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Community manager: An undervalued force multiplier

J. Paul Reed Principal Consultant, Release Engineering Approaches
Flock of penguins

It's 2 am. Do you know where your user community is?

You certainly have a user community, whether your organization has identified it or not. Many tech startups have realized the force-multiplying value of an active, loud, and engaged user community, whether the product is a mobile game or a vector math library used to build one. And in a world dominated by X-as-a-service offerings, those "users" often turn out to be savvy developers.

Cultivating a community around a product is not a new trend. It's been the cornerstone of open source development for decades. What is new is doing it in a way that is not only helpful for the company and contributes to the product's evolution, but healthy for people within that user community, whether they are external developers, people contributing code or working on extensions, supporters, or folks working on testing, translations, and documentation, or engaged providing feedback on features and helping newer community members.

Tackling this challenge is the under-noticed, often under appreciated role in DevOps: the community manager. Even if you haven't heard about what they do, you certainly have heard of the fallout from community management gone awry. Their work is about more than just corralling and keeping users.

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Community managers: Keepers of valuable business insight

One recurring topic in DevOps discussions is the idea of value streams, those all-important paths that trace "commit to production," and to money... hopefully!

You may not have had a reason to interact with your community managers—assuming your organization even has any. So you might be surprised to learn that community managers, simply by virtue of the work they do, have the best sense of what those value streams really look like. That's just part of the valuable meta-information that they bring to bear on business problems.

Put simply, community managers help to support a defined community, and facilitate healthy interactions between individuals and groups, such as internal and external code contributors. 

Effective community managers gain unique perspectives on those value streams because they interact with multiple functional roles across value streams as they try to get issues solved and patches landed. They know all the players in the socio-technical system that is your product, and they know how to shepherd tough problems to resolution because they know how to connect the people best equipped to take action. This "meta-information" of your system's social graph is crucial to untangling thorny problems.

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When the pollinators leave, what happens to the garden?

The delicate balancing act that is community management has gained recent attention, in many cases in the form of fallout from controversy. Some organizations have eliminated or reduced their focus on community management, leaving the product’s community confused in the best case, and in disarray in the worst. Some situations have festered for so long that they’ve become a black eye for marketing departments, and a wake-up call for organizations that thought support of a community meant simply throwing up a message forum or public code repository.

I have personally never worked as a community manager, but I have a number of close friends who do. Two anecdotes always stick with me, precisely because they viscerally illustrate the value that community managers provide—a value that was muddled in the moment, but obvious in hindsight.

1. The impact of one tone-deaf post 

A business with a consumer-facing product, supported on three major platforms, decided to end support for its Linux version. Everyone understood the gravity of the decision. The community manager offered to announce it and help manage future expectations, as well as to try to head off a backlash by finding community support to provide Linux builds.

But when the community manager was on vacation, a manager that the community didn't know threw up a terse, tone-deaf blog post, decreeing the end-of-life for the Linux product.

The response was tremendously bad, but the damage wasn't only external: Internal-people were angry too. Many internal engineers were also Linux users. Not only did it affect them, but they were at a loss to understand why the community manager—who had already so adeptly dealt with months of community turmoil over waning Linux platform development efforts—wasn't the one to deliver the message.

But even that wasn't the full extend of the damage. No one, save the community manager, noticed that many extremely-popular, cross-platform product extensions were maintained by external developers who—you guessed it— used Linux.

Those developers left in disgust because of the handling of that issue, so an already overburdened internal team to take over support for those extensions.

2. Firing "mom"

In another company, a community manager with a saintly personality, who remembered everyone's name and had an elementary school home room mother way of defusing the most difficult of personalities, was loved by the everyone.

Then the company decided to let her go.

No one disputes that priorities (and budgets) can change. But what management didn't understand was the amount of cross-pollination between the external community and the internal engineering team for which she was personally responsible. Most of the new features popular with paying customers were community suggestions, attentively "sherpa'd" through that value stream gauntlet and into the product. What's more, her cross-pollination had great effect inside the company's walls, bringing cohesion to different internal engineering teams.

Nobody noticed how important her role as pollinator was until months later. By that time, internal team-friction was up, and the external community, feeling ignored, was livid. Day in and day out, she had been quietly making community happen.

These are situations where the value of an experienced community manager may seem obvious. Nonetheless, one of the common struggles facing community managers is the need to consistently illustrate their value to the business.

Because of this, the community manager is a great example of an archetypal DevOps role. As with operations, release engineers, and security before them, industry shifts have demonstrated that companies who win invest in community manager roles.

These roles used to be considered cost centers. Now they're seen as a key differentiator.

Making meaning out of murmurs

The DevOps community is just starting to come to terms with the true nature of the software and infrastructure it operates at scale: Both are socio-technical systems, and complex ones at that.

One property of complex systems is that you cannot infer cause and effect until after the fact, if at all. One way to address this difficulty is to create capacity within those systems for people to attune to, detect, and react to the "weak signals" that can quietly carry important information about the realities of the system. This capacity for detecting subtle shifts in the system, in addition to the community manager's  deep understanding of the organization's value streams, represents a multiplier on the investment in someone to actively facilitate your community.

Community management isn't just about sending out colorful stickers for laptops and making people feel heard. Both are critically important for a successful community, to be sure. But when businesses managers ask why they should invest in this role, or why they should keep it amid shifting priorities, they should understand that good community management is the antenna they can use to detect weak signals and make sense of at least some of that complexity. Likewise, a good community manager knows the shady corners of your value streams. It can show you where waste is hiding, and where flow is being dammed up.

Good community management does all of this, in addition to providing a healthier work and contributor environment, so people don't feel like they are just part of a cheap marketing experiment.

The value of good community management, while sometimes hard to see in the moment, cannot be overstated.  Organizations that ignore that value—and by doing so, also ignore their communities—do so at their own peril.

How do you value community management? Share your thoughts below. And come meet me in person at DevOps Enterprise Summit 2016, where I'll be talking about moving beyond the postmortem, and how to embrace complexity on the road towards service ownership.

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