03.08.2017

This is always a hot question for community builders: how did you get here? While the stories are as diverse as the communities that we build, the winding career path of most community professionals makes it incredibly difficult for newcomers to navigate — and for veterans to grow.

  • Maybe you’re in college and considering going down this career path (and you’re crossing your fingers it is well-paved).
  • Maybe you’re in the midst of a career transition and thinking of how to transfer your skills to a community role.
  • Or maybe you’re deep in your community career and you’re looking for how to round out your experience and take the next step. Either way, the process for discovering how to become a stronger community manager can be opaque.

Now that the industry has transitioned into its adolescence, we’re able to trace community work more accurately to similar clusters of education, professional skills, and career development that have shaped the industry’s top community professionals.

Today, we’re giving you deep insights into how 6 different community professionals built their careers across the globe. Then we’ll boil their insights down into action items for you to take to move forward on your own unique career adventure.

Lauren Capelin

Lauren Capelin via Reinventure

Head of Community at Reinventure
Sydney, Australia

For Lauren, glimpses of her future in community began to show themselves when she was working with a team that was studying the trends in the sharing economy and collaborative consumption, between 2009 and 2010.

She reflects on that time, saying, “In my work, I was connecting with all the founders and core employees of businesses like Airbnb, Taskrabbit, Zimride/Lyft, Zaarly and both connecting them with each other as well as shaping a shared narrative that would benefit them all in the wider startup, business, and general community.”

In her story, the fabric of Lauren’s community management career was being woven organically rather than with her actively weaving it.

When it comes to starting out as a new, bright-eyed community professional, finding mentors or other forms of guidance is what helped many professionals like Lauren succeed.

Lauren reflects, “It wasn’t until David’s work on CMX really took shape that I started to identify this through the lens of ‘community’ as a discipline, and I would say I have been a disciple ever since. CMX and the course in particular have given me a vocabulary, a framework, and a peer group to connect with and bring more rigor and strategy to my work. Ironically, this is the same thing we originally set out to do when we grew the collaborative consumption movement.”

Jenn Chen

Community Manager at Procore Technologies
San Francisco, CA

Jenn holds a B.A. in communications from San Francisco State University. Prior to her community roles, she held positions in technical support at both Google and Intuit.

How did she make the transition from support to community? “A company I was working for launched a support community, and as one of the top-performing support reps, I was invited to help launch and moderate the community. I would continually bring up trends I noticed to the community manager at the time, and as the community grew, she asked if I’d be interested in an Associate CM role. I said yes, and soon after that, I became the CM for that community!”

For Jenn, it was all about taking initiative in her current role, which led to brand new opportunities. Raising your hand can go a long way.

For those community builders who come to this path through a long and windy road, Jenn gives solid advice: “Community may be new to a lot of people, but don’t let that scare you. Think about what you want to accomplish, what you envision for your community, and turn that vision into a reality – use metrics to bring color and value into that story to share with your company/e-staff/stakeholders.”

Andy McIlwain

Andy McIlwain via andymci.com

Content and Community, GoDaddy Pro
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Andy’s experience in gaming and being part of a gaming community was his initial introduction to the idea of community, as he chronicled in an episode of Patrick O’Keefe’s Community Signal.

He admits, “It’s funny because I didn’t think of community management as a profession until I joined GoDaddy. I had no idea. It was kind of an early, nascent industry.”

“It was after joining the team that my boss, who had done a bunch of work over the years, brought structure and the business sensibility to community management development, and that opened up my eyes because he gave me that context of, ‘You know community from an organic, soft perspective, now here’s the framework and tools.’”

For Andy, strong community leadership led him down the right path to where he is today. Look for internal stakeholders and mentors who can steer you in the right direction and provide you with frameworks and boundaries to uphold.

Becky Margraf

Platform Manager, DIY.org
San Francisco, CA

For Becky Margraf, her career has been anything but linear. “I didn’t have any official training for a community role when I began. My background is in graphic design, and I’ve always had an interest in learning and education, so I had some tangential training (like design research skills and time spent exploring modern pedagogical theory).”

But it also helped that she’s been able to roll with the punches on her small team and remain flexible. “My role definitely evolved,” she says. “I started at DIY in August 2014 as a contractor to work on curriculum development. Soon after, I shifted into moderation and participation in the community. After about a year, I became the Community Manager, and six months later, we launched a second platform (JAM.com), and I was promoted to managing DIY.org and its employees/functions.”

To learn the ropes, she called on her past tangential experience in design and, “the rest I tried to supplement with online research. We had some standards already established for DIY (like language guidelines), and I connected with community managers at other kid-friendly communities (like MIT’s Scratch team) to learn how to best handle sensitive topics like suicidal posts and bullying. Most of the rest has been learned by doing.”

Learning from other allied professions as well as doing research and making connections outside her team have been Becky’s tickets to success.

Victoria Fitoussi

Community and Content Coordinator at GoAnimate
San Mateo, CA

Victoria studied Media Studies at the University of San Francisco and just began her first community role in October 2016. “My one previous full-time role was Community Advocate. That was the title, but it was actually a Customer Success role,” she says, pointing to the need for companies to open their eyes to the difference between the two.

Victoria’s transition to an actual community role happened when her company made a big change: “I was offered two options at my last job… move to Singapore or take the next three months to find another job.”

She found out about her current role through a Facebook Group and the role just got better as she got more involved. “The more I learned about the role, the more excited I became. Once I really honed in on what my role would be, I learned that I would get to write content, plan, and organize events and people and encourage connections amongst not only our community, but our office.”

She started with some trepidation, but has since learned that she can start out simply and then expand her work from there. “When I joined, the people at our office and users didn’t even know our community existed, so I was a little overwhelmed. Now I really feel that not only does this role play to my inherent strengths, but it is also a role I can push to be bigger and play a larger part at our company.”

For Victoria and many others at startups, taking their careers from here to the next level is a matter of focusing in on goals and continuing to expand their expertise and internal influence.

Erica Moss

Head of Community at Trello
New York, NY

Erica has quickly established herself as a go-to resource for community professionals via her work at Trello (acquired by Atlassian).

“In college, I pursued a degree in journalism and worked in newsrooms.” Later, like Victoria, she faced a career “ultimatum” that forced her to make a conscious career shift. “One day, I was laid off from the publication I was working for. I had a decision to make: I could either continue down this uncertain path, simply because that’s what I went to school for, or I could parlay the valuable skills I had polished into something that would offer new challenges and greater stability. I chose the latter.”

After moving to New York, I worked for a few years on behalf of universities like Georgetown and Syracuse and then afterward moved into a community role at Bitly. Currently, I’m the community manager at Trello, a visual collaboration tool with superfans around the globe.”

For those of you looking to make a leap in your existing career like Erica has, listen up:

“I think the most significant trend we’ll see in community moving forward is integration. This type of role touches so many different people on a daily basis, both internally and externally, and it simply cannot exist in a silo. I think both myself and other community folks will continue to immerse themselves within organizations and put an even greater emphasis on demonstrating impact on the business, from operations to customer success and everything in between.”

How do you become a community manager?

Through our interviews, past surveys, and insight from our community, we’ve boiled all this down into a clearer pathway:

1. If you’re in school, pick a major such as psychology, sociology, journalism, media, communications, business administration, or anthropology.

Note: Whatever you pick, it will not limit you later. People come to this industry from education, biology, neuroscience, electrical engineering, and more. You can apply a community lens to literally any field of study. The best way to get a strong educational background in this field is to pick something that lets you combine your area of interest with understanding human behavior.

2. When an opportunity to build or participate in a community comes along, take it.

3. Develop your business knowledge and your knowledge of how to create a community framework. Understand key concepts like measurement, strategy, ROI, and more.

4. Meet other community professionals. 

5. Find a mentor outside your company and an internal sponsor. 

6. Constantly evolve. Your community will, so you must keep up. 

Note: Much like your major, your career can take a turn at any point. You can apply your community thinking to anything in the business world: product, support, development, writing, marketing, and more. Don’t feel limited in only taking on roles with “community manager” as the title! Carve your own career pathway, suggest new roles, and feel empowered to take big leaps from here.

In essence, finding your path to community management is about really listening to the skills you possess that would serve your members in the best way. Having deep interest and skills in relationships, communication, organization and engagement are great stepping stones to your ideal community career.

Interested in sharing your own community story? Participate in a CMX community career path Facebook Group thread.

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Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones | @caremjo

Carrie is the COO and Founding Partner of CMX. She has built community at Chegg and Scribd and has consulted with community companies around the world. She lives in Seattle, WA with her pup, Bruce Wayne.