πŸ“» β€” Jeff Lawson β€”Β CEO, Twilio: Building the Right (Technical) Systems for Team, Customer, and Community

Reading Time: ~ 7 min.

Good morning yenizens!

Yesterday was a holiday in the US of A β€” MLK Day β€” and it’s honestly difficult to fully appreciate the impact of that man and his community. They changed things; the ultimate stress test for success.

Sobering question for all of us this morning: Do our communities (and community spaces) create real, authentic, lasting change in the folks that encounter the work that we’re doing?

Ooph. Let’s never stop asking each other the hard questions! A few good links before we jump in:

  1. Short links. Become a Makerpad Creator in Residence.
  2. Hey, you’ll figure it out. Unlike the moderation wars.
  3. Basecamp’s use restrictions, revised. A giveaway?
  4. Forbes launches paid newsletters… this seems like a big deal.
  5. A non-obvious guide to raising VC. Free music for creators?!
  6. Debug your resume. Local WP dev made easy. Influencer lead-gen.
  7. On the growth of telegram. 53% get news via social. Future of mobile.

To infinity & community,

β€” john

Jeff Lawson, founder and CEO of Twilio, is on a current book tour and is showing up in a bunch of different podcasts. His book, Ask Your Developer, focuses on a growing conversation around the importance of software developers and their voice at the decision making table.

And, as a developer myself, I have found a ton of principles and practices that are deeply applicable to community builders!

Jason Lemkin interviews Jeff for the podcast and provides some great lessons-learned that community leaders and new project builders can think through and use for their own needs.

Here are some of the high-level notes (via SaaStr) as well as some of my own commentary:

1. Stay Small… as Long as You Can β€” Jeff argues heavily for keeping teams small, especially as things get bigger. This is important because you need to stay as close to the customer as possible. This is also how you keep things meaningful for the teams and the larger organization.

The application for community builders is obvious: You’ll achieve greater and more meaningful results if you intentionally keep things small. Find ways to limit access in creative and important ways.

Jeff shares a ton of stories around early-stage experimentation and how important it is to create an environment and culture that allows this type of behavior. I believe the same is true of healthy communities.

2. The Problem Lives with the Customer β€” Build a system that supports the regular engagement of your team with the customer and larger community. Meaning, make sure that everyone touches the customer and the problem(s) that you’re trying to solve.

Customer and community-centricity is something that everyone talks about but very few people put into practice, especially as they get bigger. You need tools and workflows that allow growth without removing the opportunity to stay close to the customer and problems.

Sometimes, we even “build in” systems that obstruct our ability to engage directly with customers!

Jeff shares a common example of how Product Managers sometimes misinterpret their role as “buffer” between engineers and the customers β€” this can become deadly for innovation and product design!

3. Focus on Problems, Not Just Tasks β€” Jeff knows what it’s like being a developer and being handed a glorified “To Do” list; this doesn’t appeal to developers and also doesn’t allow them to understand the fundamental issues that the customers are facing.

The implication here is powerful: If you’re going to build a healthy culture, whether it’s for developers or a community around your own project, you want to build a system where you can scale the growth of responsibility as people become more engaged.

Jeff talks quite a bit of the power of real “ownership” even in the more “mundane” parts of the business and project building cycle. Understanding your staff and how they operate (and the things that they love) is really important as well; just as important as really getting to know your community is a real, authentic way.

Imagine! Building real relationships with your community!

4. Be the Chief Enthusiast Officer β€” As the founder and CEO of any project and company of any size, you must be the most positive person in the room, the person who is driving the vision forward. Your enthusiasm matters and is one of the more powerful “signals” that a community, organization, and/or team is headed in the right direction.

This reminds me of Jono Bacon‘s words around positivity:

Set a positive tone in the community from the beginning. If you have a leader who is kind, positive, engaging, and collaborative, your members will mimic that behavior. The converse is equally powerful.

Jono Bacon

This is the best way to recruit members as well β€” use that energy and make sure you’re always promoting something positive with your community.

5. A Sense of Belonging and Ownership β€” We talk about authentic experiences of belonging quite a bit in the community space; we know what it’s like to “fit in” and “feel heard” and we also know what it’s like when those doors are suddenly closed.

Jeff talks the same way about developers and their need of a real sense of ownership and understanding (as well as belonging). It’s not just about “fixing bugs” or “building software” but knowing the why behind the what. Good and healthy communities create a real sense of ownership as they grow which helps create that authentic (and rare) sense of belonging that everyone is so desperate to experience.

6. Context Matters β€” Building anything new is difficult and this is especially challenging with human-centric problems. Building software is like building anything on the internet: It’s about the people!

One of the more powerful things that you can do for both technical teams and/or a growing community is to create the larger framing, the larger context of why this community exists and why this problem (or mission) matters so much to all of these people!

Starting with Why” is a powerful system but also, in my humble opinion, the only real way to build anything on the internet! If you can’t decide on your “why” or you don’t know why you’re building, then, how do you expect to lead anyone effectively?

7. Experimentation Leads to Play Leads to Happy Teams β€” One of the more obvious things that is true of any builder or creator of things on the internet is that we like to experiment with new and exciting technologies! It’s crazy to imagine any culture today that would intentionally limit the exploration and experimentation of new tools, platforms, and technologies!

But, these cultures do exist and sometimes we build them without even knowing! This requires more flexibility for leaders but the benefits greatly outweigh the costs.

How this applies to community is that you need to create a space for experimentation and failure; where folks can share their experiences with building without fear or anxiety of judgement or unfair criticism.

Gordon calls this “default spaces” and I call them “purpose-built“:

If you can create this type of space you’ll actually reduce fear and anxiety and increase fun, excitement, and joy! These are all important and must-have ingredients for community success.

Jeff recommends reading Eric Ries and his book The Lean Startup which is also a favorite in startups and early-stage community formation groups.

8. Choose Your Infrastructure Wisely β€” Jeff reminds his audience that it’s important to not only equip your engineers with the right tools but also the right workflows and processes that maximize production and minimizes communication issues and confusion.

To do that you need to experiment and continue to iterate on your tool choice to meet the changing / evolving needs of your team and community. Never stop experimenting but find the right trade-off that suits your needs.

And, finally, never forget that a real and healthy community is “portable” in nature and migration or moving from one tool to another isn’t as bad as you might think it will be.

Actually, it might be an important next-step for many communities as they have outgrown their current technology implementations or have priced themselves out of poor tools.

This also includes policies! Jeff talks through how policies (or fundamental cultural docs) should always allow more communication and more experimentation than less. Make sure that any policy that you have for your community allows for greater throughput.

9. Be Opinionated, Have a Strong Point of View β€” Leaders with an opinion are much more interesting to be around and all the developers that I know appreciate it when there’s a strong sense of principled, value-driven decision-making. This is especially important in async / distributed environments and team cultures.

One of the things that we know as community builders is that a strong sense of opinion is usually what drives the best growth, especially in the beginning! In a world of copy-cat communities you’re going to want to be (and stay) competitive by having a strong opinion about what matters and why you’re building what you’re building.

10. Invest in Your Local Community β€” I think the point here is to “start where you are” instead of looking too far outside. You can to decide the operating system and the culture. You get to decide, as a founder, ceo, or community builder, is to ensure the health and welfare of your project and make sure that the right folks are joining at the right time.

Do you have a strong belief in what you’re doing? Do you have expertise that you can lean into? This is an important reminder from even yesterday’s issue with Christina Pashialis:

My advice is this: Build a community for an audience that you know inside and out! If you don’t know your audience then you won’t know how to truly empathize with the struggles and hardships that they face and this will limit your ability to serve them well. 

Christina Pashialis

There are a bunch of other good notes from Jeff, but, these were some of the more obvious ones that I was able to take away from his interview with Jason.

I hope they are useful to you!


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