Community Managers and Job Security

hingo's picture

In July I attended the Community Leadership Summit in Portland. This was the 3rd CLS overall and my second. The first one was organized in San Jose 2 years ago. I noticed there has been a small evolution between those two years (which might partly be due to geography too). The first one in San Jose I think was very successful and drew many de-facto leaders in the open source community, including Bruce Perens himself (author of the Open Source Definition). In Portland there was perhaps less of those, but instead you could see how the audience increasingly consisted of people who actually work as full time Community Managers for various businesses, or in some cases for a non-profit organization. During these two years the role of a Community Manager has become an accepted and established profession - also outside the world of open source. (Plug: the book Art of Community, also by Jono Bacon, may have contributed a lot to this.)

Integrity vs job security

A theme that was perhaps more an undercurrent I noticed via personal conversations rather than anything mentioned in the actual sessions was the tensions that may arise and are perhaps unique to this profession.

Take, for an example, this community manager I had lunch with and who I exchanged business cards with and who then confided in me he didn't expect to actually hold that job (and associated email address) much longer, due to conflicts between him and the rest of his employer's business managers. The business managers wanted to execute something that was known to be disliked by the community. So they had told the community manager they expected him to blog something to soften the hit, and "take a bullet" for them, since that was his job as a community manager. Right?

The community manager had then responded that they had understood his job wrong, and that the opposite was true. He was sitting in this meeting representing the community, and he was prepared to take a bullet for the community, if needed. Sure enough, I hear he was later asked to resign - which is a euphemism for getting fired. (But he has already accepted an offer from another company to continue as a community manager in the same community, so everything is good with him.)

Since I know this is not the only community manager in the world who has experienced such a conflict, I believe that as the profession of community managers continues to become more established, this is a topic that deserves some thinking and debate.

The problem on a high level

Every situation of course has its particular details, but I think a fundamental root cause to such conflicts is probably in differing expectations - different world views even - when it comes to the relationship of the company/employer and the community. Is the community an extension to the company, or is the company a part of the community?

In one world view the community is bigger than any particular company, and the company has a role in being one part of the larger community. This is for instance the case with the Linux community, where a multitude of companies participate in both the development, promotion and selling of Linux, and no one company has more than roughly 10% share of the total activity in the community. The commercial businesses serve an important role in these communities: they employ developers that produce the open source code the community is formed around, and on the other hand they have a distributor role in bringing the code to users - who may become their customers - in the form of a polished product.

The opposite world view is that the community is centered around the company and perhaps subject to the company or at least dependent on whatever strategy the company may choose to pursue. A short expression capturing this view is when you say that the company "has a community". (...rather than being part of one.) In this world view the managers of the company see themselves as the rightful owners of a particular product and the role of the community is mostly that of consuming the product (preferably by paying for it) and generate goodwill and publicity around the product. These communities also exist. Perhaps most famously the cultish community of Apple users, but also some products that are open source by license are, in fact, these kind of communities.

It is my experience that conflicts arise whenever there is a dispute over which type of community we are acting in, or alternatively, what is the desired state we should be developing the community towards. For instance in the example I told about above, the history of the community was that it had been started by this particular company, but had now grown to a diverse community with multiple participants, many of them larger than the original founder. The community manager was - in his mind rightfully - supporting this evolution and growth by supporting those other community members in their efforts to get more power and influence, essentially equal status, in participating in the project. His boss and the boss's colleagues on the other hand tried to keep the control and power they still had, and felt that the community manager was not being loyal to his employer and could not be trusted in those efforts.

What should a community manager do?

I know a few professional community managers, it seems most of them have had to deal with the above kind of conflicts. Each of them have dealt with it differently. I'll list here a few different examples. These are inspired by real persons I know, but may or may not actually reflect a particular community manager out there, they are more like examples or archetypes.

Some have chosen to be loyal to their employer and always did their best to smooth over any conflicts and outrage in the community that may have been due to either stupidity or outright abusive acts of their employer - at least as perceived by the community. This kind of community manager can perhaps be seen as a modernized extension of a PR or Marketing department - but it still falls within the definition of community manager, for sure.

Another community manager took the approach of secretly reaching out to other companies in his community (who were also competitors to his employer) that had been suffering of some unfair abuse from his employer. He discussed with them in private about what was going on and tried to come up with schemes to neutralize the wrongdoing executives at his company were guilty of. Yet, in public communication he remained 100% loyal towards his employer, and even after having moved on to other jobs he never admitted there even had been any wrongdoing at all.

And there are those community managers who see themselves as representatives of the community rather than their employer. In internal company meetings they will challenge any strategy or any action that doesn't fit into their world view where the company is part of the community and not the other way round. They will go against their employer in public if necessary. And sadly, they will inevitably end up getting fired if they have to do too much of that.

So which of these community managers are being right or wrong? Is the second one being loyal to his employer or the community, or anyone? I don't know. Perhaps he is reading the situation as such that it is best for the community if he takes such action that will not get him fired but still minimizes the damage done by his employer - acting a bit as an undercover agent perhaps. For the first community manager we can say that it is of course on some level not wrong to take the approach of being loyal to your employer no matter what. "It is what you are paid to do", and other similar arguments spring to mind.

It is perhaps not a surprise to anyone that I sympathize with the last community manager who sees himself primary as a representative of the community. While I have never had the title of a community manager, I think I share some aspects of that role in that I too blog quite frequently about my work and projects I'm involved in, and engage both with my colleagues and members of a larger community. (I'd even like to think I show some small amount of leadership sometimes in the communities I'm active in.) In fact, I too have once resigned a job where a major factor to that decision was that I felt the discrepancy in my employer's actions versus promises were becoming a liability also to my personal integrity. So I concluded that it is more important for me to protect my integrity and reputation within the community I was active in. In particular I believe my engagement with the community will in any case outlast any particular employer, so it was an easy choice to be more concerned about that side of the equation and rather get a new job.

At the same time it must be emphasized that I think all three community managers I describe above are good and professional community managers. All of them continue to be much respected in their communities, in which they are still active. They are known to speak about community and speak up for community interests. Perhaps these three examples had different views on the question whether their company is part of a community or has a community, and their loyalty was aligned with their view on this question. Even then, it is not really an either-or situation. The first example was loyal to his employer but he was also a good spokesperson for community interests. Similarly the third community manager was being loyal to his employer since he was doing all he could to prevent his employer from adopting a strategy that would limit the projects potential at best, and could severely backfire at worst. The problem was just that his manager(s) didn't understand that...

Interviewing your future employer

Within all these different community managers, it seems at least for some of them there is a risk that doing their job well carries a risk of losing said job, in cases where the employer does not understand or share their understanding of what it means to be a community manager. For the important profession of community manager, this doesn't sound too good.

My first advice here is inspired by Karate Kid: the best way to avoid conflict is to not be there. Now that we know there is a risk for serious conflicts, and we have analyzed why they happen, it makes sense to use this knowledge to protect yourself. When you apply and interview for a position as a community manager, you should be extra careful in screening your future employer. It's not just them interviewing you, you should use this opportunity to also find out information about your employer, even test them to some extent.

First of all you should find out what they even expect a community manager will do for them. If you're interviewing with a software company that has anything to do with open source, chances are that by now they will be hiring a community manager as a matter of routine, just like they hire developers and accountants and sales managers. This doesn't mean they have any clue of what a community manager actually does. Imagine the disappointment you are in for if you joined this new startup with a dream of building a vibrant open source developer community around their cool product, and a few months later you realize that all they wanted was a guy who writes blogs and travels to conferences. (...a role more correctly known as an "Evangelist".) When you have these open source community developers who suddenly want to contribute code to the project, they might be completely dumbfounded about what to do with it. (Yes, it sounds unbelievable, but it happens.)

The second piece of advice is the same as one commonly hears about marriage: Don't expect the other party to change. They might, but probably won't. The worst marriages happen when a girl ends up with a boy that isn't exactly perfect, but she thinks she will be able to teach him to become her dream husband. She will find out that no amount of nagging will change the fact he forgets dirty socks in the living room. And she might find out he didn't like listen to nagging either. If a company doesn't share your understanding of what a community manager does to build a community, don't expect that you will be able to explain to it afterwards either. This is your manager we are talking about, he expects you to do what he says, not the other way around. (Only in rare cases if you happen to have a good manager, then he will listen and adopt your ideas).

Also, you shouldn't expect that your future manager(s) will know to do "the right thing" just because "it's obvious" what should be done. For instance, by now there is plenty of evidence that fostering a diverse open source community of equal participants is beneficial - also from a business point of view - compared to the alternative of asserting firm control (IPR and otherwise) with the downside of having a small to nonexistant community. (See for instance Matthew Aslett, Stephen O'Grady, or myself.) So you might think that once you just point to this statistical evidence, your future manager will understand and support your strategy. In my experience this almost never happens. Perhaps this is because seasoned business managers do not expect these open source geeks to "understand business" to begin with, so they don't really listen to you as you explain. Perhaps they are not capable of understanding such complex dynamics. Probably an important factor is that the suggestion to let go of control and IPR ownership is so counter-intuitive that no amount of statistics will help change their beliefs, much like many businesses failed to understand ten years ago how open sourcing their software could possibly make any business sense. I'm not quite sure where the problem is, but it's real. In any case, be aware that whatever you think is "obvious" to you when it comes to how communities work, will probably not be obvious to anyone else at your future employer, and they may never understand it.

Job security?

In the end there will be community managers that take on jobs where they end up having to choose between what they believe is right, or at least their reputation in their community on the one hand, and keeping that job on the other. What should be done about this problem?

Of course, many open source community managers are visible rock stars in their respective communities, and may just conclude that they can easily get a new job when they need it. At the same conference in Portland I met a friend who recently had left a community manager position (I didn't ask why) and during that week he already got 4 job offers.

In some sense this situation is similar to how CEO's and other top executives have no job security. The board might fire a CEO because they've decided to change the strategy, because they just want the stock market to look different, or because some private scandal unrelated to company business has made the CEO lose face even when his actual work was looking good. The CEO just has to go, whether he deserves it or not. To compensate for this, executives have so called parachutes, or golden handshakes in their contracts. When they are fired, they get good compensation.

Based on what we've just learned about the community manager profession, we could argue a community manager deserves a similar parachute. If you have to resign your job due to a conflict between the community and the employer, you're entitled to 6 months salary! I bet many community managers would like that, but how are we going to convince the companies this is a good idea? And when executives get those golden handshakes, there are strings attached. In particular the contract usually says the outgoing executive cannot make any public statements about anything. How would that work for a community manager that wants to stay active in his community?

Or perhaps there should be some kind of international community managers' union that would have an unemployment fund to cover such cases? Working community managers, or their employers, would chip in a small fee, just like we do for normal unemployment funds.

I don't know what the solution is, but I just thought it's worth talking about.

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Anonymous friend's picture

This occurred to me

Great read. I think this does happen a bit - the conflict between open source communities and business. In fact, I think its natural and necessary to a degree - key phrase is "to a degree". I am not saying its nice to deal with - but it provides a sort of checks and balances. The split happened to me, and we convinced the company in the end to give a lot more to the community and to release a bunch of code. They still do not provide the community a even sit at the table though. I guess I went the route of doing what the employer said outwardly, but in private convos, or public chats (not read by many others), making concessions and dealing with the community at a grass roots level. This gave me superb power and respect with the community folks, and my employer rarely if never found out. The job changed to need much more development, and coding work, which I was not proficient enough to get done - so they have had to let me go unfortunately. This was not related to the community-business balance. I think I kinda liked playing that game - it made the job exciting.

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