Student engagement: The next generation of developers

Students are an important developer segment and should not be forgotten about or dismissed as ‘just students’. In the not so distant future, they will be shaping the future of software development and are the next innovators. Getting the student developer community actively engaged with your brand and using your platform, products and tools start to form their advocacy and loyalty to you from early on in their career. If you fail to engage these developers whilst they are actively learning and honing their developer skills, you’ll potentially miss out on an entire community of developers from adopting your products.

A lot of students will often choose their tools based on availability – is it free or cheap? Whilst learning to become a developer there’s nothing better than getting hands-on experience with different platforms, products and tools, and trying them out in real-world scenarios. Student programs, partnerships and outreach are critical to getting your tools and platforms in front of them. There is no hard and fast rule about which approach is better, and like many things, it depends on what product you have on offer and your budget.

Student programs

The obvious first step to engage with student developers is to offer products and tools for free. If you have chargeable elements to your regular offering, remove this barrier for students. One thing student developers often don’t have the luxury of is vast amounts of money to spend on acquiring lots of different tools. The best student developer programs have their own dedicated area of a developer portal, where students can go and find out exactly what’s on offer for them and any incentives that are running (student developers love free swag even more than regular developers).

There should also be resources and experts on hand to help get them to get started with your tools and products. This is also the place to have a specially dedicated blog and post news about any student developer events you’re holding. If you have the resources and support available to offer internships within your offices, that’s something you can advertise through your student program too.

Student ambassadors

As part of your student program, or as a stand-alone offering, you might want to consider bringing student ambassadors onboard. A good way to spread the word about your products and tools, student ambassador programs encourage those who already know about your company and products to become pioneers at their university.

Applications are best handled through a specific landing page. As well as the basic information, don’t forget to find out their skill level and specific development interests. It’s also wise to think about the additional benefits ambassadors might receive such as hardware, events, digital and physical rewards (digital badges/swag) and mentoring.

University partnerships

A school or university partnership is a good way to get your product or tools in front of a large number of students. First, consider which schools or universities will have the right student developer population for your particular platform, service or tool. Do you want to start your student outreach to universities that are local to your company? Or do you think there are more suitable universities across the globe? When completing your research be sure to try and write down the details of the university partner or liaison manager, as this will save you time later. You’ll need to do some research on the types of courses they are offering, what languages the students are programming in and how technically advanced they are (there’s a big difference between 1st year and final year students).

Once you’ve shortlisted the universities you are interested in partnering with, speak to their partner or liaison manager. You’ll first need to understand if they’ve partnered with other companies and consider if this will affect any partnership offerings you may put forward. Communicate your partnership plans with them, for example, you want to provide x amount of x hardware for the students on a particular course. Be prepared to discover your chosen university has already partnered with a competitor and have backup choices. Prior to making any arrangements try to gain as much information as you can before committing to any arrangements with them. You can then go back and consider all your options after speaking to all of your shortlisted universities.

Student events

A great way to raise awareness and engage with student developers is through contests. Be sure to make the contest just for them, either competing within their own university or against students from across the country or even globe. 

You could also consider sponsoring a hackathon, these are best done with student ambassadors onboard to assist with organising and delivering. You may also want to be part of the annual university freshers fair, where new students come and get free swag, vouchers and other goodies from lots of different companies. Just make sure you’re attracting the right students to your stand. If you are trying to recruit developers to your company, you may want to think about attending a recruitment or career fair. Be prepared for lots of competition and make sure you take some free swag, plus a pretty awesome grad program.

Third-party partnerships

Another great way of getting your product noticed by student developers is by partnering with a third-party, to provide a student package. A fantastic example of this type of partnership is Github Education, who have dedicated an entire section of their site just for learning. In the student section, they offer the chance to sign up as a GitHub Campus Expert and offer free software and tools through GitHub Student Developer Pack. Students can also apply for a $1,000 grant to throw a hackathon on their campus, plus a range of support and goodies. The student developer pack has a range of free tools and products, specifically put together for students.

Our final thoughts

Early engagement with the student community, if done well, can set you up with a strong and loyal army of developers. By the time they’ve completed their university degree, they’ll be experts using your platform, services or tools for development. If what you have on offer is great, today’s university students will become tomorrow’s advocates. It’s a mutually beneficial engagement, which will help you achieve long term strategic goals, such as building an engaged developer community. The type of student engagement you offer, will, of course, depend on the budget you have on offer – but it’s a segment that should not be forgotten about or deprioritised. Engage successfully with students now, keep them for life.