The Gitter development community - using a dev discussion platform for collaboration

Founder of development community platform Gitter explains why developer forums could help out other industries in the future.

Open source software communities such as GitHub are designed to allow developers to collaborate on a large variety of projects at once, both in and outside of organisations.

I recently met with the co-founder of an online messaging community tool called Gitter, which allows people working on projects to communicate with each other and raise various topics of discussion.

But since starting the service, co-founder Mike Bartlett has found it does not necessarily get used in the way he expected, with many developers using it to collaborate and discuss subjects of personal interest rather than projects involving the companies they are working for.

The platform is developer-focussed, making it easier to share blocks of code from projects they are working on in GitHub, and is a completely open platform where users have access to everyone else signed up.

Document sharing, teamwork, code and picture sharing are encouraged to help the collaboration aspect the hub was designed for.

Currently used by over 200,000 users across 30,000 communities for open chat, Gitter has now introduced a “Sidecar” feature allowing real-time chunks of Gitter chats to be embedded on websites using JavaScript to encourage an open discussion surrounding development.

“One of the things that I’ve found fun is the cross-company board collaboration that happens amongst the development communities.” Bartlett told me.

This personal-interest based discussion has caused “cross pollination” of projects and companies as developers come together to share ideas, leading Bartlett to wonder whether the platform would lend itself well to communities outside of the development world.

It turns out there was a lot of interest from other industries, specifically scientific and medical based communities.

“We continually get a lot of other people wanting to use our platform.” Bartlett said.

The platform is already being used for “open science” to allow people working on research-based projects to “make sure that any scientific research they’re doing and the way they’re communicating is open” and help compare notes and results.

An industry Bartlett touched upon was the medical community, specifically nurses, who are interested in using the platform for similar work-based discussions with people in similar professions.

“We’re working on the ability to sign in without GitHub.” Bartlett assured me, but he pointed out this will involve covering a large amount of people who don’t necessarily have a technology background.

Even now within the development industry there can be a stigma around information sharing in case you reveal details of core business projects to competitors, despite Bartlett’s estimates that 30-40% of a developer’s build will not be of core business value.

But the Gitter team keeps working on updates and new functionality, including Sidecar, to ensure Gitter stays a place where communities can collaborate on projects which are of mutual interest, and to try and branch into other groups besides the software engineering community.

Gitter is also working on allowing private forums where developers can chat about projects which may be too sensitive for the public discussions. 

“We’re incredibly pleased with how the existing community has embraced Gitter. Sidecar is a way of extending the functionality and benefits of Gitter to a wider community.” Bartlett said.

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