Contributions

I’m obsessed with work. Sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) that means I’m a workaholic, for better or worse. When you get to the heart of the matter though, I’m driven by a sense of my ‘life’s work’. As in, what will I make with other people, over the course of my lifetime, which will elevate other human lives? How do I know what to work on? How do I maximize time spent working on the right thing?

In my career so far, I’ve thrown myself into some very different parts of the world. Consumer startups, enterprise software, and open source are some prime examples. The people who reside in each of those sectors don’t usually sit down and have real conversations with one another. While jumping between silos has sometimes been a shock to the system, and has occasionally been very lonely, it has given me the opportunity to understand the experiences and motivations of disparate groups of people who usually would never cross paths. Standing at the crossroads of these tribes and playing in the ambiguous space in between them has allowed me to stress test many of my own assumptions, and has afforded me a much bigger picture of reality.

Based on my learnings,  there are two classes of problems that I would like to spend the next 10+ years of my life’s work focused on. This is an early attempt to articulate the two different problem sets that I find most compelling. They may change, but its a start. 

1) Peer to peer empowerment via large networks.

How do we help individuals create things, make themselves useful to one another, and live better lives because of it? Since the financial crash of 2008 many of the economic paradigms that we’d come to take for granted, like employment and the value of a college degree, have largely stopped working. This is slowly breeding a generation of micro-entrepreneurs and DIY-ers, and a trend towards sharing and collaboration so that resources can be used effectively. Current examples are the Etsy’s, the Shapeways’, and the Kickstarter’s of the world, but what comes next? There are certainly a multitude of ways to help people lift themselves up at scale in the current landscape which have yet to be implemented. Helping people adapt to and thrive within this new climate is one of the things I would most like to do with my time.

2) The global technology community

I recently read a post called After Your Job is Gone. Check it out, I highly recommend it. It helped me to understand how very lucky I am, as is every other person employed in tech, to be in this sector. We’re in a great place while the divide is deepening between us and much of the rest of the world. It’s easy for us to slip into thinking that our bubble is the world. This loss of perspective can lead us to waste our remarkable abilities on non-problems, or much worse, waste each other’s time on destructive in-fighting. The question here is, how can we, as this privileged part of the global population be the best versions of ourselves? This is something I’d like to spend considerable time devising solutions for.

I hope that by sharing this, I’ll have an easier time aligning my small daily decisions with big these priorities. 

If you’re trying to figure out where you’d like to contribute, perhaps we should talk.

Things I Believe

Roughly a year ago, I wrote these down. I was in a tangled confusing mess. At the time, I was trying to determine an outcome to something I couldn’t control. It just wasn’t in my hands. Recognizing this uncertainty, I tried for hours and days with my analytical abilities to play chess with reality, calculating each move until I had a known outcome. This left me more frustrated and mentally exhausted than I’d started out.

I couldn’t force it. So instead, I asked myself what would endure, with or without the temporary situation I was wrestling with. What would matter 40 years into the future? These were my answers, and I decided the time was right to share them:

  • Business works better when a company is a medium to express what you stand for.
  • Business works better when you care about the people you work with, and create a product which is an expression of those relationships.
  • You can never have ownership over someone else in work or in love. You can only choose to spend mutually beneficial time together.
  • When there’s no longer mutual benefit, reassess your terms.
  • Simple decency always trumps formal protocol.
  • Generosity, and creating experiences which make people smile, usually get you more than you started with. 
  • If you love what you do, you’ll profit more.
  • If you want to make big gains you have to be vulnerable.
  • Define your standards. When push comes to shove, maintain them.

The world will always be too complicated for us to know every answer ahead of time. Pick your axioms, and in moments of doubt, fall back on them.

Thanks to Buster Benson for his ’A Few Rules I Try to Live By’ which helped inspire the thoughts above. 

An End to 2012

When 2012 began, I was determined to make it a year of change.

Professionally, I switched companies and roles: a change from an e-commerce/manufacturing marketplace to an open source driven cloud computing company. I dove into JavaScript and Git, got to know servers a whole lot better, and learned how to collaborate with a remote team. I began leading our support engineers.

Personally, I forged relationships with people who I expect to know for years, and strengthened existing ones with friends and family. Some fell apart, and came back stronger. I can honestly say I’ve never been surrounded by better people than I am today. I started a yoga practice. I began weight training. I’ve been experimenting with how personal discomfort can be a teaching tool.

2012 has been exceptional. My only regret is not having been present for more of it. I’ve dug into whatever’s come my way, and sometimes, I’ve let the hours and days pass me by. I haven’t taken sufficient time to think.

My hope is that 2013 will be similarly dynamic, but I want to increase how much I synthesize the experiences I’m having. We only get one life, and I want to make sure I’m feeling the seconds.

Here’s to lots of laughter and learning in 2013. I’m glad to be on this ride with all of you.

Makers and Managers: The Community Version

I recently caught up with a good friend who also works with the developer community. They spend their days at one of NY’s more mature tech startups, and we discussed how community efforts took shape in the early days, and how they’ve evolved. They spoke of the process of starting off as an individual contributor, and moving to where they are now: facilitating the work of a team of individual contributors.

It got me wondering, is this the only way? Is it is always necessary for more mature community managers to become team leaders in order to feel their work is relevant? Or is it possible for a seasoned community manager to stay hands on working with their communities, facilitating interactions directly on the ground, and to still feel like they’re adding value and making traction in their careers?

In the software development world, there are typically two tracks for an engineer: become a manager, or remain an individual contributor. In organizations that know what they’re doing, one is not regarded as being above the other. They’re both viewed at as critical but different ways to add value. Baked into this is the fact that software engineering is a highly specialized skill, so the people doing the day to day work of making software are viewed differently than those working on an assembly line. 

As community management gets to be more mature, my peers and I are increasingly moving into team leadership roles. While it definitely suits many of us, I also think we’ve felt like since the product of our work isn’t code, we haven’t had much choice. We’ve needed to follow traditional business protocols that show when we’re stepping up. I wonder whether by following some traditional assumptions, we’re potentially misusing great talent.

As good companies move beyond the startup phase, and start considering what it takes to keep community managers (and teams of them) happy it’ll be an important thing to consider.

Community Interactions: The Most Important Question You Can Ask

Communities and organizations are made of relationships. They consist of the connections we make between one another, and how we either move those connections forward or get in their way. It’s that simple.

Relationships which don’t benefit everybody involved don’t last. They may continue for awhile, because one person or group is in need of what they get from the other. The alleviation of their immediate short term pain is worth the hit they’re taking. But as soon as the one in the disadvantaged position gets the smallest edge on the situation, they’re going to look to flip the game. If you squeeze too hard on the advantage you have, you ultimately you lose a supplier, a team member, or a customer. So how can we can counter this natural, but totally destructive cycle? 

I’ve become fond of a simple qualifying question:

Is this helping us both be the best version of ourselves?

Whether you apply this question to an interaction between two individuals or to whole subsections of a big group, the effect is the same. Personally, it gets me to stop thinking about the next few hours or weeks, and helps me to see things in terms of years and defining moments, how the small choices I make everyday actually make me who I am. It frames you and the other guy as both having valid goals and things you care about, and things you’re probably both working towards. If I’m squeezing the situation too hard, its the wake up call I need to stop.

Communities can’t thrive if the people in it are treating each other like resources to be exploited. Consider what it would be like if the relationship in question gave you both extra strength and bandwidth so that you could each do what you do better. How would that get everyone where they want to be faster? Or make the relationship more durable? This line of thought is an insurance policy.

The only way to start is with yourself. Then you figure out how to incentivize your closest confidantes in the community to ask themselves this same question, and to share your answers or, as the case may be, your failings with each other. A small subset of a group practicing being thoughtful and measured in a shared effort in the face of conflict can change the nature of a whole network.

When to Hire a Community Manager

Recently I’ve had a number of conversations with founders looking for advice on when to bring on a community manager.  People are increasingly hiring for the role, but the question of when (and whether) it fits into the company is often still a mystery. To help everyone figure out what they want and end up happier, I’d like to shed some light for founders and potential candidates.

Hire a community manager if and when:

* You have users

It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often this isn’t the case. There are lots of companies who hire someone with the community manager title to get users when they don’t yet have them. I believe that’s turning the wrong dial. Your initial users will come, or not, based on your product and if user adoption at the early stages is less than expected, you need to tweak and reflect on your product. Throwing another person into the mix will likely add to the confusion. Make sure you’ve got a healthy engaged user base to start with, before you consider hiring a community manager.

* Your interaction with your users has gotten to be more than you can handle

Having a sizable engaged user base on its own is key, but it isn’t enough. There needs to be an element of critical mass. What do I mean by this? In the best cases, a founder manages all interaction with users at the beginning. Support, customer feedback, and just being there until you know the key players by name. If the pieces are in place, these interactions will increase in depth and number. There’s going to be a certain point where the relationships are both too valuable not to nurture, but too numerous to keep up while also fulfilling other duties as a founder. This is when you might seriously want to consider bringing someone else on, but you need to think about one more important piece. 

* You’re ready to put your customers at the center of your business for the long-term 

This requires some self reflection. Building and scaling a people-centered business is both hard and insanely rewarding. I wrote a bit about in a previous post (Are You Ready to Run a Customer Centered Business?). Hiring a community manager is the single biggest step you can take towards investing in your users.  If you want to make user happiness a core business competency, and create an ecosystem in which people can impact each other’s lives, go you! 

I simply urge you to consider what you’re taking on preemptively and make this choice deliberately. There’s nothing worse than when the community manager is the only person in the company who really cares about the community. Think a few steps out and save yourself the internal strife later by deciding how much this matters to you now. 

Just running through these bullet points giving a simple yes/no will provide visibility into whether it’s right to hire a community manager (or whether the company you’re interviewing with has it right). My hope is that this framework can help founders and candidates get more out of their efforts by providing a little more rigor, and setting expectations more effectively.

Disappointing Users = Disappointing Friends

One of the rules of thumb I use to judge the quality of my work is how much interacting with community members feels like interacting with friends. This is especially evident in how you handle disappointing people.

If I have to let my community down (which at some point will be inevitable), it should feel like I’m having to disappoint people who know me, put their trust in me, and who expect better. Uncomfortable? Absolutely. But the discomfort far outweighs the value. By the same token, if I do a gut check, and it doesn’t feel pretty much synonymous, that’s a sign that I need to reorient my approach. Time to reassess. 

The irony of course, is using a more emotionally difficult feeling as a rule of thumb for something positive. It’s something you find a lot when you work with communities – embracing difficult moments with your members is one of your greatest strengths. It ultimately put you on the path for a deeper, happier connection with them. 

Are You Ready to Run a Customer-Centered Business?

Running a company whose end goal is making your customers happy is hard. Obviously running a company at all is hard, but a business all about your users is fundamentally different. Have you considered what it means to be responsible to for a lot of people’s happiness, to set that as part of your mission?

Everyone says they’re pro-user. Let’s face it, nowadays if you’re building something on the internet, you’re expected to talk that game. But it’s important for founders and their teams to understand what they’re signing on for. Once you’ve gotten your first few thousand users, and maybe closed a round of investment, and are suddenly hunkering down to try and create exponential growth, and thinking your very first thoughts about scaling, a shift begins to take place. 

To build from this point with a close connection to your customers is going to be a whole different kind of hard. Have you thought about how it’ll change your day to day? More bug reports with more urgency, apologies, communication around issues. Having a developed understanding of how your community will respond to things affects your decision making. Before you’re at the point of hiring someone to lead your community, figure out whether or not you want a community. 

Assuming you’ve done a good job, and hired the right community lead, they’ll be in your face all the time with things that need to be handled for your customers. They’ll push you to make things better for them. You need to know whether that’s something you want.

If you don’t feel you’re suited to run a community driven company, that’s ok. There are verticals and business models, even in tech, that don’t require you to place user engagement and happiness as your raison d’etre. But do some soul searching beforehand about yourself, your team, and what you want to build, and know where you fall on that spectrum.

The Importance of Informality

How informal is your team? Do people follow social protocol, or display certain types of etiquette? If so, do all those little things and the extra seconds and thought cycles people spend on them move your company’s mission forward when aggregated? 

Informality is one of the most essential ingredients in enabling fluid exchanges of information between people. If you’re willing to set aside some of the established ways of operating socially, because you agree amongst yourselves that they’re unnecessary, you’re making yourself more vulnerable. It’s about being just a little unguarded. If you’re doing that all at the same time, together, that fosters trust.

And I don’t need to tell you that trust and free flowing information are crucial when a group of people need to pull together to solve difficult, exciting problems.

Informality is also a happy by-product. An output, not an input. Informality arises because of the other things you’re doing right. There are external signals associated with informality, especially in the corporate world, but just because an office lacks suits doesn’t mean the people in it trust one another. Don’t confuse the external signals with the internal substance.

The meaning of work, and the relationships we have with our coworkers are transforming fast. So what are you doing to foster trust?

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

This is Part Four in a Four-Part Series on Observations on Community Building

Somehow I’ve reached the 4th post in my experiment. Nice. I’ll end off with some suggestions on where community managers can look in order to get a deeper understanding of our own work.

Even though companies hiring people to nurture communities is a new thing, the dynamics of communities go back a looong way. So its not surprising that lots of other disciplines have great bodies of knowledge to draw from.

If you’re like me, and are trying to seek out and learn from a few of them, here are some places you might want to start:

1) Open source

Open source is pretty much the grand daddy of modern digital communities. People donate their time to a project to contribute to the greater good, and the results are owned by everyone. Now if your community surrounds a for-profit product, its probably structured a little differently. But when you’re considering how to create buy-in and foster a distributed sense of ownership, there’s much to be learned from open source practices. To start, check out the Starfish and the Spider, and read up extensively on Linux.

2) Behavioral Psychology

The study of why we do what we do is pretty important when you’re looking to reach large groups of people and persuade them towards positive actions. Like it or not, as humans we have patterns to the way we respond to things, and behavioral psychology puts many of those patterns into tidy little packages. Influence by Robert Cialdini is a fun read on the topic.

3) User Experience and Interaction Design

UX design is all about understanding your users, and Interaction Design deals with crafting sequences that engage and delight them. They shape the way a platform interacts with its users, then we as community managers mold the way users interact with one another atop that platform. After users have spent some time with your product, usually they begin to have suggestions, which can then be sent back to Product, creating a positive feedback loop. Getting to understand how product designers think, and working together seems wise, given the meaningful ways our work impacts each other. I strongly suggest reading Seductive Interaction Design, and Subject to Change.

I hope that as community management develops, we all get smarter about drawing from established disciplines. The sooner we can put into perspective where this stuff comes from, the more effective we’ll be.