A number of members here manage product or support communities. These come with challenges that are quite different to those of CoPs so I put a few questions to Nethserver's CM @ale_fattorini HAWK: Can you give a brief overview of your community? Who are your audience and what is the purpose of the community?
Alessio: I built my community from scratch 2 years ago and it’s mostly an open-source product based community. We develop NethServer together, and talk about new ideas and features. We test new things, help new people and try to create a safe environment for everybody.
Just to clarify, NethServer is a Linux server distribution that makes sysadmin's life easier with Open Source. It supports the community of sysadmins, be they home or business, with a powerful package of software to serve everyone, that will be free, open, dependable and sustainable for the long terms
The funny thing is that at the beginning we were convinced that our audience was made of Linux enthusiasts. We completely failed to realize who our audience was! Really.
Now we know that it is not just for Linux enthusiasts, actually Windows users are the majority. It’s not just for small offices and medium enterprises, actually several home users install it for personal use. Community helps us to fully understand our product and look at it from our users’ eyes.
H: What do you consider to be the biggest challenge when it comes to running a product or support community and how do you overcome that challenge?
A: I tackle different challenges every day but if I have to mention just one I would say keeping people involved in the development process. It is very hard, because you have to listen constantly to your people
Truly listening is hard. You will be tempted to steer the discussion too much and not listen. You have to be open-minded and be ready to change your mind. You have to debate.
Be ready to discuss and ask your people to be ready to do the same.
Also, being open means that you have to be transparent and you would be tempted to keep your discussions private. Don’t do this. Otherwise, people can’t actually understand what is going on to get involved. Communicating is never enough.
H: Your community is an interesting one because although it's technically a 'support community' it feels a bit like a Community of Practice as well. How do you get past the 'only visit when I have a question' mentality that often plagues support communities?
A: Creating an environment of safety, trust and cooperation is key. I can say that we try to put the people first, not the product. My people tell me that they’re active because the feel welcome, they are active because the feel acknowledged and supported. I have to be honest, it’s not easy to create an environment like that. Especially in technical communities.
People patronize, don’t treat newcomers as people but just as numbers or “requesters”. I know, It’s hard to have to deal with newbies and people who don’t have knowledge. You have to frequently stretch yourself ! I found that culture is the key here. If you manage to build a strong culture, people follow and try to align to it.
Another things that I usually do it’s trying to turn people from takers to givers. From people that received support to people that give support. Generally I mention people into specific topics or I send them personal messages pointing out some discussions where they can have a voice. But again, people help only if they feel acknowledged and empowered by the community.
H: What idea or strategy have you implemented recently that you consider a success? What problem were you trying to solve and how did you succeed?
I devoted some time to refine my monthly newsletter trying to make it more valuable for my members. I send it for two different purpose: to keep people into the loop (also passive or not so active members) and to share all good stuff that are coming from the community. They appreciate it so much, they told me directly and I realized it looking at the open rate.
I usually check which are the links more clicked, and I improve the content giving them more space and visibility.
H: Like many of us, you juggle your time between two jobs. What are your tips for making that manageable?
A: I think that the hardest part of my job. I’m a support specialist and community manager at the same time. My support job takes over the community one very often, so I always struggle with finding the time to create a new strategy or be present and active into my community.
My personal strategy is trying to be focus and mono-tasking. I strive to get the most out of my time at work and use every single minute in order to pursue my goals. I don’t mix my two jobs as far as I can.
I plan my day upward, prioritizing things to do and splitting my time into slots. I try to stick with my agenda and set a time limit of my workday. If something comes up it’s ok, but I want to be aware of that so I can stretch myself in order to minimize unplanned things. At the end of the day, deep work and keeping free of distractions works very well for me.