Culture

Why Community Manager Is a Dead-End Job — and What to Do About It

24 Aug 2018 11:40am, by

Stefano Maffulli
Stefano Maffulli is Director of Community Marketing at Scality and has built his career around free software and open source. Under his watch as community manager, OpenStack became the fastest growing open source project. As Director of Cloud Marketing at DreamHost he successfully managed new product launch and increased the adoption of the cloud products. In his spare time, he teaches sailing in the San Francisco Bay.

Is there a career path for community managers or is it a job that can serve as a stepping stone to more traditional corporate roles? I’ve struggled with this question myself and here are my thoughts and as well as experiences from colleagues.

That day always comes, and sooner than you expect it. I realized that I wasn’t the youngest person in the conference room and a question popped into my head: Is this what I want to do, as a grown up? I was a gray hair or two over 30 years old, working as a community manager at a promising startup called Funambol and deep into an intense MBA evening program. Nothing in my organization classes ever mentioned “community management” as a function. None of my classmates understood exactly where my role fit in the corporate value chain. Before finishing that MBA course, even I had a hard time understanding what a value chain is, let alone explaining how I were to put myself.

As Funambol’s community manager, I reported to the vice president of marketing and my role was to keep the top of the marketing funnel full. My objective was to feed into the “Awareness” level or Discover/Evaluate phases of customer life cycle and open source was the main tool I used. Suffice to say that I had clear goals and knew every day where my efforts fit into the corporate goals.

Then I changed jobs. Same title, but I reported to engineering at a non-profit organization (OpenStack Foundation). This time, I mentally mapped my role closer to that of someone working in human resources: my objective was to keep engineers happy, effective and make sure that more would come into the community and stay active in it.

So, what’s a community manager anyway?

One of the obvious, yet critical truths of today’s job market is to always be thinking: What’s next? Looking up the ladder, it seemed clear that community manager was a non-starter. Outside non-profit, open-source organizations the title carries too many different meanings. And senior positions are scarce on the ground.

Take a look at these job descriptions — A quick search on LinkedIn reveals a huge range of roles and responsibilities:

  • MapR, a company with an open source product:
    • The digital marketing team at MapR is looking for a dynamic and proactive individual who can drive our open user Community […] You will leverage MapR Data Scientists, Engineers, and other Technologist to speak, teach, and evangelize different Big Data technologies across the world. This individual will report directly to the VP of Digital Engagement.
  • Apple:
    • We help customers get the most from their Apple products and services by providing access to support resources from an entire community of Apple product users and enthusiasts. As a member of the Advocacy Program Team, you will support the Apple Support Communities (discussions.apple.com) efforts to drive rich and significant interactions between Apple and its customer
  • Residential facility:
    • Working for Equity Residential means being part of a community — employees and residents — striving to provide the best in apartment living, speaking boldly about new ideas for innovation, and inspiring creativity in the ways we live and work together … you will direct sales activities, leasing administration, and maintenance initiatives at your property

Three positions with the same title, one reporting to a marketing role, one to support and one to business development. Talk about variety!

Communities have high impact, low funding, low clarity

On the positive side, a recent report by Community Roundtable, reveals that community programs have a huge positive impact across many functions, regardless of where the community program resides in the organization.

Source: Community Roundtable — State of Community Report 2018

The report states, “community programs that fall within the customer service department, for example, provide benefits not only for marketing (91 percent of the time) and knowledge management (59 percent of the time) but also for the learning and development function (35 percent of the time).”

Next, to the positive news, the Community Roundtable highlights the deep flaw of most community management programs: over 50 percent of communities lack the most basic business management mechanisms like an identified business problem statement. Over 70 percent of community programs lack measurable strategies, 80 percent lack diagrammed use cases, and only 23percent can measure community ROI. The one frightening number is that only 17 percent of communities sampled have resources assigned.

Source: Community Roundtable — State of Community Report 2018

That 17 percent is a sign that only few community managers and directors have a chance to demonstrate their skills in job interviews and on resumes.

Without measurable objectives, roadmap and resources it’s very hard to demonstrate your value to a recruiter or to argue for a raise and a promotion. Having a job as a “community manager” means that there you need to build your own ladder to go up in salary and responsibilities. That’s why I steered my job searches towards a clearer marketing function. Luckily, I managed to leap to DreamHost as Director of Marketing and then to my current role at Scality with a similar title.

Career paths — especially in tech — are never linear but there’s a predictable trajectory in most roles. For example, in large organizations like GE, the career of legendary CEO Jack Welch from Junior Chemical Engineer to VP of plastics division in just eight years. From there, he zipped around many other parts of the giant conglomerate until the board voted him as CEO after 20 years at the company.

Is There Really No Way Up But Out of Community Management?

For myself, I decided to opt-out of “community management” to grow professionally and jump into marketing but that’s not the only option. From a conversation with folks at the recent Community Leadership Summit I learned that at least three companies are working to build community tracks in their HR systems. The good news: a couple of large corporations have modified their corporate HR systems to allow for community managers to have a clear career path inside the organization. One visible example is Google with community careers in Program Management and Developer Outreach functions. Red Hat also has done work in this area and hopefully, it will publish its experience more widely.

The conversation at the Summit concluded on a very positive note: everybody agreed that the cross-functional aspects of community management are a huge plus. Smart people who obtain or design for themselves measurable objectives have a very good chance at increasing their salary and responsibilities. They have better chances than most people in “classic” roles at getting known by others for their good work and that’s a great multiplier of chances to be promoted. My suggestion for a successful career progress to community managers are:

  • Get educated in classic business disciplines, like marketing, finance, project management, organization, production: learning the language spoken by people in different roles will help you empathize with them and be more effective at your job.
  • Always have in mind what value you bring to the company: ask yourself and your managers what that value is and be always ready to lead with that when people ask what you do
  • Stop saying that you’re a cat-wrangler (or other cute descriptions): as a segway to the previous one, avoid joking about what your job is. Colleagues already don’t know exactly what you do, don’t give them more elements to discount your professionality.

Let’s keep the conversation going: If Jack Welch started his career as a community manager, with no business problem statement and no way to measure ROI, would he have ever been promoted to VP of his unit so quickly? Tweet to me or comment below.

Feature image via Pixabay.


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