I’ve been reflecting on my experiences of working with developers and developer ecosystems, and I realized that there’s a really interesting twist on the typical “early adopter” story that’s been hiding in the back of my mind.
Let’s suppose that you and I are spinning up a new developer experience project. We have a fledgling developer surface that we’re rapidly shaping and growing, and trying to to get it right by making contact with its intended audience.
The very first of these developers are commonly called early adopters, which originated from Everett Roger’s book Diffusion of Innovations. It is my experience that these early adopters can be further broken into three subgroups: doers, thinkers, and magicians – and the presence of all three is required for the developer surface to successfully navigate toward broad adoption and bring forth our hopes and dreams for it.
More than that, the mix of these subgroups heavily influences the arc that the project will follow, the pattern into which the developer ecosystem around the developer surface will settle into – should it succeed.
To explore this notion, let’s zoom in on each subgroup.
The doer early adopters are typically the most populous sub-group. They are very easy to identify: they do stuff with our developer surface, making things with it, poking at it here and there.
Doers bring energy and create the sense of a bustling community emerging around technology or products, powered by technology. They are eager, excited, typically with some tinkering time to spare. They are boisterous, peppering technology or product builders with questions and suggestions. Most of their questions and feedback of a very practical nature: they just want to make our thing do their bidding.
Doers often don’t have enough technical skills to just start doing what they want – not just because our developer surface is new, but because there might be gaps in their understanding of the surrounding technologies. As such, they need patient and consistent investment of hand-holding, be that tutorials, hackathons, or individual support.
If our project has doers in the early adopter mix, we have a key ingredient. We have the potential energy that can be transferred into forward progress. This subgroup of early adopters provides valuable insights on the usability of the technology or product, and their contagious enthusiasm attracts new customers.
If our project doesn’t have doers, we might as well not have a project. The absence of doers in the early adopter mix is a warning sign that we might have come up with something that is deeply uninteresting, incomprehensible, or otherwise impossible to access by doers.
The thinker early adopters usually come in much smaller numbers than doers. In some ways, thinkers can be seen as a subset of doers, with a key distinction: they actually spend time imagining possibilities and exploring the possibilities of the technology they are studying. They might be playing with the developer surface themselves, but they could also just be observing doers and identifying interesting potentialities in the churning soup of ideation that the doers produce.
One of my first encounters with thinkers was back in the early 2000s, when blogs.msdn.com was introduced as part of Microsoft Developer Network. I was a fairly new doer-inclined developer myself, and I was fascinated by the blog posts from Dare Obasanjo or Nikhil Kothari on the then-nascent .NET framework. They moved from the pragmatic “here’s how you do <blah>” to open-ended cross-blog conversations about second order effects and implications of technology they were using, as well as introduced various completely new ideas into how it might be used. For me, whole new frontiers opened up and connections were made between concepts that I viewed as entirely unrelated – all the while making me ever more energized about the technology.
This is the role of the thinkers: they hold our developer surface in their hands lightly, turning this way and that, and applying intellect and curiosity to consider its potential.
When our project has thinker early adopters, we have acquired a source of more durable energy. While doers do introduce the initial energy, their explorations, being mostly pragmatic and practical, often peter out and lose steam without the influx of new ideas. Thinkers are the ones who introduce these new ideas, and reinvigorate the excitement and enthusiasm.
Not having thinkers as early adopters means that the project is in danger of getting stuck in a premature local maxima. When the doers uncover all the obvious use cases, these might not be the ones that propel our developer surface toward our intended destination – and we’ll have to contend with being stuck in what we view as “mediocre success” or just breaking down our camp and admitting defeat. It is the thinkers who help move doers move beyond the initial local maximas into adjacent areas that are more likely to hold the value we’re looking for.
The final ingredient in the early adopter mix are the magicians. The magician early adopters are even more rare. Even having one is an incredible stroke of fortune, and something that we are obliged to cherish.
The magicians are both doers and thinkers, but they have this weird knack for building amazing things that blow your mind. I wish I knew how that works. In the past, I attempted to grow magicians out of thinkers and/or doers, but there doesn’t seem to be a path from here to there.
The magicians are usually experienced and seasoned developers. They grasp the idea behind our developer surface in seconds, and intuitively see the landscape of opportunities. Then, they reach for the simplest path toward the opportunity that appears most valuable – and for some unfathomable reason – they are usually right. They connect bits and pieces of our stuff into something that suddenly looks solid and – this is a common effect – blindingly obvious. “What the hell?! How?! … Oh… Why didn’t I think of this before?!” is a common reaction to a magican’s artifact.
When I worked in Chrome Web Platform, I was very lucky to have a handful of these magicians around me. For some reason, the Chrome team’s DevRel contingent was rife with them. In a more recent memory, Simon Willison’s work on llm has the same magician quality.
The presence of magicians significantly strengthens our project’s chances of broad adoption. Like thinkers, the early adopter magicians uplevel the current understanding of what’s possible – but they do it in an explosive, revolutionary way. “Now <bar> is possible, here’s some code” – and everyone freaks out, dropping all the previous work, being able to not just imagine the potential of the next frontier, but actually try it. This explosive amount of energy that the magicians inject into a project can catapult it way beyond our initial intentions. We just need to be patient, hang on to our dear lives while the starship of a new idea streaks forward, and be ready to explore the crazy new planet it will land on.
Not every developer surface gets magician early adopters. A project can still be moderately successful even in the dearth of magicians. A very common side effect of that is that the developer community grows large and appears vibrant, but the outcomes it produces tend to be on the lower side of our expectations. Low-magician developer ecosystems tend to have very thin long tails, with only a few well-settled participants forming a narrow head.
🧪 The right mix
A reasonable question might be: what is the right mix for our project? Disappointingly, there is no satisfying answer. Developer-oriented projects, at least in my experience, all tend to follow roughly the same shape of proportions: lots of doers, a few thinkers, a couple – if any – of magicians. It is usually the presence of magicians and thinkers that significantly improves the chances of our project going somewhere good. So, if I could offer any advice to budding developer experience makers, it would be this: seek out the thinkers and the magicians. They are the key to passing through the early adoption stage.