The Community Club

Brian Oblinger
Brian Oblinger

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My Community Career: Twenty Years In The Making

How it started: Volunteer Moderator
How it's going: Chief Community Officer / Strategic Consultant

When Alex Angel reached out to ask if I'd write a piece detailing my career journey, I knew that I was going to feel old by the time I finished writing it. I wasn't wrong. Looking back on it all, it strikes me how lucky I was to stumble into a career simply by doing what I loved in my spare time as a teenager.

It's been an incredible ride and I feel so fortunate that it's worked out the way it has. Follow along as I take you through two decades of my life and what I learned along the way.

Community roles history:

  1. Community Enthusiast (199X)
  2. Volunteer Community Moderator (2005)
  3. Community Manager (2006)
  4. Supervisor, Community Management Services (2008)
  5. Senior Social Solutions Consultant (2009)
  6. Senior Strategy Consultant (2014)
  7. Vice President, Community and Social Content (2015)
  8. Vice President, Community & Support (2016)
  9. Vice President, Global Community (2017)
  10. Vice President, Customer Experience & Global Community (2019)
  11. Chief Community Officer / Strategic Consultant (2020)

Community Enthusiast (199X)

I was barely into my teens when we got our first computer and hooked it up to CompuServe in the mid 90’s. At the time I was mostly interested in video games and sought out gaming websites. Some of them featured comment sections and very light forum functionality, which drew me in immediately. It wasn’t long before I started volunteering to help out on these sites. I also started a few communities around games that I liked to play. I was hooked.

Important Skills: Everything? I was a kid. I knew nothing. This was my first connection to people outside of my neighborhood/school. Talk about growing up in a hurry.

Volunteer Community Moderator (2005)

By the mid 00’s, I was spending an absurd amount of time on the PlayStation Community. At the time they had a volunteer moderation program and I was asked to join. I started as a “genre moderator,” meaning that I only had moderation abilities in a particular area of the community. That gave me the ability to start moderating at scale, but with guardrails and wonderful guidance from people that are my friends to this day (Hi Adam Nichols). I quickly rose up the ranks and increased the scope of my role until they (Lithium) began paying me as an independent contractor. I think I was making $400 a month for a while as I worked split time between PlayStation, Nintendo, and Cingular Wireless communities.

Important Skills: Customer Service, Interpersonal Skills, Teamwork

Community Manager (2006)

I quickly graduated to day-to-day management of various facets of these communities. One of my specialties was bringing together teams of people and building operational processes to ensure smooth execution. That experience forms the basis for much of how I approach what I do and preach about today. I also began working on other communities and became the de facto Community Manager for the Comcast Portal community, which centered around movies, music, tv, and political discussion for Comcast customers. This was my first taste of thinking more strategically and light consulting with companies like Hewlett-Packard (Hi Dani Weinstein and Lois Townsend!), The Home Depot, Cisco, SAP, and Polycom.

Important Skills: Analytics & Insights Reporting, User Management, Digital Strategy

Supervisor, Community Management Services (2009)

As the team of moderators and community managers grew at Lithium, we needed to build management and structure around the practice. I was selected as one of the first supervisors and handed a team of people that eventually grew to 30+. This was my first real management experience. I made a lot of mistakes, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of those wonderful team members that were patient with me and taught me how to be a good leader (Hi Jeff Stroud!). Thanks to Joe Cothrel for giving me this opportunity and believing in me. I also got exposure to even more companies like Barnes & Noble, Scholastic, Macy’s, FICO, and HBR.



Important Skills: People Management, Leadership, Program Management

Senior Social Solutions Consultant (2009)

By 2009, the market for knowledge and guidance around communities was growing and Lithium was building a consultancy practice aimed at helping customers properly implement and manage their communities. The original title was “Customer Success Manager,” and this was my first real exposure to business consulting. This is where I began to learn how to speak the language of and tie community to business outcomes. I also honed my skills around public speaking and presentations.

Important Skills: Business Consulting, Project Management, Presentations

Senior Strategy Consultant (2014)

This promotion and title bump was largely symbolic of the work that I had been doing for the previous several years with customers like Acer, Autodesk, eBay, OpenTable (Hi Caty Kobe!), Sephora, and Warner Brothers. The most important piece of this role and the preceding years was that I learned how to elevate the conversation to the executive level and promote the idea of community as a core pillar of a business, tying data-driven insights to multi-million dollar outcomes. This is also when I started thinking about owning the whole pie at an organization, not just as a consultant.

Important Skills: Value Assessments, Executive Briefings, Certification Programs

Vice President, Community and Social Content (2015)

On Christmas Day 2014 I had a few free moments from family time and opened the LinkedIn app to see a featured job at a company called Alteryx. They were hiring for a VP position to lead all manner of community. I quickly fired off my resume and a few days later was talking to the CEO. It all clicked and I made the move. For the first time I was responsible for the end-to-end vision, strategy, implementation, and results. One of the first and smartest decision that I made was calling my good friend Julie Hamel and convincing her to come build the dream with me. Tara McCoy also needs to be recognized here, as she was the key to bringing culture and content into the community. Without both of them, I don’t get to write about more roles past this one. This is where I really learned how to be a leader and developed my perspective on the business of community.

Important Skills: Executive Leadership, Business Strategy, Budgetary Discipline

Vice President, Community & Support (2016)

As we began proving out the value of community, it became clear that there was more we hadn’t tapped into. Around the same time, the VP in charge of Customer Support retired and I began leading that group. This helped me see a broader context of what community could be and we worked to create a symbiosis between the two teams to increase efficiency and customer satisfaction. We added Learning to the equation as well (Hi Joe Miller!). At the same time, the company went public and I got a swift education about what executive leadership in that environment looks like. What an incredible juggling act. Thanks to my teams for supporting me through this phase of the journey.

Important Skills: Scaling a Business, IPO Readiness, Change Management

Vice President, Global Community (2017)

The company was growing at an extremely rapid pace and I needed help focusing. So, we hired a VP of Support and transitioned that piece so that I could spend all of my energy on the increasingly-important community. I reconnected with the team, started building for scale, and took an active role in the Customer Experience team thinking about how we do what we do better and then do even more. I gained an enormous amount of experience during this time in working across the business with every functional area, which gave me a new appreciation for how difficult it is to drive change in a complex company. Special shoutout to everyone on the team there — it’s an incredible group of people and I’ll forever be grateful for their friendship and support.

Important Skills: Scaling Globally, Customer Journey Mapping, Enablement Programs

Vice President, Customer Experience & Global Community (2019)

I took this role to build on everything that I had learned and to take a more active role in defining the overall customer experience. We wasted no time on the community side (Hi Bob, Linda, Lili, Melanie, and Kristin) and I jumped in at the leadership level to try and turn the ship on CX initiatives (Hi Robin!). In early 2020 I was feeling that we were on the cusp of breaking through in a number of ways and creating something really special when COVID and layoffs came. My biggest sadness here is that we didn’t get to finish what we started. We’ll never know what could’ve been. Oh well. I do believe that CX is the next section of the path for community professionals in the future.

Important Skills: Cultural Change, Managing a Team in a Global Pandemic, Coping with Heavy Blows to One’s Ego

Chief Community Officer / Strategic Consultant (2020)

After a Summer of interviews and deciding what I wanted to do with my life, I concluded that I could provide the most value by starting my own strategic consulting practice and help as many companies and community professionals as possible. Today, I’m leveraging my experience across everything that I’ve learned in the last 20+ years to help companies build better communities, hire the right people, and make customer experience their top priority. I’m not sure if I’ll ever fully be able to, but I hope to give back more than I’ve received from this industry that has been so wonderful to me.

Important Skills: Business Ownership, Podcasting, Waiting for Erica Kuhl

What's Next?

I love what I'm doing. I don't know what the future holds, but I do know that it's going to include community one way or another. It's my life's work.

Discussion (6)

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Joe Miller

I consider myself fortunate to have been under the leadership of THE Brian Oblinger in this timeline. At what stage did you acquire the ability to instantly locate pixel-sized misalignments on Community UIs? 😂

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Brian Oblinger Author

I was born with it. Molded by it.

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Jennifer

What a trajectory! I wish I knew at a younger age what my professional passion was. I found out at 29! At least now, my non-linear career path is straightening out. Thank you for sharing, Brian! I love your podcast with Erica, it is a great resource for me and my work.

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Brian Oblinger Author

Thanks for the kind words! To be fair, I don't expect anyone to have a linear career path. I think one of the greatest things about the community industry is that people come from a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences. I suspect as time progresses we will see more linearity, but it's not required by any means. I'm the outlier, if anything.

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Erica Moss

Such a great read, Brian — thanks for sharing your journey with us!

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Max Pete

Amazing, such an awesome journey! Excited to keep following along!