a perpetual and almost palpable aura of inspiration that permeates the very streets.

There are quite a number “big boys” in local software, tech, and business, whom we need to identify and ascribe with mentorship roles in the local dev community. We need to somehow convince people like Seun OsewaSim ShagayaTayo Oviosu *please insert the rest of the names here __________*, to take a more active hand in the ecosytem, and inspire the younger generation in a direct fashion. For context, I’m aware that Seun organised some sort of competition for devs (last year or early this year, I’m not sure) and promised to fund the winning solution, but I didn’t follow that development to the end to see how it turned out.

Someone that quickly comes to mind whenever I’m contemplating this possiblity is OoTheNigerian. I’ve been tracking local ecosytem patterns since late 2010, and I’ve always been aware of his guiding and unifying influence on Kehers and Namzo, two of the best devs that I know. The most obvious evidence of this influence were a good number of cryptic Twitter missives that kept passing between the triad for months, often to alert the others that they had mail, or to inquire as to their whereabouts. While I’m not sure to what extent, I’m certain that relationship played some role in the emergence of ReVoDa, a social elections monitoring tool that had significant share in the online conversations that shaped Nigeria’s 2011 general elections.

And for those who can remember, Oo was also largely responsible for pulling off a Tech Open Day last year, for which he somehow managed to abduct Sara Lacy (then with TechCrunch) to talk with some local startups. That event goes down in Nigerian startup history as one of the best in exposure and inspiration value.

We need more Oos in the ecosystem who are visibly organising, catalysing, and inspiring the community. We need to drag people like Victor AsemotaEmeka Okoye, and more down here to take fledgling entrepreneurs and technologists under their wing. Uncle Gbenga Sesan already does what he can between his worldwide travels, but I suspect that there aren’t nearly enough cohesive community platforms on ground to really take advantage of his inspirational value. I believe we can do more in this regard.

Communities take care of their own

Groups can act as a strong psychological buffer, especially when things aren’t going that well. I don’t mean as a mushy emotional support group, no. What I mean is your purpose, sense of identity, and belief in what you are doing is constantly validated, simply by being in a place where the people act and think like you, and find the same things funny.

By the way, here’s a good nerd joke I made up myself — I no Zend PHP at all, at all– get it?

Beyond laughing at your silly geek jokes, a community can provide the critical endorsement and support that your project needs to get off the ground, or even offer you a couch when you can’t make the rent.

Walking alone is lonely. Join a community today, and you will never walk alone.

Communities are magnets

While it will often take time to gain significant traction, a community with a truly profound purpose and solid execution will eventually “tip” and snowball into a massive avalanche. Think Apache. Think Wikipedia. The bigger the community and the purpose they undertake to achieve, the bigger they can become. And we are looking for critical mass of African developer talent, aren’t we?


Since you’ve made it this far, I must thank you profusely for reading my “Eleven Cs of Developer Communities” — maybe that’s the title I should have given the article. Feel free to add your own Cs.

You might point out that the community process in Nigeria has already begun via platforms like the Co-Creation Hub and Mobile Monday. And you would be right. Those platforms are great and are no doubt a significant rallying point in the community equation.

But the thing is – (1) they are on one side of the equation. (2) In my opinion, their effect at this point in time is still organic, affecting only a fraction of the fragmented mass of local developer talent, and mostly limited to a tiny geographical area — Lagos.

Organic is the time it took for coal and oil deposits to form under the ground. We really don’t have that kind of time, we need to zoom this thing from organic to catalytic, initiate a process of deliberate acceleration from the other side of the equation — the long tail of straggling developers. We need to get them to tune into this frequency and actively participate in the ecosystem from wherever they are, and I have shared a few ideas about how we might do that in community points I made above.

That is also why I’ve gotten the idea to build a Twitter list of African developers and personalities that african devs should follow to get a sense of what’s going on, and also as a kind of  prelude to online community engagement. I’d like to keep the list really high quality as well as make as pan-african is possible. To this end, I’ll be actively (and mercilessly) curating it, adding and removing people at various times to ensure that it is a great resource for any kind of developer, location regardless, and at any skill level, who wants to get in on the African software, tech and business vibe.

I need your help to build this list, by recommending the best Twitter handles that you consider relevant to the conversation. The people we are looking for are coders/designers, prominent people in African technology/business, and organisations/non-profits/technology hubs in Africa.

To help with your recommendations, please note that this list is not just for “famous” personalities within dev circles, they have to consistently tweet content that is relevant to the ecosystem. And all the better if they have a blog.

I’m aiming at a list of fifty to start with, but I’m thinking a hundred would be an ideal number that will make sure the stream is free-flowing and fresh, but also not so noisy that it is overwhelming. There are currently just five members right now, so please help make this list awesome!

There are three ways we can do this –

You can use this button to recommend someone to be on the list.

You can use this button to join the conversation with the #AfriDevCom hashtag

You can use this button to talk to me directly about #AfriDevCom

Or you could simply follow the #AfriDevCom conversation here.

Thanks for the help, and I anticipate a lively discussion. Let’s do this!

[Image via Flickr/Poster Boy]