In this episode we speak to Rosie Sherry, Community Lead at Orbit, a community management software company. We discuss why community is not marketing, how devrel and community are different, who owns community and what that might mean with web3 & decentralization, and what essential tools you need for managing communities.
About Rosie Sherry
Rosie Sherry is Community Lead at Orbit, a community management software company. Prior to Orbit, Rosie founded the world’s largest testing community - Ministry of Testing - and led community at Indie Hackers.
David: Welcome to the Console podcast. I'm David Mytton, co-founder of Console.dev, a free weekly newsletter highlighting the best and most interesting tools for developers.
In this episode, I speak with Rosie Sherry, Community Lead at Orbit, a community management software company. We discuss why Community is not marketing, how DevRel and Community are different, who owns Community and what that might mean with Web 3.0 & decentralization, and what essential tools you need for managing communities. We're keeping this to 30 minutes. So let's get started.
I'm here with Rosie Sherry. Rosie, thanks for joining the Console podcast.
Rosie: Thanks David, for having me.
David: Let's start with a brief background. Tell us a little bit about what you are currently doing and how you got here.
Rosie: Currently, I work for Orbit, which is community software, community analytics. So it's kind of behind the scenes of community, rather than trying to host a community itself. I'm there as a Community Lead, I kind of head up more the education angle and currently focusing on the Orbit model as well, which is a framework for building communities. I've been there about six months now, prior to that, I led the community at Indie Hackers. I did that for a couple of years. I kind of got into that partly because I'd done community before, but also because I was an Indie Hacker, myself. Nice gig, nice opportunity to work with Portland. For me, trying to understand how they run community was interesting.
It's been like 20 years now, which is crazy to think about, but I started as a tester. So I did that for a few years as I was doing that, I kind of discovered the social web and I kind of got excited about all of that stuff happening, kind of like when Twitter came about and all of that. And that's kind of when I discovered communities, I guess I was looking for excuses to start a community. So I started a community for software testers, because I was one myself and I didn't think there was much out there. That was ministry of testing. So, I spent 10 years working on that, building it up as, initially just like a side project, I didn't really think too much of it, but I managed to turn it into, the leading testing community out there. Bootstrapped or Indy Hacked, as you would say now, into a seven-figure company pre-COVID, more like a six-figure one now, but still going strong. Hasn't laid anyone off which we're quite proud of all of. Spent 10 years doing that. So, that was interesting.
David: Or should we start with defining what community means then? What does that mean to you?
Rosie: It's a big question. What does it mean to you? I'll ask you first.
David: So suppose in the context of software development, specifically.
David: The community, that's the word we'd throw out, right? Get the community to participate. Which code, I suppose, means people committing code often that's assumed to be on GitHub, but certainly not exclusively. People making contributions to Open Source and discussing code. How would you start to add the components together to build a community?
Rosie: Yeah, I mean there's a lot of hype around community now. I think since the pandemic, there's definitely been a lot of interest, a lot of new vendors coming about on new tools. Definitely, before the pandemic, there wasn't this kind of level of interest. I've been preaching it all these years and no one would listen to me and now finally, finally people are listening. I'm not big on specific definitions, but I think generally it's like people having something in common and then in addition to that, striving towards something in common as well. Similar goals, similar vision, I think those are the two core things that kind of bring a community together.
David: So, those two core features and then it's context specific software or whatever it might be?
Rosie: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it can be so random sometimes you know, at Orbit, we described the three P's of communities: Community of Product, which are probably a lot of developer-type communities; Community of Practice, which is like what Ministry of Testing was, they didn't build a specific software tool, it was more about improving the industry and then Community of Play is more like, I guess, your sports clubs or more like things that aren't so serious, but are still important, right, that we have as human beings. But yeah, I think Community of Product is mostly, I think where devs are at, but I think it probably overlaps a lot with Community of Practice.
David: Right. Because you could have open source projects as a product, but you could also have the communities of languages, which I suppose could be both. Right?
Rosie: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. And, like Orbit has, a bit of both so they're product, but I head up the community of practice side of things. We feel we need to educate people in community. So there's always going to be a bit of both. Most communities tend to have a mixture of at least two. It's not always true, but you know yeah.
David: But you've said that community is not marketing. Can you explain that a little bit?
Rosie: I have this gripe, this is only since the pandemic, because the pandemic has brought on this huge interest in community. What's happened, as a result is business people, marketing people are saying, "oh, community's a new thing. We have to invest in community." They end up saying community is a new marketing. It's like, no. No it's not. Stay away from community, please. Community is special within its own rights. It has its own goals. The goal of community is not to sell a product. If my boss came around to me today and said, "go do the sales pitch" or something, I'd be like "no, that's not right that you do that." And he's never asked me that, and he never will, but just an example is we don't do sales. We're not there for sales, as community, we're there to help people, help them through their community journey, help them thrive, in whichever way we can, in using whatever resources we have access to, whereas marketing has a different goal.
Their goal is to promote products, to sell stuff, to get out there into the market. And that's great you know, it's like: marketing, go do your thing, right, but please don't take over the community and try to sell to them and bring those kind of practices into community because that, often it kills a community, to be honest, if people come in doing that, people don't come to a community to be sold to.
David: Where do you see developer relations sitting in between those and how does that relate to community?
Rosie: Yeah. Developer relations is interesting. I think, working at Orbit is probably my first experience of being more exposed to that, or even trying to understand properly what developer relations is. There's definitely overlap, right? There's the idea of DevRel is to support people, to help people, that's what community does. They probably have more of a marketing edge to them, they have these goals of getting out there and spreading the word. They probably sit on top of community quite well. It's like they participate more in community or they make use of the community, whereas community is more like setting up the foundations of what the community is. You setting up processes, the tech that you use. It would vary between teams that you're on but I guess, in Orbit, DevRel doesn't really get so involved in that at the moment, but maybe in time they would, or maybe if we had more resources, they would, but all the kind of setting up of the processes and the trying to pull people in is more on the shoulders of the community team.
I guess for my limited experience, I guess is there's definitely like collaborations between dev and community, a lot of overlap. And to be honest, I think it should be that way with all teams, not just DevRel, but I think community should have this overlap with marketing, with DevRel, with growth.
I kind of like the idea of community reporting to the CEO, the core business team, I guess, rather than like in a lot of circumstances, community still like reports to marketing, which feels a bit off to me. But yeah, DevRel I think is, you know, an interesting role to have when the tech world is so... It's not always been welcoming. It's not always been easy to get in into tech and having people that are focused on more education stuff, more helping people in, in whatever way they're, they're able to, it kind of makes tech one more welcoming. I think that's a good thing.
Moving away, I guess from a traditional tech team, I guess 10 or 20 years, would look like, typically, 90% male or something like that. And I would hope the efforts of DevRel is being able to pull in a variety of people, in a variety of experiences and world views.
David: Is that because the processes have become more understood and more developed over time?
Rosie: I think so, from what I felt like over the years, I feel like there's generally been a movement to being more open, to being more collaborative, to understanding diversity more and appreciating diversity and just the way the world, especially, in the past five years, has gone, you can't get away with not investing into education and you have to care about diversity and you have to put in the effort. I think that's a big part of it. And companies who aren't doing that, I think are, I wouldn't say not going to survive, but they're kind of like behind, behind the times.
David: Yeah, that makes sense. So, for an engineer who starts a new project, maybe a side project or potentially a startup, where would you start in terms of building a community around that?
Rosie: Part of my role is to think about how to teach community. The community world has suffered from a lack of investment and lack of attention. As an example that I like to put out is, before the pandemic you'd have job roles that were available for community people, were basically either Community Manager or Head of Community. Those were the job titles people used. They didn't bother thinking of anything else. And if you compare that to, let's say designers, designers 15 years ago was, mostly, UI designer or you're a graphic designer that was, you know, minimal options, right? But then as design got more popular, people came up with all these different design roles. It's like, well, it's not just design. You're not just designing pixels. You're designing websites. So you're a Web Designer, you're a UX Designer, you're a UI Designer, you are, various types of Designers that you can be, that you can specialize in. You're a Design Architect and community hasn't had that.
But since the pandemic, people have started talking about that more and people have started putting out different job roles. So it's not just Community Manager now. It's like: Community Designer, Community Operations, Community Architects, there's all these different job roles that people are coming up with. And that's really important for the community industry to evolve. So, kind of going back to the question, had you started a project or a community, but a big part of my job is to think about this and to try to teach people this. So a lot of what I'm doing is actually, taking terms that already exist in the tech world, sticking "community" onto them, that have never existed before, but I feel like should have existed.
So when it comes to starting community, I've come up with the term Community Discovery that no one really used before, but I'm like, Nope, I'm doing it. And Community Discovery is a research phase. It's like, what you do before you start a community. Just like if you start a software project, you wouldn't just, go and start a project. You would do your research first. When someone wants to start a community, I will say, do your community discovery first. And really what that involves is researching your market, understanding what's out there, who you're trying to serve, understanding the goals that you want to achieve or the vision that you might have once you get a good understanding of that, a good feel and you spend time hanging out in places online or, you know, talking to people, trying to get to know people.
Then you can decide whether you need a community. I think a lot of people jump straight into community. They get all excited and they start something up and then they just don't know what to do next. If you do Community Discovery and you get to know people and you have conversations with people that kind of leads you on to the kind of things that you should be doing to help people. So yeah, in theory, if you want to start a community, spend time hanging out with people. For me, it's like following people on Twitter, following people on their blogs, what they write or YouTube videos, I guess as well. Starting to develop trust with people. Because once you have some kind of trust, it makes that first step easier. When you do go to launch something, when you start a community, you don't want to be begging people to join. You want people to naturally gravitate to what you're doing. And if you don't have trust with people, it's almost impossible to do that.
David: Within the context of a code project then, would that be kind of the organic activity around the occasional contribution and users of the software and you see that growing organically and you start paying attention to what's happening around that project. And once you get to a certain point, you can decide to curate it into something more specific.
Rosie: It's doing all of those things, whether you're contributing to something or building something, you got to kind of get yourself out there, doing stuff, helping people, sharing what you're writing on, being helpful. And then, as you're doing that, it's having that mindset of paying attention to what people people need and want. If you're doing that as you're going along, if you're looking for the opportunities, then you can find them. But if you're not looking for them, you don't see them, right? Having that intention to spot where people are stumbling upon or where you can help them. It really makes a difference as you're trying to figure out what should your community be.
David: Who owns that community then? Because if you've got a software project, then you could say the owner is the original creator of the project, but rarely are project's just one person, one owner. How does that change? And who's the real owner of The community?
Rosie: I think businesses need to learn this right, who owns community? Especially when it comes to software and you know, open source stuff which, to be honest, I really don't feel like I'm an expert in. But I do feel like businesses can feel like they can come in, gather interests, get people rounded up, get them on their community platform, get them on their email list and say, look at our community. This is what we've built. This is ours. I wrote about this recently actually, you just can't own community, right? Community is the conversations that are happening and as soon as you disrespect those conversations, people just get up and leave and then you are left with nothing, right? So the sooner that people or businesses, especially, appreciate that, the sooner we can build better communities because if businesses appreciate that, then they'll start to respect the community members more, they'll start to actually value them and give back to them or pay them or support them whatever way they can.
And that to me is what good communities should be doing. But I think to date from what I've seen, we don't give enough back to community members. We don't value them enough. And the idea, for example, of paying people to contribute is still, I don't feel, it's common enough and not everyone wants to be paid and that's fine. But it's trying to find that balance of we're building something here. What can we give back? Is that, we're thriving because you're helping us build something, of course we should give something back. I think it's easier said than done. It's not just the business side, I think still, a lot of people don't appreciate community as much as they could as well. But I think if the rug was pulled away from underneath them, they might start to evaluate more perhaps? I don't know.
It's definitely a big topic and I'm not really into the Web 3.0 yet. I've been involved in some discussions and stuff, but I think people in Web 3.0 get very excited about the potential of community because they're coming up with more ideas around reward systems and ownership. I'm still skeptical about it. I think community ownership is actually a really hard thing to make happen. There are businesses that are owned by employees and run by employees that exist in the world. So it doesn't have to be Web 3.0 for a community to be owned but I think what Web 3.0 are doing, or at least trying to do, or they're talking about it, I would say, I'm yet to see proper examples in the world, but there's this desire to reward their members more. And that's a key driver, an understandable desire, because I think traditionally businesses just haven't given back enough. So Web 3.0 almost feels like a bit of a "rebel against what used to be."
David: So instead of companies just giving or just sending cash to people as one option, the idea with Web 3.0 is the decentralized ownership of the project and by doing some activity, you are being given something which at the moment might be some kind of coin, some crypto coin, but that's just the first iteration of the idea of Web 3.0. Is that how you're thinking about it?
Rosie: In theory, that's how it should work, but I think practice is very different. And I think, as a community founder or someone who leads communities, it's something to be careful about, but the good intentions are there, at least in most place, there's the right intentions. But I think the actual day-to-day, the practicalities of it will, I'm guessing, they won't pan out like how people really want them to. Utopia is like "oh, wouldn't it be great if we all owned a community or had some kind of ownership", but actually the reality of that and the reality of allowing people to vote on everything is actually, as a community founder, that fills me with dread. I thrive on making decisions and moving forward, the idea of having to get permission from members to move forward, kind of fills me with dread.
And also, I just have this belief that members don't always know what they want. You know, it's like the mom test. They think they know what they want, but they don't and they'll shout out some random stuff and say, "this would be great. I want this." But actually the reality of what they want is not the actual thing. I have a small story, like Ministry of Testing and I was trying to figure out how it could make money, my main idea was to do events, to do conferences, because I just didn't feel like there was enough, specifically in the UK, or enough affordable ones. They were very expensive corporate events that were happening. I asked a few people if they would attend and pay for conferences and they all said no. I was like, "oh, okay". But I did it anyways because I felt it was the right thing. And I felt like I was this person who had been leading that community already at that stage for four years, I understood the market.
And what I realized later, in hindsight, is that they didn't have that same insight as I did. I had that insight and I was the best person to make an educated guess. They weren't. And as it turned out, we ended up thriving on conferences and that's what made most of our money. But if I'd listened to the community, perhaps I wouldn't have done it.
David: It reminds me a little bit of open source and the challenge of funding sustainable open source development because most people are not paying for it. And now we're starting to see that change a little bit with the big companies, specifically funding security in open source, because we're all relying on these open source libraries that very few people are maintaining, which is potentially a problem for the infrastructure that we have. Do you see the parallels there with the open source challenge?
Rosie: Definitely. I would say so. You know, this is why partly, I'm excited that people are now appreciating community more, or at least, signs that companies are supporting it. People in general seem more open to the idea of supporting community. Also, how do you even define communities? People coming together to do stuff, to work on a project, traditionally might not have been seen as community, but now is. And even the company you work at, for example, is a community within itself to a certain extent. I would say, the more I have this huge desire or want to have more sustainable communities, independent and sustainable. And it's great if big companies inject a lot of money into specific projects, but I also think it needs to be more than that. It needs to be contributions from individuals to make it more sustainable. Or maybe not specifically individuals, but lots of smaller companies, for example, rather than one big payout just to avoid if there was one main sponsor for a community, if that sponsor pulled out, then it kind of really leaves the community exposed.
David: How would you go about measuring the health of a community?
Rosie: A healthy community is a sustainable one. You know, I guess as a member, if you come along, you kind of want to believe that is going to be around for a while, whether it's sustainable by free labor or money or employees, it depends on the community. Another aspect, I guess, is that the relationships or the conversations that are happening within the community. It's not necessarily about the number of conversations these days, I'm trying to tell people not to specifically focus on engagement for the sake of engagement. I think there's a trend to get as many conversations happening or there's this feeling of guilt if people aren't talking to each other every day.
And I think we should kind of reevaluate that in our communities, because I think you can have a healthy community without engaging every day, basically. It could be once a week, it could be once a month. But I think a healthy community is, I guess working towards their vision and their goal when they're making progress towards that. So it's not the number of conversations that are happening. It's are they making progress in a positive manner?
David: What do you think are the essential tools for managing a community? So the standard question from an engineer is Discord versus Slack, but there's probably a broader answer.
Rosie: Yeah. Tools are like the first engineers or anyone jumps to, to be honest it's like when they think of the community, it's that easy trap to fall into. I would say use the tools that your community members use or that you see a trend of people using previously, like Slack was the most common option, but I'm definitely seeing a trend towards Discord, even though people still complain about it. I think in reality, there's no reason why a Discord can't live along the side of a traditional forum as well. Like more longer based conversations, more searchable conversations. Discord's great for the audio features. It brings out a different aspect to the community. So mixing and matching, I think is a great thing. And, I guess like with Devs, I would edge towards Discord these days. The more I use Discord, the more that I'm struggling to use Slack and really thinking about non-community tools as well, that you wouldn't think are community tools. Like at Orbit, we use Luma a lot for events, for event registration.
People, traditionally, hooking to Zoom. We use Butter.us, more like a workshopy tool, kind of brings a bit more fun into the events we host. So, to me, those are community tools, right? It's anything that helps you connect with your members, even newsletter tools, email tools, I've started calling them community tools. They're a way to engage with your people and Marketing call them marketing tools. I'm putting it up my fight like, they're just like any tool to communicate with anyone. You know, it's just a tool. It's not just for marketing. Anyone in the team can use it, right? So if you go to Mailtrap website, they call themselves a email marketing platform. I'd love to see them change it. Maybe I'll start a campaign to change it. Not much of a chance of that happening.
But the point is that to build community, I would say, start small, start with a newsletter, start with a blog. And if you think about what community is, it's about having conversations, that's a foundation of community. So you can use these tools to have good conversations. You can use email to have conversations, right? You can ask people to respond to your email. You can encourage people to do that. You can invite them to events on your email. You can ask them to have a chat with you, send them a calendar link or similar, all those kinds of things, those actions build community. For me, only once you reach a certain amount of people and confidence in yourself, I guess, you could start thinking about maybe setting up a Discord or a forum or something else.
David: Before we wrap up then, I have two lightning questions for you. First is, what interesting tools are you playing around with at the moment? Could be anything.
Rosie: So I'm not a Dev, so I use Notion a lot. I love Notion for various reasons, almost like a community tool as well. So one thing we've been doing at Orbit is "100 days of Community Challenge." And then we've been automating those Tweets into a Notion and we've created a dashboard of Tweets and we've categorized them and we're creating the directory as well of people who have participated. I love Notion for that aspect. We also use it just internally for the documentation. Luma, I'm liking a lot for event registration. I mentioned earlier Butter.us, We've been using Butter.us for our events, it just makes it more fun. And we use Mural a lot. These are collaboration tools essentially, but we're using it to build community. And I think that's kind of to the magic of it.
David: And the second question is, what is your current tech setup? What hardware and software do you use?
Rosie: Oh, I've just got a MacBook Pro and Beats By Dre headphones and AirPods. I don't use a lot to be honest.
David: Excellent. Well, thanks for joining the Console podcast. It was great to chat. Where can people find you online?
Rosie: Yeah, mostly I'm on Twitter @RosieSherry. I also write about community @rosie.land and I hangout @Orbit.love a lot.
David: Excellent. Thanks a lot.
Rosie: No problem. Thanks for having me.
David: Thanks for listening to the Console Dev tools podcast. Please let us know what you think on Twitter. I'am @davidmytton and you can follow @consoledotdev. Don't forget to subscribe and rate us in your podcast player. And if you are playing around with or building any interesting dev tools, please get in touch our email is in the show notes. See you next time.
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