Chris Brogan once described a community manager as ‘part party host, part fine restaurant host.’ Part of what that role entails is understanding how to best form your community for success. The other part of that role is understanding how to be the perfect ‘party mixer.’
In general, there are two primary camps in your successful software development community – developers and everyone else. Yes, I know, I’m simplifying this quite a bit as “everyone else” includes important folks like testers, project managers, business analysts, and other decision makers. The problems usually come because, in general, both communities have different definitions of what ‘success’ should be, and also how that goal should be achieved. This situation gets even more interesting if the software being developed is being used as a lever for cultural change (i.e. – moving from traditional waterfall software development approaches to something like Agile).
Being a party mixer in this kind of environment requires some unique skillsets, some of which I talked about in a previous post. You are playing the role of referee, but also coach/counselor, trying to make sure that each contingent’s needs are met. A big part of the problem also arises out of the fact that sometimes the non-dev side of this community decides that what they say goes, and then the developers start to feel like they are the people at the party wearing the unfashionable clothes. Your goal as a community leader should be to reinforce the notion of meritocracy, and get everyone to come to the table.
So, what weapon in your community management arsenal is the best bet in this situation? The biggest single thing you can and should use in this situation is your WIIFM sense. These groups each have competing agendas – you need to know what these are, and find a way to bring something to the mix each group can claim as its own. Brent McConnell (Community Manager for Kablink) wrote a blog post recently titled ‘What They Don’t Teach Community Managers.’ He had a great comment about listening:
“So how do you craft a message that resonates with your community? You listen. Listening is the key that unlocks not only the problems of your users but also their perspective.”
There are several ways to do this, but I really like how Agile development can be used to satisfy the desire for both types of development personnel to be involved. As a former developer, I can tell you that clarity of requirements, look & feel, etc. is absolutely huge. It helps you deliver code that you can be proud of, and that you know will be used (because it meets the users’ expectations). Having business owners/users involved in user story definition and refining small pieces of functionality during short iterations also gives them a feeling of empowerment, which lets them guide the direction of the project at a much more granular level. Most importantly, though, this constant interaction between the developers and non-developers provides a mechanism to allow a lot of listening (if guided properly).
As the community ‘party host,’ always remember that it is your job to provide the conduit for communication. It is not an accident that the words ‘Community’ and ‘Communication’ share the same root. True two-way interaction is the key to a successful community, project, or any collaborative effort. If you do a good job of ‘hosting,’ you and your constituents will have fun, and be fulfilled, which lead to more productivity all around.