Community, meet DevOpsLast night I gave a presentation to the DevOpsMelb meet up about the overlap between community management and ops.

I have many friends who work in ops or as developers, and as a community thinker, I’ve been interested by the DevOps movement for some time.

You can read more about it here, from the godfather of the movement, Patrick DeBois.

Here’s my take.

Two often warring tribes of the IT landscape, both with challenging jobs to pull off in a rapidly iterating world, are working to collaborate more constructively and understand each other a little better, to make their own daily grind less obstacle riddled, and cultivate a leaner, more united playground.

It’s an amazing piece of community building, happening on an international scale (and inspiring music videos).

It involves challenging assumptions and confronting comfort zones, so it’s an uphill battle that has its critics. I see value –  understanding where you live in your IT ecosystem and a real empathy for your peers should lead you to better ways of working (and playing).

Over the years I’ve come to have serious respect for the guys and gals that make our sure our communities are up and running.

Managing communities means developers and sysadmins are among the folks I talk to the most on a regular basis. We’ll discuss risks and issues that will emerge within the community from the latest release of tools or features; we’ll comb through log files looking for problem IPs or users. I’ll work with them to develop new reports that tell me about critical community behaviours. And we’ll bond while having a whinge that no one seems to really understand the users of our website except us.

The truth, while it is undoubtedly strategic, community management is fundamentally operational. In some respects, ops is a more natural paradigm for our work than marketing, which is designed to engineer the ideal rather than wrangle the reality.

Community management is fundamentally operational.

And lets not forget that most of the earliest online community managers were system administrators – SysOps are our forefathers.

So here’s 8 reasons we should be friends.

Reason 1: Nobody understands what we do

Ops and community management folks struggle to articulate precisely what we do. It’s not that we can’t describe it. It’s that when we start, eyes generally respond by glazing over.

Most people, if they think of it at all, consider ops some sort of auto-magical mojo that either runs itself, or, involves a Sheldon Cooper-type typing furiously while simultaneously kicking ass in an online game and bidding for geek memorabilia on eBay.

Many, when they think of community management, think of perky cheerleaders who sit around posting banalities and pretty pictures to various superficial social networks encouraging people to buy more of brand x, and Be Happy!

The truth is less entertaining, but way more interesting.

Reason 2: We both use metrics to tell important stories

We like numbers

If there’s one thing ops folk are known for, it’s their talent for measuring. Everything. They understand that numbers reveal secrets and a bigger picture that might otherwise be missed.

Despite our qualitative qualities, (good) community managers are also data nerds. We recognise the importance of fuzzy data, but we’re constantly striving to measure and report on numbers that tell the most relevant stories about our communities.

We understand that number of users is fundamentally meaningless, if there’s not a high ratio of replies to posts and viable sharing activity within and beyond the social system. We know that a lot of activity isn’t good in and of itself. It may point to aggressively vocal members, gaming of the system and a need for mitigation tactics.

We look at reported content volumes and how they inform the health of a community. And we understand how important lurkers are.

Reason 3: We invest a lot of time running triage for others

Though we have our own priorities and strategic objectives, ops and community managers are technical and behavioural ‘fixers’.

We get stuff back online, diagnose problems and turn bad situtation around really well. So we’re the go-to guys and gals for this work. While we’re happy to help out, this can create the expectation that we’re the resident clean up crew for (avoidable) mistakes.

Here’s some examples from the community management world:

“The users hate the features we released. I know they didn’t ask for them, but make them love them!”

“We didn’t really consider what to do with this product after the first month. We’re working on other stuff now, can you make a plan for us?”

“We’ve installed a giant fly out advertisement over the top of sign in. Can you make sure that’s not an issue?”

Reason 4: We both have a day in our honour

Happy us day!

Founded in 2000, SysAdmin day is the third Friday in July.

It asks  us to stop, eat cake and reward the hard work of the person who ‘plans, worries, hacks, fixes, pushes, advocates, protects and creates’, so we can go about our business.

Community Manager Appreciation Day is the third Monday in January, and was founded in 2010.

It acknowledges another major behind the scenes operator – your troll hunter, spam swatter, confessor, councillor and change masseuse. More cake!

The thing about people that have days in their honour… there’s a reason.

When did you last celebrate  ‘Middle Aged White Man’ day?

Creating an occasion is necessary because those people are misunderstood or overlooked. It gives us permission to look closer and give thanks. It’s an opportunity to learn (and eat cake).

Websites and communities will always need a human touch guiding, repairing and tending. And that touch is largely invisible.

Reason 5: We both wrangle puppets

The puppet showFor ops, it’s Puppet Labs, software used to help them manage their daily chaos. For us, it’s puppets of the sock variety.

We play with them regularly, particularly if our communities involve reviews, recommendations or endorsements (and most do these days).

I’m told Puppet improves the lives of SysAdmins. Our sock puppets don’t make life easier, but they keep it colourful.

Reason 6: We’re always on call (even when we’re not)

Mr Buzzy

The ops life usually involves being on call. While most of us have long ditched the pager, my poor ops pals still carry these little (soul) suckers.

When stuff goes wrong, they get the call. It’s the gig, but they also do it because they care about the integrity of the systems and structures they serve.

Community management is notoriously ‘always on’.

There’s often just one of us in a business, and our communities are usually global. They don’t sleep; nor does the work. Of course we manage our time responsibility to stay sane, however, if there are major crises or disruptions, we’ll be up dealing with them, no matter the hour.

We have a strong duty of care too, and don’t want to let our members or users languish.

If we’re good at our jobs, and instill a sense of belonging or ownership in our communities, those needs are felt even more acutely.

Reason 7: We’re systems thinkers and aficionados

We heart systems too!

Ops think and deal in technical systems. Community managers deal in organic systems, approaching our communities as ecosystems and organisms, with inter-dependencies.

We map social arrangements, patterns and norms. We learn how people are connected and interconnected, understanding how ripples of influence manifest in specific outcomes, or how an action that seems isolated will inevitably lead to a shift in the system as a whole.

Our systems are living. They can wither, be invaded by parasites, or spawn new shoots. Just like our ops friends, our business is the way things interact and fit within a broader container. Ours is just more fleshy.

Reason 8: We’re both on a journey to unite our houses

Be cool, but careJust as ops is working to break down barriers with their developer colleagues, community managers are also working to unite with the developers and product managers who create features for their members.

We can help them get it right more often, and we can lean from their methods.

Working as a community of stakeholders, we’ve all got better odds.

Thanks to Thoughtworks for letting me hold court and living up to the trans-disciplinary spirit of the DevOps movement. And for letting me take the crown of first female presenter!

As Patrick says, we’re all in it together.


4 thoughts on “8 reasons Ops & Community Management should be strategic allies

  1. Hi Venessa

    I love this post! Thanks for articulating so well the role of community management. I’m going to share his with both my DevOps AND management teams.

    Best to you,
    Tony Hollingsworth

  2. Hi Venessa

    Such a beautifully informative and resourceful post. You never are short of a golden nugget or two to help community management peeps (of all levels) navigate their way forward. Thank you – you’re a Star!

    Stephen aka @Huxley

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