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When the math works out

I learned my “times tables” when I was about eight years old. One particular lesson still sticks with me in my work.

In the US, we memorized common multiples with a matrix like this:

Times tables matrix from zero to 12 in both directions

Find a number on the left, another at the top, and then look where the row and column meet for the product. Through rote memorization, eventually I knew every answer.

My teacher, Mr. Standifer, had a fun way to test us. We’d split into two teams, each in a line facing him. He would reveal a flashcard with a multiplication problem. The two kids at the head of the line would try to be first to shout the answer. Whoever got it right could shoot a foam basketball toward a small hoop to earn a point for their team.

When my turn came, I wanted to shoot that ball.

As I waited for the teacher to reveal the flashcard, I noticed a clue: the white paper he used to obscure the math problem was slightly transparent. One of the numbers on the card was a zero.

What a lucky break! The zero column was the first one I learned. Anything times zero is… zero.

The opposing team was beginning to whisper. They had noticed, too. It would come down to who could get the answer out first.

At the teachers’ first movement, my competitor and I shouted in unison: “ZERO!”

Mr. Standifer stood dumbfounded, holding a card that said 4 x 10. Apparently we had forgotten that there are other numbers with zero in them.

Many companies make a similar mistake with their developer products. They are so certain they need to reach developers that they jump ahead to what they think developers need. They make a calculation before they’ve even seen the numbers.

I’m not immune. At Zapier I was certain we needed to teach developers to build better APIs so they could hook them up to our API platform.

The problem was that most of our integration audience didn’t build their API. And very few of them were developers.

It’s a little embarrassing, since this came after I’d written about the Dirty Secret of APIs: that most people searching documentation aren’t developers.

These days, some of the first questions I ask potential clients are about the audience:

  • Is it really developers you want to reach?
  • What kind of developers make the most sense?
  • Are you sure there’s not another audience hiding within?

I’m certain you know whether developers use your product. A key distinction is whether you need to reach them directly.

There are many developer tools that solve non-developer problems. Those other audiences might be easier to reach than developers. The math may work out in your favor, but only if you can see all the numbers.

For some ideas on how to get a better view, read how to find your invisible audience. It goes into more detail on my Zapier experience.

If you know you want to reach more developers, we may be able to help.

Hundreds of marketers like you subscribe to EveryDeveloper Weekly to learn the latest developer engagement lessons, covering content strategy, developer experience, and more.