In 2006, not long after Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's manic "developers" chant started entrancing YouTube viewers, Google was just setting up its developer program. It was April of that year when Michael Winton left his job as engineering manager at semiconductor company FormFactor to found Google's developer relations group.
"Back in 2006, Google was a search and ads company," Winton explained in a phone interview. "There was no Google Apps, there was no Android, there was no Chrome, there was no App Engine or anything like that."
At the time, Google was preparing to launch a product called Checkout. Winton says that while Checkout was a tool for merchants, it was more significantly an API.
"[Checkout] in a lot of ways was Google's first step into APIs as product, where developers were going become a major constituency," said Winton, who also pointed to Google Maps as an early developer-oriented product. "Prior to , the Maps API did have some points of contact from our consumer operations team who were watching over the forums, but the founding of our developer relations group meant that we had engineers who could engage at a much deeper, more technical level with developers using the Maps API," he said.
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Google knew how to support advertisers and publishers, to build help centers and scalable online resources for consumers. But it was just beginning to wrestle with the challenges of helping developers. "I think ultimately, there was an 'Oh, sh*t' moment," said Winton, "when we wondered 'what are we going to do when the programmers start asking us questions?' That was the challenge that I joined Google to solve."
APIs, or application programming interfaces, describe how programmers can write code that communicates with a specific system or service. APIs may be private, intended only for internal use, or public, intended for anyone to use, or somewhere in between. Companies that operate software platforms, like Apple, Google, and Microsoft, maintain APIs so that software developers inside and outside the company can build applications on their platforms. This adds value to the platform even as it provides the developer with a potentially valuable product.
Ideally, the relationship between a platform company and a developer is mutually beneficial. However, outside of open source projects, the balance of power tends to favor the platform owner.
Because there are so many more developers outside of platform companies than inside them, platform companies have made significant investments in developer relations programs in order to make developers feel welcome and to encourage them to write applications for their platforms.
Stephen O'Grady, principal analyst and co-founder of tech consultancy Redmonk, says that Google's focus on developers has grown over the years. "Google--like Apple, Microsoft, and virtually every other technology platform in the world--is aggressively pursuing developers via a variety of mechanisms," he said in an email. "...Based on the capital outlays for the events--the hardware, the free services, and more--it's clear that Google, at least, sees real value in its programs."
Google's developer products and APIs have not only proliferated over the years, but have also become more complicated to support. Thanks to its global growth, Google now has to support developers in many different languages and regions. And this year, the company has invested to improve its developer support and has stepped up its hiring of developer relations personnel around the world. Google currently has 28 developer relations positions open.
Tools like mailing lists, email, and discussion forums have been around for years, but they've been getting richer, said Winton, pointing to Google Groups, YouTube, and StackOverflow as vital sources of information for developers and as centers of communal gravity.
Many tech companies hold conferences for their developers, to introduce new technology and to engage with the developer community. Google began doing so in 2008 and its Google I/O event has become much more elaborate and longer--it has grown from two days to three. In 2012, Google I/O doubled the early-bird ticket price to $900, but the event still sold out in 20 minutes, demonstrating demand similar to that seen for $1,600 tickets to Apple's better established Worldwide Developer Conference, which runs for five days.
Beyond the spectacle of skydivers fitted with an early version of Project Glass--Google's augmented reality glasses--landing atop the Google I/O conference site while live streaming their descent, Google offered its 5,000 developer attendees a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, an Asus Nexus 7 tablet, Samsung Chromebox, the Nexus Q streaming music device, and the opportunity to sign up to pay $1,500 next year to receive a developer version of Project Glass.