books - Linchpin, Seth Godin

This was interesting to me.  I'm a huge fan of Seth Godin.  I love the way he thinks, and even though he's not really a "community" guy, he's a genius marketer who follows a lot of the basic ideas that go along with community - transparency, invite people to opt in, find ways to have a generous position. 

It was kind of funny to me to read this one and realize it's my least favorite of the work he's done.  It's still smart, but it veers toward self help in a way that I didn't expect from him.  I had a long conversation with my sister about it, and we realized that part of the problem is that he's basically preaching to the choir. 

The idea is that the Linchpin person is the one person who is necessary to get things done in an organization or group.  The Linchpin is respected, has a lot of soft power, and is usually characterized by some level of generosity - being willing to take on a thing nobody else will or help out when needed regardless of whether it's part of their job title. 

The thing is, my sister and I are already there.   Or I should say, I was there.  I'm not now and need to get back there as soon as I can.  I knew that before I read the book, I just didn't have a name for it.  That's the problem when a vital person is forced to step away from the job for a while, you lose that status.  Rebuilding is harder than it was to start from scratch. 

I'm iffy on recommending this one - if you feel like you're stuck in a drone position at work and want to break out of that rut this could be useful advice - some practical ideas about how to get involved in bigger decisions and take on an appropriate amount of responsibility for the projects you want to pursue. 

If you are already where you want to be - influencing the areas you want to be involved in around your career, I'd skip it. 

books - Buzzing Communities, Richard Millington

My team at work read this together, to prep for a meeting.  Millington lays out a great path for how to start building a community from the ground up, what to track to prove your ROI, and what signals to look for when it's time to change tactics to support your community as it grows. 

It's a good starting place.  For a long time we've been going on gut feelings to track growth and ROI.  Millington's ideas are solid and useful.  I recommend this book for people at all levels of community management, I think the advice is useful and practical. 

How did this become my job?

Where do you draw the line between graciously offering to help and taking on things that are really not your job?  It's a problem I've seen over and over again in my career, and it just happened again today - being given work that's totally outside my job scope, just because there really isn't anybody else on the team whose job it is to do it.  Sometimes it's good to do it as a favor, but sometimes it's something that will never be useful to me, and just suck time and energy away from what my team is supposed to do. 

There was another incident recently where a friend was asked, as a job candidate, what their experience is with negotiating with executives.  As a community manager?  The hiring company clearly has no idea who we are and what we do.  We may be comfortable in that arena, but that doesn't mean it's an appropriate duty for what is typically a jeans and t-shirts role. 

Where's the gap between marketing and community?

As part of a project I'm working on, last night I asked people for ideas about companies that are marketing to 15-22 year old women.  The top answer, off the cuff?  Victoria's secret.  That's pretty disturbing.  There were a lot of other clothing retailers, two brands of hygiene products, cosmetics.   I'm just looking for signals in the design that are there to draw them in. 

This morning I'm thinking about communities that cater to them, which are entirely invisible to me.  I don't even know what to google - the language of a 15 year old girl is so utterly foreign to me at 43. 

The actual project I'm working on is about the marketing, but I am really interested to find out if the marketing collateral from places like Victoria's Secret and Abercrombie matches up with the design choices of the places young women opt into.  I suspect it will be different.  I hope it will be different. 

Which signals are we sending?

I just read this quick breakdown of semiotics for another project today and it got me thinking about the signals we're sending with our communities.   We all have signs in our online spaces, whether it's part of the brand design, the layout, avatar choices, even words in bios.  The problem is that they are read differently by different cultures.  There are many different cultures represented in the communities I work with - both in terms of nationality and language (and religion, and sports fandom, all the ways you can slice and dice people to give a subgroup a label), but also in terms of what they do.  A Java developer is different from a DBA is different from a marketer.  If we're serving them all the same, we're not serving them well.  

I've been thinking generally of the problem of expanding English language communities into Asia lately.  It's a thing I'm thinking about for my job, but also has come up in many conversations with other community managers.  I am worried about entering those spaces, trying to build a community that is rooted in a culture I don't understand, a language I'll never speak.  What would I say?  How would I present myself?  I don't want to be perceived as the bull in the china shop.  Or worse, that I'm there to colonize on behalf of my company. 

I've known that at a gut level for a long time, but it's good to add this to the list of things I can articulate about the problem.  Maybe someday I'll actually be able to solve it. 

How does the time of day you write affect your writing?

Somebody mentioned today that they notice a difference in their output if they are writing in the morning vs. the evening.  In the morning they write more about the future, and in the evening they are more introspective.  That resonated with me, and when I went through the posts here, I can definitely tell the difference in tone in my writing as well.  I also think of it as proactive in the morning and reactive at night.  So it's night, and I'm reacting to that idea. 

This awareness is motivation to change my writing strategy.  It's worth getting up early to do this in a proactive way.  I think this also affirms my strategy for when I do my heaviest writing at work.  I've always tried to tackle it first thing in the morning, since it's the time I'm least likely to be interrupted.  I'll start changing up the time of the day depending on the type of thing I'm trying to write and how I want to express it.  Good to know. 

What is this community for, anyway?

The altMBA project that was due last night was talking about the problem of defining what a business or product is for.  It seems like it's an easy question to answer, but it can get complicated.  A shoe horn is a beautifully designed object if you think about - they can actually be beautiful objects, curved and symmetrical, they do exactly one thing and they do it so well that the design probably hasn't changed in, probably, centuries? 

One of the classic analogies to explain how businesses often don't understand what they are really for is railroads.  In 1920 the major railroads and rail lines in the U.S. thought they were in the railroad business, but they weren't.  They were in the transportation business, and when newer models of transportation came up, they were displaced.  We can see it now with oil and coal companies that didn't realize they are in the energy business.  Either they figure out alternative energies soon, or they are doomed. 

I went down the rabbit hole of what my communities are for.  I think that one of the things that made so great for the years that we were at our best was that we knew exactly what it was for.  I can think of a lot of examples where communities fail because they try to serve too many different kinds of users, and lose sight of what they are for at their core.  Tight focus is a good thing.  A smaller community can be a stronger community because it has a greater sense of purpose.  If members come to the same community expecting it to be different things they will be disappointed.  Those members can't really work together because they're not trying to accomplish the same thing. 

Giving time and energy.

And I'm back to personal thoughts tonight.  It takes a village, and sometimes it takes intersecting villages.  That's true for children and it's true for adults.  I think we get so caught up with our work and our nuclear families that we let other things slide sometimes.  We can't help it, there are only so many hours in the day after all.  My husband and I live hundreds of miles from my closest family, and thousands from his.  This week three people we are close to have suffered a range of tragedies and health issues, all independent of each other.  It's sad to watch, but good to be able to help.  That's a gift. 

Are you an evangelist, or a leader?

There's a big problem in technical communities, I think it's a symptom of most people not really understanding what a community manager does.  The trendy hybrid is the community manager/developer evangelist.  There might be a couple of great ones, but I think something always suffers.  I think they are unicorns. 

The problem is that they are totally different skill sets.  The best evangelists are extroverts who love being on the road, in a room full of people.  They are hugely popular within the community and drive a lot of traffic and discussion.  The best community managers are introverts.  For all the connections we make in the world, we do the vast majority of it in writing.  if we travel too much we get great face time with a few hundred people, but the thousands online suffer for our absence. 

Evangelists also need to be really passionate and opinionated.  Community managers have to be passionate about the whole of the ecosystem, but can't be opinionated about the details.  If we take a side in a debate, the community can fracture.  Sometimes budgets mean you have to choose one or the other, but hiring managers need to understand the compromise they are really making with a decision like this. 

An exercise in business model generation.

The last altMBA project involved working with a group to come up with 99 business plans in the space of about 36 hours.  They didn't have to be great, and they didn't have to be fleshed out beyond more than a few sentences to sketch the idea, the value proposition, and specific customer segments if that wasn't already obvious in the idea itself.  Due to illness and poor planning my team dwindled down to just one other person and me.  We did our thing, he came up with an idea to use the other people in our class to inspire his ideas, and I went and wrote a few related families of things that I came up with as real-world solutions that would help people I know with issues they have or services they would like to see.  We decided to add a bit of a framing device to our final presentation because our approach was so different, so we presented it as if it was a script for a shark-tank like tv series, with all the people and "their" ideas, and then "commercial breaks" which were my more self contained themes - around athletic gear, hobbies, and quilting, primarily. 

Every other team did a spreadsheet or a plain list.  Ours was a big hit with people.  Here's a few things I learned from this.

  1. Sometimes I need to just let go of my inner control freak.  I thought my partner's idea was insane and destined to fail, and if I hadn't made the conscious decision to put a smile on my face and "yes, and" him, we either wouldn't have gotten along as well as we did during the process, and we probably would have ended up with the same old spreadsheet.
  2. In general there was nothing particularly unique about our ideas.  Some of them were straight duplicates of other groups, which isn't surprising.   Simple service oriented business ideas aren't hard to come by.
  3. There did seem to be a big difference in style between some groups.  I hadn't really thought about it, but ours were all people oriented - he was focusing on the bios that our peers had written about themselves for inspiration, I was focusing on real people I know and the things they'd like for inspiration.  There were a lot of ideas like ours, but there were a lot of teams that focused on "sharing economy" type ideas.  And a lot of those felt a little gross to me.  I have mixed feelings about things like Uber and AirBnB, but there are some that seem pretty evil in the aggregate - like TaskRabbit.  It's a great idea to have this marketplace for people to offer services, but they're all chasing the bottom and undercutting competitors on price.  I don't find business ideas like that to be appealing.
  4. I think that even though we really didn't have a plot, the fact that we used a familiar story structure, that of a reality TV show, it helped readers feel like it's a story and made it easier and more desirable to engage with the content.  There were several comments from people who said they actually read the whole thing, and a few more than once.  Story is king, and it's important to me to remember to find the story even in places where I don't think there is one. 

How is that a community?

One of the frustrating things about community management as a career is how widely defined it is.  So many different activities get shoved into our workloads.  I came across what I think is the biggest perversion of the title I've seen yet today - a book publisher who wants their community manager to be a person who finds people to give books to, in exchange for good reviews on Amazon.  There's a lot of money in it, and I guess maybe it's a mark of maturity for the career path if a company is jumping on the concept as a trend and trying to twist the (IMHO) moderately evil marketing plan they rely on to fit the community mold.  But I don't see the community there, it's a pipeline.  There's no forum for the book reviewers to talk to each other, to connect back to the publisher in any meaningful way.  I wonder how fast they churn through reviewers with that model? 

Drowning in meetings.

I've been really frustrated by a project at work.  It's frustrating because I am a project manager (I got the certificate and everything!), but in this case I'm the business owner.  I know what needs to be done.  The project manager assigned to us doesn't seem to have a clue.  I'm not even sure he's actually done this before.

It seems to be an artifact of out-of-control corporate meeting culture.  We get stuck in these cycles where we have the exact same meeting every single week, discussing how we're going to do something, but the PM never puts a stake in the ground and actually starts.  This time it got so bad that one of the stakeholders pulled in a very senior IT person to "consult".  And bless him, he's running the project.  Six months of treading water have given way to forward motion in the space of a week.  The sad thing is that I don't think the official PM has learned anything useful.  He's learned that if he throws his hands up in the air enough times somebody will rescue him.  I couldn't rescue him for political reasons, and I am happy with this outcome.  I suspect he's happy with this outcome too, but for all the wrong reasons. 

Just squeaking in under the wire.

Goals are due at midnight, which is in 15 minutes as I type this.  I published two in the public feed, and kept one back to discuss privately with my cohort. 

So, squeaking with those, squeaking with this.  Squeak squeak.

The goals project was good.  It crystalized quite a few things for me, and it's really great to have a supportive group of people to discuss them with, but who are also unafraid to call me on my bullshit. 

So it's all good stuff, I recommend everyone try it, and now I'm going to go collapse in a heap and do it all again in seven hours. 


Is it a list of goals, or a to-do list?

Our first three projects were assigned this morning.  The first one is to do a brainstorm list of goals, big or small, do some exercises around them to flesh them out, and then pick a few to work together on in a group discussion tomorrow night.  I won't share my whole list, but the process has been interesting.  I sat down in a couple of fifteen minute sessions and came up with a list of about 50 things that I'd like to accomplish.  A good chunk of them ended up being things that I think are more appropriate for a to-do list.  I'm not sure that they're really low-hanging fruit, they just seem smaller than maybe they ought to be, which I find kind of amusing, but they are definitely things that I very much want to get done.  So maybe I just need to spin my mindset around - I'm closer than I thought I was on a lot of things. 

books - The Cluetrain Manifesto

OK, so this is going to be a bit of a cheat.  The altMBA program officially starts on Monday, but they just sent out a whole bunch of stuff to get started with, and one of those things is blogging on wordpress, so expect to see some cross posting for the next few weeks.  The first assignment was to do a book report of sorts about an actionable, inspirational book we have read.  It's been a long time since I read Cluetrain, but it really changed the way I think about the tech world in general and my career in specific.  So here it is - Book Report - The Cluetrain Manifesto

books - Business Model Generation, Alexander Osterwalder & Yves Pigneur

Finally!  It's the long awaited book report.  I didn't know what to think when I cracked this one.   Business Model Generation?  It's not a topic that I've ever really considered, even though I did own and operate my own business for several years, about 20 years ago.  Back then I got a license to do what I wanted to do, bought the equipment and got an office, and figured out a way to publicize my business. 

Honestly, I'm pretty sure that a book like this would not have helped me succeed at the time, but there'sa lot of great stuff in here to consider as I consider the idea of starting something new. I learned a lot reading this, and will definitely go back to it as a reference in the future, for a lot of reasons. 

The authors start with the idea of a canvas, broken down into the basic building blocks for a business model, including things like customer segments, channels, key activities.  I don't think anything here was actually a surprise to me, but it certainly helped me articulate things and see the relationships between the pieces. 

Next they walk through patterns, the basic types of businesses that tend to exist - the three big historic ones are product innovation, customer relationship management, and infrastructure management.  Then they take on design, and then suggest a framework for critiquing ideas, looking for flaws, and then projecting future market conditions and how those conditions might impact your choices today. 

They wrap it up with process, a really detailed way to go into this, and how to approach it differently if you're trying to update your business model in an existing company vs. creating something brand new. 

All of that stuff made it an amazing read for me.  I feel like I have a solid blueprint for the right questions to ask, the right people to ask them of, and what to do with that information.  Additionally, this book is beautiful.  It is gorgeously designed and illustrated, they take visual cues very seriously.  Overall, very well done.  I will definitely recommend this to people thinking about becoming entrepreneurs. 

I left the house.

That is actually news, I've been so in the weeds with work lately I haven't had much time for anything else.  Tonight I went to the #octribe meetup of community managers in San Francisco. 

The topic for tonight was around the Salesforce Foundation and how they are supporting non profits, with a much smaller, tightly focused sister community to the larger Salesforce Customer Success Community. 

It was interesting stuff, and good to be in the land of my people.  One of the interesting things to come up in the Q&A was a description from each of the panel members of what makes a good community manager.  It's interesting to me that across industries - I'm from tech, these people were non-profit people, community manager is often a very entrepreneurial role.  I've always felt that way and it's interesting to me to see other people voice it. 

Another thing that made me laugh was a woman who is interviewing to hire a new community manager, and she has young candidates coming in and talking up how extroverted they are and how much they enjoy being connectors, and how that is exactly the wrong kind of person to manage a community.  I so utterly agree.  I am one of the most introverted people I know.  I can speak in public, I like people, I just need a lot of down/alone time in my life, and I think this career is perfect for that.  I talk to people all day, I just do it in email. 

I failed.

It's not a big failure, but it's indicative of a bad habit I'm trying to break.  I said that I would finish one of these books today and write a review.  I'm sure all three of you reading this were waiting with bated breath.  I think I actually will finish the book before I go to sleep tonight, there's only 30 pages left, but I won't get the writing part done until tomorrow or the next day. 

Look at me, hedging my bets.  I'm not sure that's a better behavior on my part.  In better news, I have managed to continue to write a post here every weekday since I started, and that's kind of huge, even though today's (and yesterday's if I'm honest) are almost entirely bullshit. 

I'm choosing to believe in the power of bullshit - in that if I keep the writing habit eventually there will be some gems.  Right?  Y'all let me know when I get there. 

Some light reading for the weekend.

I'm ramping up my prep work for the altMBA, which starts a week from today.  They sent me a box of eight books.  I finished one (Show Your Work, Austin Kleon) but really bogged down in the second - Eric Hoffer's The True Believer.  I'll do a review-ish post when I actually finish it, but it's such a slog.  I'm not sure why I'm having so much trouble with it.  The ideas are interesting but it's so dense that I can't really get through more than about ten pages at a go and still retain anything.  So now I'm reading ten pages at a time and alternating with some of the other books.  I expect to finish up one about generating business models later today and will review it tomorrow or Wednesday.