Exclusive sit-down Q&A with BlackBerry’s Alec Saunders

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I sat down this morning with Alec Saunders, BlackBerry’s top developer relations chap, to find out more about him and his approach to growing the company’s application ecosystem.

My questions are in bold.

Hello Alec! Give us a quick overview of your previous career before BlackBerry? Set the scene for us.
I was a Waterloo computer science graduate. I worked for a number of small companies in the developer tool space through until 1992 and I founded a few too so I have a lot of hard startup experience. I then moved to work with Microsoft working in their developer tools and operating systems section, first in Canada then in Redmond. Just to give you an example of the things I was doing: I product managed the first versions of Internet Explorer and worked on introducing the first universal Plug and Play products. Then in 2001 I went to QNX in Ottawa as VP of Marketing. I was there for a year before heading off to a telecoms startup and then I ended up at RIM in February 2011.

So most of my career I’ve either worked directly with software developers or I’ve been part of a team selling or evangelising to software developers.

Take us through your initial strategy when you arrived at RIM?
Well the day I arrived, the company was in the middle of laying off 2,500 people! So it was quite a time to start. WHat I wanted to do was build a programme for developers and after having been a software developer working with various different vendors, I thought there was an opportunity for one vendor to own the space of being a great business partner to the developer community.

When I arrived RIM only had a small number developer community left.

The three things we focused on immediately:

1) I took the initial developer relations group and began spreading it around the world. We were only in a few geographies at that point and the most significant North American geography for mobile development — Silicon Valley — had no representatives. So we grew the team from 37 to 135 and we distributed it!

2) We began a whole serious of aggressive seeding programmes. RIM had gone to developers in the past much later than our competitors were doing, so we worked hard at getting devices into the hands of developers right away.

3) RIM was notoriously cautious about publicity around our developer tools and platform. However the only way I know of reaching the developer community was to focus on outreach, public relations and those kinds of approaches. So that’s what we did — that was the essence of the first business plan.

Tell us about some initiatives that you’ve put in place to reach and influence developers?
There’s nothing entirely new about what we’ve been doing. The most interesting initiative that worked really well for us was to build virtual porting labs to help developers convert their applications for BlackBerry. The first time we ran a portathon we had 3,500 applications submitted — and this got progressively larger — the next time it was 4,000, then 15,000 applications and finally the last portathon saw 19,000 submissions. We did it all virtually.

The technique of helping developers port applications is very old — we just modernised it for the internet age.

Tell us about the BlackBerry Elite programme?
It covers many areas of our business — let me talk to you about developer elite: There are 85 of them. 85 of our best and most influential developers. Typically they are people who write blogs; participate on our forums outside proportion to what others do; or they run developer groups. Some of our South East Asia groups are massive — and the elite people are the influencers who run those groups. It’s invitation only and we keep it small. We take new ideas to the Elites and ask what they think. They act as a sounding board and a means for us to directly reach a large community through their influence.

What achievements challenged you most over the years?
The biggest thing that’s been a challenge for us is that (and this is where the portathons came in) is that it’s hard to reach large numbers of people with our message. There are millions of developers out there so activities like the World Tour helped us reach out to some of them.

The World Tour took in 44 cities across 37 countries tour — we basically went to every continent except Antartica. We went from city to city, setup a stage and spent a day speaking to developers, seeding devices, solving problems, meeting different groups.

Opinion of RIM as a platform player was very low. We measure net promoter scores — a measurement of someone’s likelihood to say positive things to a community based around a product or in this case a developer platform. After a developer attended one of our Jam events we could see a swing of 56-58 points on that score. So the message was resonating in every city. People would tell us, “I had no idea it was so easy to build an app for the platform,” and, “Boy, they treat us well!”

The challenge became growing that from the 9,300 people that we touched across the tour into a broader mass — and that’s still the challenge. There are a lot of developers out there that have a poor opinion of us based on experiences from 5 years ago. The company is different, the developer relations team is different, the developer programme is different, the tools are different — not even the the company name is the same! That’s the reason that when I saw the Strategy Analytics results [showing BlackBerry achieved an 8/10 score from developers, 38% of whom have the company 10/10] I saw our message was finally breaking through.

How has the launch week been for you? Were you apprehensive?
I was not apprehensive. If you’d asked me a month ago I’d have said, “Yeah, a little!” The launch week was fabulous. We knew we had the numbers about a week and a half beforehand so we were really happy and excited. The launch week looked really good.

It’s an interesting experience because with a modern smartphone, the whole product is not just the smartphone and operating system. It’s the smartphone, operating system and the ecosystem. I’ve been counselling our team that we have to trust our colleagues to deliver great product — and that our carrier teams will do a great job of getting the devices out to the customers. We need to focus on our knitting — and that’s getting the ecosystem built.

It looks like the entire team that comprises BlackBerry is executing very, very well.

How important is the Built for BlackBerry programme?
It’s the cornerstone of the future of what we want to do. We’ve been working on building a mass, a volume of apps in the ecosystem. The most crucial thing we can do now is to get applications built that take full advantage of the platform. Every app should be an extansiation of the platform itself — beautiful, social, integrated — supported with gestures, peak, flow — all the things that are designed to help our users keep their life moving. Built for BlackBerry is a soft way to encourage developers to do this.

Some developer programmes have tight controls, others have next to none, but in the middle there’s a space for us to occupy. You can bring an application to us easily — but we’ll make it commercially exciting for you to build an app that leverages our platform fully.

What’s next for your team?

We’re just starting to scratch the surface. We have releases planned for later this year. You’ve heard Torsten talk a lot about mobile computing and his vision for the future: Devices connecting with different places and connection points in the environment (think, for example, of the Bentley car shown off at CES). There is very fertile ground for epxloring how our devices interact in the world that our users live and work in… never mind the fact that there are more BlackBerry products coming down the pike!

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Alec, thank you for taking the time!

If you’d like to find out more about developing on BlackBerry, please visit developer.blackberry.com.

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