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Google Fortifies Platform With Stronger Developer Relations

Google's developer relations chief describes how the company is doubling down on dev tools and support to bolster the success of its products.
Winton declined to provide information about the size of Google's developer community or to provide metrics by which the success of Google's efforts might be measured. "The highest level metric is the adoption of the product," he said, noting that the company does measure things like the percentage of forum questions answered over a given period of time. The company also keeps track of the hundreds of community-run developer groups around the world that hold Google-focused events with no direct oversight from the company.

"From the very beginning, we took the position that providing effective support for developers was going to start with building a developer community," said Winton. "So over the years, the growth and the importance of developer products and APIs has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger for Google."

With Google I/O established as the center of gravity for its developer community, Google recently began trying to replicate its developer conference experience using some of the tools it built for what it calls its social spine, Google+. For Winton, the goal is to recreate the energy, excitement, and momentum of Google's big stage events on a small screen or casual community-driven meetings.

Winton is particularly excited about Google Hangouts, the Google+ video-chat system, and Google Hangouts on Air, live streaming of Hangouts, to improve developer relations.

"We want to look at tools and opportunities we have to engage with developers and continue to innovate in how we reach developers," explained Winton.

In June, just prior to Google I/O 2012, Google introduced Google Developers Live, a website for developers around the world that shows live, interactive broadcasts, tutorials, Q&A sessions, and other developer-oriented content, like talks about venture capital funding and app creation and monetization.

"We launched Google Developers Live with the expectation of taking that excitement and engagement that we see at I/O, and making it available all-year-round," said Louis Gray, lead of Google Developers Live. "We've really seen incredible engagement as developers learn we're not a faceless company behind an email address or a form. They have a way to talk to our engineers face-to-face around the clock."

Gray said that in the short amount of time that Google Developers Live has been active, he's seeing dozens to hundreds of people joining each live event and multiple thousands of views of archived content on YouTube. He said more than view counts, the concern is reaching the right people.

O'Grady sees value in Google's new technology for communicating with developers, but argues that older modes of interaction still dominate. "Hangouts are certainly a convenient, low-friction mechanism for interaction and collaboration," he said, "but much of developer outreach still consists of the basics: providing tools and good documentation, interacting on mailing lists and IRC, supporting open source via programs like Summer of Code, and generally making it easy for developers to build on your platform and do so in ways that permit commercial success."

Google appears to be well aware of this and is also focused on developer resources that don't involve real-time interaction. In February, it consolidated its developer resources at a new Google Developers website. Over the summer, the company introduced Google Developers Academy, a new training resource for Google products, and Google Developers University Consortium, a collaborative community of academics who use Google tools.

Winton says Google's approach follows the principles advocated in The Cluetrain Manifesto, an influential business book from 1999 that advised companies to talk openly with their customers because the Internet had made high-handed corporate disengagement untenable.

As an example, Winton notes that there was a conscious choice not to refer to developer relations personnel as "developer evangelists," a popular title at many tech companies. Evangelism, says Winton, connotes talking to someone, a one-way conversation. Listening to what's said back is just as important, he insisted. "Our name for the job--and I'm excited to see it taking off across the industry--is 'developer advocate,'" he said.

In practical terms, said Winton, that means developer advocates participate in engineering meetings and have a say in the bugs that get fixed to make sure that issues affecting the developer community get addressed. Developer advocates can also help shape the implementation of new features and the API policies that affect developers.

"Google is an engineering-based company and the developer relations people we hire are first and foremost engineers, engineers who can communicate," said Winton. "And that's been really important to us. That builds the credibility, the respect, and the trust within these internal organizations that helps to make us successful."