The Community Club

Kirsti Buick for The Community Club

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'It's Really All About Humanity': Andy McIlwain's Lessons Learned After 2 Decades in Community

Andy McIlwain has built communities, both online and IRL, since the early 2000s. Now a Senior Marketing & Community Manager at GoDaddy, Andy shares some insights from his years on the front lines — and an overview of his session at this years' Community Club Community-Led Summit.

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How did you find yourself working in community?

“Like many folks in community, the journey started as a hobby. I started out in the early 2000s, working on gaming forums and fan sites. I think for a lot of us in this space, there was something about getting online and finding other people who were into the same things. So I did that straight through until about 2013. A few years earlier, in about 2009/ 2010, I had also started doing a lot of in-person meet-ups about WordPress, which eventually evolved into organizing WordCamps. It was a lot of fun, becoming part of that community, and getting to meet a lot of folks around the world.

As part of working on these forums and fan sites, I had built up a few self-taught web development skills. When I graduated from college in 2009 – I went to school for advertising, and nobody was hiring in advertising in 2009 – I fell back on those web skills. And that got me into doing stuff with startups, marketing agencies, and IT companies. So it was just this big mixed bag of hobby skills and professional skills coalescing in 2015, when GoDaddy got in touch and said, 'Hey, we're looking for somebody who has experience with online and offline communities, someone who knows WordPress, someone who knows what it's like to build and manage websites.' And reading through that job description for the Community Manager role — it sounded like it was written for me.

I joined the company in 2015, in my first official Community Manager role. And it's really just snowballed from there — I've taken on all sorts of different projects, all tied to community in some way. Over the last couple of years, I've moved more into the platform side, which is my area of responsibility now at GoDaddy — looking after our community platforms, the blog events, forums, and how they connect with our systems on the backend.”

What was it like going from building communities in a personal capacity to a professional one?

“Part of it was really easy to slip into. I found the technology side really simple. Maybe simple isn't the right way to put it — it was familiar.

But the first couple years coming into a role within a large company, where community is ill-defined, and you're trying to figure out... that was the biggest learning curve. I'll touch on this a little bit in my talk at the summit, but community within organizations at that time was really focused on support. The thinking was that community was all about call deflection, scaling, peer support, and trying to reduce costs and overhead. And I had come from a completely different world of community and its human value. So that was interesting — to reconcile those two sides. And then just fighting that battle internally to try and get others to understand how community could be more than just a place where we send people to ask questions and get peer support. It's really all about humanity.”

What mistakes taught you the most in your career?

“There are so many! The thing about community is that there are so many unknowns because you're dealing with people — and people can be complex. You can't prepare for everything. So you need to be building the bridge as you're crossing it. Adapt on the fly.

There are two mistakes that come to mind: for an online community, the biggest mistake I made is that I let a domain registration for an online gaming community lapse after I handed it off to a new team. It was a team of volunteer moderators, administrators, and I was moving on to other projects. Which is hilarious in hindsight, because now I work at GoDaddy. And then they had to scramble to find a different domain, and they lost a bunch of search traffic. I still kick myself over that! It was a really good name, too.

My second mistake was also related to transitioning and leadership. I had to step back from organizing a local user group, and someone else had seen a bit of a vacuum in leadership. They stepped up and took it over — and they were not in it for the right reasons. They were definitely not in it for the community. And that became a whole thing over the span of about a year that culminated in that person being blacklisted by a global organization so they were not allowed to be involved in organizing these events. It was intense. What both those situations taught me was that transition plans are very important if you're going to hand off leadership of a community, whether it be online or offline.”

If you could give budding community builders one piece of advice, what would it be?

“Start small — you want to find your founding members. Bring those people together, whether it's online, in a pub or coffee shop (post-pandemic). And have just a conversation about who they are, and what they're interested in, and start pulling these ideas together. Like, what would be valuable to you, as a member of this group? What are the things that we could do? Where should we be hanging out?

These are your earliest stakeholders — if they're already showing up, there's a lot of interest there. They don't even know what they're signing up for yet, because you're just getting started. Lean on that. If they're eager, tap into that excitement and the things that they're interested in getting out of the group. And just keep building on that. Keep asking, 'What other things can we be doing?', 'What challenges are our members having?', 'What are the things you can help with?' Just keep looking for opportunities to help.”

Tell us a bit about what to expect in your talk at the summit.

“I'm going to go through the process that I've used to launch both internal and external communities. It's essentially a working document that we'll work through — all the questions you need to be asking, all the information you need to gather. At the end of it, you'll effectively have a starting point for a proposal that you could take to your leadership team. Think, 'This is the problem that we're trying to solve, and these are my recommendations on what our approach should be.’”

Want more? Tune in to Andy's session on May 12, 2021 at 10:30 a.m. PDT. Book your spot for the summit here.

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