What is a community?
There is a poem by John Donne that I have always liked. It begins:
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”
What I like about it is the compelling message that, as human beings, we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and that is humanity. I get the same feeling when talking about a community, and why is it important to be a part of one. The question here is what exactly is a community? The answer might seem simple, but it is not. Let me tell you my story and why I appreciate so much the community around Cisco DevNet.
I am a networking engineer by heart. I took my first steps in this area sixteen years ago as a student of the networking academy. It was love at first sight, although I always joke that it was my destiny becasue my grandfather held jobs as a firefighter and a telegraphist – so the obvious path was becoming a network engineer in charge of the communications and solving emergencies.
I was very pleased with my role as a networking engineer specialized in Cisco technologies and learning new stuff frequently. I loved the CLI and could not get enough of it. However, almost four years ago, I began a new adventure that took me into a (for me) unexplored area … software development.
It was not easy. I had to acquire a whole new set of skills, and it felt like an impossible task. In the beginning, I was alone, but thankfully I was able to participate in the first DevNet Zone in Cisco Live US 2014 in San Francisco. It was, without a doubt, the kind of help I needed.
It was my first encounter with the DevNet community, which at that moment was mainly Cisco employees explaining the new program and getting people involved. I got the guidance I needed from that team, and it made a tremendous difference in my new role as the lead networking developer at my company. However, after the event, I still felt alone. The experience during Cisco Live was excellent, and the new, developer-oriented web site – developer.cisco.com – was a great resource. But I needed the same guidance as in the event from the web page.
That whole year was a great learning experience for me. I spent a lot of time on the web site, reading new information. Fast forward a couple of years and the improvement in the web site was just astonishing, not only in the documentation but more importantly with new resources like the learning labs, learning tracks, and the DevNet sandbox. The same learning resources you had during huge events like Cisco Live, you could have in your home accessing the web page.
Still, something was missing. The thing I valued the most during the events was talking to the Cisco experts. They provided guidance, advice and shared experiences. That is information you do not get from a document. That is the human part you do not get from a pdf.
Hands-on, instructor-led learning with DevNet experts
Thankfully, a few months after Cisco Live US 2016 in Vegas, the DevNet team decided to create two Cisco Spark spaces to improve the collaboration with the people interested in the program, and for me, that was the turning point between a developer-oriented program to a developer community led by a Cisco team.
Now the great support and communication you had while at a Cisco Live event, you could have in your day-to-day activities by being a part of those Spark spaces. Some would say that it is not different from the forums or mail lists, but I definitively see a lot more value from a collaboration tool like Spark where you can have real-time feedback or different people talking about an issue and discussing ideas.
Before these spaces, I felt like it was a great program, with continuously improving documentation, labs and sandbox environments. All of that is highly valuable, but it is missing the human component and “No Man is an Island.” Now I can read a document, follow a lab and spin up a sandbox but as soon as I am facing a challenge or have a hard time understanding a concept, I can jump to the Spark space and ask for help. I can ask new questions about the subject or get recommendations of reference material I can study to advance my knowledge.
The role of the technical writers, developer relationship engineers, developer evangelist and all of the support personnel around the program is highly significant. It makes you feel welcome, and all of them are eager to hear your feedback and improve the areas where adjustment is needed.
For me, that is a community. A group of people that are there for you, to help you improve, to guide you and push you out of that challenge. That team that you know will be there for you when you have done your best but it has not been good enough, they will listen to you and help you or at least, let you know who can.
One of the things I like the most about this new developer group around Cisco technologies is that now you not only can expect help from the Cisco employees but also, from individuals that are part of the community and that makes it more sustainable, relevant, and vibrant.
Great Community Managers can make all the difference
One of the critical pieces for a successful community is the often undervalued role of community manager. The community manager is the one with the responsibility to keep the conversation going in every medium possible – live events, social media like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. They are the ones whose task is to help grow the community.
DevNet experts John McDonough and Vallard Benincosa
with DevNet Community Manager Silvia Spiva
They are always engaging. When everybody else is tired, they are still working trying to meet more people, help those that are shy and do not know how to get included. Even more crucial, they try to understand the needs of the community and make the appropriate introductions. Those connections can take the group from a functional help organization to a business building space.
The community manager toughest challenge is to keep the people interested in the program, to keep them engaged, to make sure that “No Man is an Island,” and give the group a human feeling. It is not always about business and technical challenges, sometimes (a lot of times) it is about you and me. Community managers are the ones that make sure those more informal conversations happen. They are the network builders, the ones that connect the individuals and make sure relationships grow.
Getting back to John Donne’s poem, it says:
[…] any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
That is precisely how I feel about the DevNet community. Every member that feels left out, or is not getting the right value out of it and resigns, diminishes me. If the group keeps growing, all of the members get more value out of it, and the community becomes more prosperous.
I have always admired the technical skills of the DevNet team. It is a very comprehensive and knowledgeable group of people. Extremely passionate about their work and genuinely committed to their goal of communicating the benefits of the Cisco APIs and SDKs strategies, as well as making the technology friendlier to those not used to software development.
Network engineers are facing new challenges in this software-defined world. Now that the DevNet team built a great community around their work, the network engineer’s journey is going to be a whole lot easier. It is without a doubt a great asset the DevNet team created, one that is going to bring a lot of benefits to the partners, developers, and Cisco.
There are wonderful spaces and community managers ready to help you, depending on your interests – NetAcad, DevNet, and Spark Ambassadors just to mention a few. If you are already a part of the community, thank you. It is better every day because of what you do. If you are not, join me, we definitively need you, just come in and say “hi.”