Welcoming AppLand’s Newest Advisor, Pavi Sandhu

We’re thrilled to welcome Pavi Sandhu as AppLand’s newest advisor! Pavi is an expert on educational developer content. He co-founded Trailhead, Salesforce’s legendary learning platform, created educational content for Oracle and AWS, and served as director of documentation at Mesosphere and MongoDB. Pavi’s also a practicing psychotherapist and founder of a startup that’s working to make mental healthcare more accessible and effective.

We chatted with Pavi about why he decided to become an advisor to AppLand, how he got into creating educational developer content and what he learned creating Trailhead. Read on to learn more!

How did you first connect with AppLand?

Elizabeth and I first connected via an introduction by Redpoint Ventures. They had invited me to give a talk on documentation and user education best practices, and at the time AppLand was starting work on its doc site, so the introduction was well-timed. I felt an immediate alignment with Elizabeth given our shared backgrounds in academia. In fact, she and I both have PhDs from Boston University, in epidemiology and physics!

What made you decide to become an advisor?

I decided to become an advisor to AppLand for two main reasons:

  1. Elizabeth is an inspiring and impressive leader. I was struck by her intelligence and breadth of knowledge, and appreciated how she helped me think about how to grow my own startup. Also, I’m drawn to people with diverse interests and expertise. It takes a special type of person to start out in academia, move into tech and investing, and become a 2-time CEO, as Elizabeth has.

  2. I love the product. Joel Spolsky, who created massively successful products like Trello and StackOverflow, wrote a great blog post awhile back on horizontal vs. vertical products. Horizontal products (like web browsers or word processors) can be used by anyone, whereas vertical products are domain-specific. For developers, AppMap is a horizontal product. No matter your industry, codebase or skill level, AppMap is going to be extremely valuable for you. That’s what I love about this product: its universality and simplicity. Like Andy Palmer shared, AppMap reminds me a lot of GitHub, another fundamental, horizontal product for developers.

How did you get into creating educational developer content?

I’ve always loved to read, so writing was an early interest of mine. Growing up in India, I was a fan of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and wanted to be a science fiction writer! I dabbled briefly in journalism between college and graduate school, when I worked as a reporter for a science magazine for six months. After getting my PhD in physics and realizing academia wasn’t the best fit for me, I decided to combine my love of writing, science and tech – which ultimately led to my first job creating developer content at Wolfram Research, a company that makes mathematical software for scientists and engineers. I love learning and teaching, as reflected in my academic background, so documentation, training and developer education were a natural fit for me at tech companies.

What was the most surprising thing you learned creating Trailhead?

The intense enthusiasm among customers for content that directly meets their needs, which I refer to as user-centric content. When we launched Trailhead, it was only aimed at Salesforce developers. They loved it and started writing blog posts and tweets about it, causing the product to go viral. We were soon flooded by requests from Salesforce administrators and end-users for content tailored to their needs, which led us to expand the scope of the project.

Today, Trailhead has more than 3 million users and includes content on general topics that go beyond Salesforce, e.g., management and leadership skills, diversity and inclusion, GitHub, AI, and even climate change and environmental impact. I believe this is a testament to the design of Trailhead’s learning model, which presents relevant information in bite-sized chunks that directly address key use cases for specific customer personas, enabling learners to go from ignorance to mastery in incremental steps, while having an engaging and immersive experience. This is a design philosophy that can enhance the effectiveness of any instructional content, regardless of its audience and format. I had been developing this user-centric methodology at Salesforce, and training other writers to implement it, even before Trailhead. However, it was still surprising and exciting to see how effective and impactful this approach turned out to be, for millions of learners. For details, see this Medium article.

What advice do you have for startups working to build out their educational developer content?

Ashley Smith, the former CMO of GitLab, sums it up well: “Engineers are naturally curious people who will be far more interested in content that teaches them something rather than just trying to get them to buy.” And to be clear, teaching developers about the features and benefits of your product doesn’t cut it. You need to teach them how to solve a specific problem or be more effective in their daily work. What can you offer them that they couldn’t do before? That’s golden content.

A more tactical best practice for creating effective developer content is to start mapping out your different reader personas and stages of the customer journey, so you can determine who needs what kind of content when. This practice can also help ensure you’re delivering content that’s a pain killer, and not just a vitamin or ‘nice-to-have.’

What’s your impression of AppLand’s community and how do you see it evolving as the company scales?

My understanding is AppLand’s community is passionate and growing rapidly. I’d love to see the company continue to recognize developers who are enthusiastic about the product, by providing them opportunities for writing and speaking, so they can directly communicate the value of the product.

Developers love hearing from other developers, as this type of communication is more authentic and persuasive. Salesforce did this successfully early on with its MVP program, which selects and highlights exceptional members of the community, to increase their visibility and impact. Of course, one needs a certain critical mass for this to be effective but it might be something to start planning and working toward. AppLand’s recent blog posts featuring members of their community are a good step in that direction.

What are you most excited about for AppLand?

I’m excited to see a virtuous cycle for product adoption set in whereby AppLand’s usage grows virally, because each new customer is excited enough to refer the product to more than one colleague. That leads to a viral coefficient greater than one, which is the basis of exponential growth. It requires a combination of developers deriving value from the product and AppLand having a developer-friendly brand identity that makes customers eager to praise and promote its product, because they understand and love what the company stands for – empowering developers to be more productive and creative.

It takes a while for this virtuous cycle to take off, what Amazon refers to as the flywheel effect, but it’s the basis for all fast-growing products and cultural phenomena that expand to become ubiquitous and dominant. I believe AppLand has the potential to get there. It’s just a question of executing one step, i.e., product feature, satisfied customer, event or blog post, etc. at a time, which requires a synergy between product, marketing and community.