Every community has its own shared language and for the Spiceworks community, that shared language revolves around IT. Made up of IT professionals and service providers that support them, the Spiceworks community convenes to share their collective expertise and find solutions.
In this episode of Community Signal, Sean Dahlberg, director of community at Spiceworks, shares how his team approaches community management and how they ensure that the community continues to offer value to its members, even as the company endures organizational change. Spiceworks was acquired last year by Ziff Davis and co-founder Jay Hallberg rcently announced his resignation. In response, Sean says that he and his team have prioritized being as open and honest with the community as possible in an effort to avoid rumors and reassure the community that the company is still committed to offering value to its members.
Sean and Patrick also discuss:
- Sean’s transition from the Marine Corps, to the gaming industry, to Spiceworks
- The pepper scale system, which allows Spiceworks members to level up based on their specific area of expertise
- How Sean balanced the needs of Star Wars fans and MMORPG players
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Highlighting expertise in the Spiceworks community (20:16): “We use what we call the pepper scale system. You get points for engaging the community. Everyone starts as a little Pimento, and you can work your way up to Pure Capsaicin. One of the challenges with that is we have individuals who are up at Ghost Chili, Thai Pepper, even Pure Capsaicin and, when they’re making posts, people are automatically giving it an assumption of expertise. The challenge there is with IT professionals, there’s so many avenues, there’s so much technology, technology is changing so much that just because I’m a Pure Capsaicin, that just means I post a lot. [We started a new status system, which] gives you a level expertise [based on those] different technology areas. I could be an expert when it comes to Active Directory, but I may know nothing at all when it comes to Linux. Now that’s highlighted on my profile, but also in the topics themselves.” –@ashentemper
Making the most of your data resources (34:05): “I used to be a front end developer myself. I know a little SQL. Don’t ever hire me for it. We do data downloads, every day, of what’s going on with the community. I was running my own reports in spreadsheets. One of our business analysts came by one day, and they saw this Excel sheet with 50 tabs, doing all these weird things. They’re like, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘This is showing my first-time posters. This is showing my retention rate based off of the different pepper levels.’ I guess they were so insulted about how bad these Excel sheets were that they actually went and built the real dashboards [for me].” –@ashentemper
The importance of anonymity for some community managers (42:20): “Back when I just started community management, at least in the game industry, you didn’t use your [real] name. Part of the reason was fear of people coming and finding you and putting pies in your face. [Once], a user found the office and had a VHS of just videos of someone getting a pie in their face for 40 minutes. Then, at the end of it, said ‘see you soon.’ You never use your real name. If you go look at the game industry, especially back in the early 2000s, everyone had these weird [usernames].” –@ashentemper
About Sean Dahlberg
Sean Dahlberg is the director of community for a vertical network dedicated to technology professionals called Spiceworks. He attended nine different schools growing up while living in various parts of the globe, joined the U.S. Marine Corps, and transitioned from there into the massively multiplayer online game development industry and now to working in the B2B technology space.
- Sponsor: Discourse, civilized discussion for teams, customers, fans, and communities
- Sean Dahlberg on Twitter
- Sean’s website
- Spiceworks co-founder Jay Hallberg announces his resignation
- Ziff Davis, the company that acquired Spiceworks
- Nic, the senior community manager for Automox and a former community professional at Spiceworks
- The Spiceworks Partner program
- Trivia Crack
- Submit A Ticket, Spiceworks’ webcomic
- Star Wars: The Old Republic
- Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
[0:00] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, a podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Discourse, civilized discussion for teams, customers, fans, and communities. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[0:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for listening to this episode of Community Signal where we’re talking with Sean Dahlberg, director of community for Spiceworks, a well-known community for IT pros. Sean and I discussed their brand representative program, how the community culture may change after being acquired, and the project that could have broken them. Thank you to Carol Benovic-Bradley, Rachel Medanic and Serena Snoad for being among our supporters on Patreon. If you are a regular listener of the show, please consider supporting us on Patreon at communitysignal.com/innercircle. It makes a difference.
Sean Dahlberg is the director of community for a vertical network dedicated to technology professionals called Spiceworks. He attended nine different schools growing up while living in various parts of the globe, joined the U.S. Marine Corps, and somehow transitioned from there into the massively multiplayer online game development industry and now to working in the B2B technology space. Sean, welcome to the show.
[00:01:17] Sean Dahlberg: Hi, it’s great to be here.
[00:01:19] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s great to have you on. This is an interesting week, well, in general, for the world but also for Spiceworks because about a week ago one of the co-founders of Spiceworks Jay Hallberg announced that he was leaving his full-time role with the company after 14 years. You’ve been there for more than eight of those. I have to imagine it’s a big deal for the community and maybe even a big deal for you. Can you talk a little bit about the planning and preparation that went into making that announcement and managing the response from the community?
[00:01:48] Sean Dahlberg: That’s been a fun one. Recently, we got acquired by Ziff Davis and in that acquisition merger, personal changes happen. During some of those changes, I’ve taken over some of the PR responsibilities for Spiceworks company because we don’t have a PR department. I’ve known Jay for a long time. Like you said, I’ve been there, it’s been about nine years now almost. I’ve worked with Jay throughout what we call the chapters of the company. We have different chapters sort of like. Hey, this is one of the great software oriented. This is a more community-oriented internet company until they were a great data company. In fact, worked with him for a long time and we knew this was coming. We tried to be as transparent as possible with our community. It is a community full of IT professionals so we know what we don’t tell them, they’re either going to fill in the story that’s probably not true or they’re going to find out the truth. This is one of those most security-conscious communities that there are so we do our best to just let them know what’s going on. Internally some of the people asked like, “Should we announce this? Should we let Jay slip under the radar?” Sooner or later, they’ll figure it out.
For us, we’ve had other founders who’ve left before. We’ve had other personnel who’ve been very upfront in the community. We’ve always tried to make an announcement of it just to let people know. Little things are changing and it’s like any community. People come and people go.
[00:03:03] Patrick O’Keefe: If you have to go quietly, like you said people just assume the worst. [laughs]
[00:03:07] Sean Dahlberg: We want to make sure it wasn’t one of those posts. You always have that one user in your community who makes this broad announcement of how I’m going and I’m taking all my toys with me. We want to make sure it wasn’t something like that. It was more of reflecting on, “Hey, I am leaving. Here are all the things that he’s accomplished in his time,” but also you’re giving them reasons why he’s looking for that next chapter of his life.
[00:03:27] Patrick O’Keefe: No flouncing, I think is the term. I don’t know if that’s a commonly used term. It’s one I had someone use to me a few years ago. Flouncing is what some people call that act.
[00:03:35] Sean Dahlberg: I’ve not heard that one before, I’ll have to write that one down.
[00:03:38] Patrick O’Keefe: If it’s gone now but I found a flounced generator online and for some reason it’s offline. I looked for it like a year or two ago, but basically it was like you hit the button and it generates a post that one moment it might be a stereotypical rant about “The mods removed my post and you’re not ready for my ideas so I’m taking them with me now and goodbye forever.” Or something like that. It was better than that.
[00:03:59] Sean Dahlberg: The first amendment ones are the ones that always kill me.
[00:04:01] Patrick O’Keefe: That was a fun tool. Hopefully, maybe it’ll come back. I was browsing the forum and I noticed these accounts highlighted in green. One of them was for a member named Nic from Automox. On his post, it says he’s a brand representative and when you click on his profile, it says he’s the senior community manager for Automox. Tell me about the brand representative program.
[00:04:20] Sean Dahlberg: You picked a very interesting one. What’s interesting about Nic is Nic is actually the person who hired me at Spiceworks. He used to be the community manager at Spiceworks. He moved on to, I’m trying to remember which company he left us for originally. A company called Web Brew and he moved to another company.
In Spiceworks, the interesting thing, and this is why I got hired there, in the first place, is the original goal of Spiceworks is to make the software. They make a help desk. We make an inventory system and these are for IT pros to use. Then we generate revenue through ads and access to our community for vendors and one of those ways is what we call the green guy or the green gal. I had to put our name because as you’ll notice our usernames are green. A company pays for access to engage in our community and Nic is just one of those individuals. He goes in there, he’s free to talk about his products, talk about the services, basically help the IT pros when there’s one of his solutions that can really alleviate their headaches.
We do our best to educate our green guys and green gals to understand this isn’t a place to just throw, I’ll use the air quote, white papers or it’s just a lot of marketing fluff. This is a community full of very technical individuals and so they’re usually looking for very technical answers. One of the fun challenges a lot of our green guys and green gals have is not all of them are sales engineers or IT persons themselves. Nic has been in the IT community a long time but he’s not an IT pro himself. He’s one of those individuals who can take what an IT pro needs, go back to his sales engineers, and work as a go between to help people get solutions.
[00:05:49] Patrick O’Keefe: Is the program free?
[00:05:51] Sean Dahlberg: No. One of the ways we keep Spiceworks free for IT pros, because you’ll not there’s no gating access, as an IT pro you can use the community and all of our tools for free. The flip side of that is nothing is free in life. Instead vendors are what help support Spiceworks whether that’s through advertisement, it’s through things like the green guy program. We have another thing where you notice we have our own version of brand pages we call vendor pages. There’s a free version of that but also a paid version. We have different avenues for vendors to basically help pay for Spiceworks so IT pros never have to.
[00:06:25] Patrick O’Keefe: They get their own brand page that they can share things through. Did they get any other analytics or do they get to monitor mentions of the brand in the forum? Is there anything data side?
[00:06:35] Sean Dahlberg: There is, and that’s actually something we’re launching soon. When I first started one of the features we really pushed to give our brand representative is called Spiceworks Alerts. If you’re used to Google Alerts, they’re the same thing but it just searches through Spiceworks. One of the things we’ll always give them is a way of fine tuning those alerts.
If I’m a file-sharing vendor if I just put up an alert for file sharing, I’m going to get inundated with people talking about, “I need to share my file with my client.” Things where they don’t really necessarily need to come in for a purchasing decision. We help them fine tune those for those individuals who are looking for a new solution not just chatting about something. They have that. They have the brand pages. Ultimately, the best tool they have are the relationships they make in the community.
Again, I’ll point towards Nic. He had a leg up just because he already knew the Spiceworks community. As things were coming up, that was a great fit for Automox. IT pros were reaching out to him and say, “Nic, you need to come check out this conversation. There’s a solution you guys have that’d be great for him.” Also ultimately that brand through word of mouth, making those relationships really become the best tools because there’s a data side of it. We recently launched what we call the control center for them and there’s a lot of updates on that with social reporting.
[00:07:52] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned how people can focus on their brand within their brand page. Are there any guidelines or policies that are in place regarding how they can share that page or drive people to that page through, let’s say, more general sections, “Come to my page and then we’ll talk more about my brand,” that sort of thing posted in a more general forum thread?
[00:08:12] Sean Dahlberg: Anyone who’s run a forum you know that if your topic isn’t getting replied to, it gets buried quickly. One of the things we try and educate our brand reps on is having in conversation in the technical areas, not just doing even a broadcast-type information. If I have a lot of great information and it’s a great thing you can see but not engage with, most people aren’t going to see it. It’s going to go down to page one, down to page 10, down to page 100. If it’s not something our users are engaging with and keeping at top of mind, it falls off the page.
A lot of times they’re engaged in other people’s conversations or making one themselves but making sure it has great call to action at the end. That call to action isn’t, “Come join my mailing list” or “Come and follow us.” It’s more like, “Here’s a question I have that’s about a product or service, what do you use, what do you think, how can our product better serve you?” Things like that where people are always engaging with it.
What we’re generally seeing is every once in a while they plug the vendor page like, “Make sure you come follow us here.” Most times, people are just remembering the brands because they’re seeing enough of them, they’re getting educated enough about their information where they’re bringing them up. The one caveat I’ll say to that is we do have a section for contests and they are famous for running contests and part of that contest is, “Follow our vendor page.”
[00:09:25] Patrick O’Keefe: I guess part of it is this idea that maybe for the community, maybe this isn’t the right way to put it but a separation between those more conversational areas versus brand pages.
[00:09:38] Sean Dahlberg: True. It’s funny you mentioned that. One of the things in our community we try and call our communities Spiceheads. It’s a name that they came up with themselves way back in the day. They’ve noted on it. There’s a lot of great options. When I first took over the community, a Spicehead meant an IT pro. One of the things I’ve tried to change over the course of time is Spicehead means a community member, whether that’s an IT pro, a tech vendor or someone else who’s engaged in our community.
There is a little separation there regardless because as an IT pro, I look at the market a little different and marketers look at IT pros different. At the end of the day, I actually always, every time I talk on the main stage or anywhere else, I have this one picture from SpiceWorld. If no one’s ever been to SpiceWorld, I don’t mean the Spice Girls concert. We have our annual convention we call SpiceWorld where IT pros and tech vendors coming together here in Austin, Texas.
There was one we were doing at the AT&T Center here in Austin and it’s out in the courtyard and you see just a ton of IT pros, the tech vendors, it’s Spicework gurus and we’re always very noticeable to be wearing orange shirts in there. We took a picture of that. Anytime I talk about the community that is the picture I reference. You go to a lot of tech vendor conferences. It’s usually there’s a tech vendor on one side of the booth who’s trying to say, “Hey, let me get your name and email address and phone number.” The other side is an IT pro who’s really just trying to get your swag and go away.
I always use this picture because you see people that just engaging conversations and talking and socializing. For me, that is what the Spiceworks community means. While there is a little bit of separation, I tried to meld it as much as possible.
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Sticking with in-person events, As I prepared for this episode, I signed up for an account Spiceworks and I was shown a promotion of sorts for SpiceCorp of Los Angeles, “Join the group to find out when new events are planned.” How is COVID-19 impacting that program?
[00:12:04] Sean Dahlberg: I also lead what we call the SpiceCorp program, name is subject to change because who knows what a SpiceCorp is. SpiceCorps are our local IT meetups. As Spiceworks, we help facilitate them, but they’re actually run by our IT professionals. An IT pro, becomes what we call a Spice Leader and she knows a couple of the IT pros in his or her area and organizes these events that happen either once a month or once a quarter. As the leader of the Spice Leader group, this is actually a big conversation, we started, I want to say it was two days ago and we have a private area we talked about best practices. A lot of them have been postponing their meetings. There’s a few that are trying a virtual meetup or for the most people, it seems a little ambiguous is, “Hey, is this a two-week issue? Is this a 90-day issue?” They’re feeling it out to see if it’s something where they want to postpone these meetings or try a couple of virtual meetups, but none of them want to get together in a bar right now.
[00:13:02] Patrick O’Keefe: That makes sense. I was watching a clip of kids at spring break saying that they had planned their spring break and they’re doing it anyway and why are they closing all the bars? I don’t know. You told me before this show that it challenged your thinking about is what I’ll call a blending of cultures due to Spiceworks being acquired by Ziff Davis. You say that, “While Spiceworks itself is geared towards the IT professional, under Spiceworks Ziff Davis, we have a variety of properties geared towards business professionals. The challenge comes from how best to serve all of these individuals in a way that benefits them and the company while also letting them keep their distinct culture.” IT professionals definitely speak a different language than business professionals. What are you going to do?
[00:13:48] Sean Dahlberg: We actually have this challenge pretty recently as we made that specific announcement itself. We made an announcement that was for our tech marketing community. You used a couple of different words. You phrase things a little differently for tech marketers than you do for IT pros. IT pros being IT pros, they find the content sometimes faster than the tech marketers its geared towards. We had a couple of users like, “What’s going on? Is Spiceworks changing? Is the community about to just change overnight? We wrote another response and even phrased it that way. It’s like, “Hey guys, what you read was the tech marketer version. This is the IT pro version.”
Just like IT pro, how you’re talking to your fellow IT pros is totally different than you’re probably talking to your users or your parents when it comes to computer things. That’s what we have to do as well. We’re giving you the same underlying message. We’re just delivering in a way that’s most beneficial for you to consume. For me, I’m one of those, I like to try and think far in the future, who knows what tomorrow is going to bring. I’m trying to think 30, 90 days, sometimes a year out.
For me, one of the great opportunities I think is there are all these great brands under Spiceworks Ziff Davis. Right now, we have our own separate platforms going on, but I think there is a potential in the future where this can all live in one big playground, but they all have their own separate areas, or even think of like a Disney World or Disneyland. You have your different areas, two different rides, but you’re still going to the same park.
[00:15:08] Patrick O’Keefe: I think this idea that you want to bring the people together in the same place, I have to imagine that one of the thoughts that has to creep into your mind, I don’t want to use the word fear, but one of the thoughts that has to creep into your mind or anyone’s mind in this sort of situation is that, Spiceworks is valuable because, I don’t know Spiceworks that well, but from an outward perspective looking in quickly it’s valuable because it’s a strong hold of IT professionals. When you throw in other people, you risk driving away what made it attractive in the first place. That’s just again an outward perspective. I have to think that’s the thing that keeps, maybe not you, but some people up at night.
[00:15:45] Sean Dahlberg: No, it keeps me up at night, too. The fun thing about Spiceworks is because we have so many technical answers, we have a lot of great, shall we say, SEO juice and we do get a lot of home users and everyone else running across our content. They are coming to the community and we’re talking about over here how do you customize Windows server 2016 and they’re posting, “How do I reboot my iPhone? I don’t know what to do.”
That is that content that’s going to make an IT pro just– It’s probably the same call they got from their parents the night before like, “No, this is not what this community is about.” We have nice general templated answers we give users like that to try to make it as clear as possible, “Hey this is a technical community. When you’re in our technical discussion areas, you have to be an IT pro or part of our brand representative program.”
If you were to attempt something like I’m talking about, you’d to have to have, I wouldn’t say walls between them, but you’d almost want to have to find areas where you can meet. One of the areas, for example, we have is the HR advisor. One of the times our HR is looking for its great software. Who’s doing there software better then the IT professionals who have to run and set it up and give everyone access.
While you may want to keep them on the server area away from our HR folks, maybe there is an area about HR software that as an IT pro I could go over there if I want to, but if I don’t, I stay in my more technical areas and vice versa. Sometimes the tech marketers don’t want the IT pros in there talking about the stuff they do as well.
[00:17:15] Patrick O’Keefe: You hit on something there that’s interesting and something that I always like to throw out which is that it’s okay to turn people away. You have a community that’s based on a level of expertise in a specific area, and I don’t know how to put it exactly, but there is a price to hang. There’s a certain club there, not in bad way, and if someone comes in, in any industry, let’s say, you’re knitting or crocheting. You have your people who are experts and who are just cranking out scarves and then you have someone who shows up and says, “I’ve never touched this before, what needle should I buy?” There might be cases where that’s okay, in windows where it’s okay, but overall, if you allow too much of that, if you allow too much of, “How do I reboot my iPhone,” those people who have that higher level expertise the reason the community exists just don’t want to hang out anymore.
[00:17:56] Sean Dahlberg: Even so, we even have that challenge today. We have IT pros who’ve been doing this for 10, 20, even 50 years. We have a few guys and gals. We have some who are technically, I wouldn’t even say they are an IT pro. They work for a local church. They are the individual who knows how to reboot a computer three times so everything works. They become the de facto IT professional there.
We do have a lot of levels of expertise there and sometimes we have to make judgement calls when we’re seeing something like that. What we also do is we have a tagging system that’s in the form themselves. One of the features that I love that they finally implemented for me is basically the ability to cross tag a topic so we can have it in multiple discussion areas at once.
It might be a windows server, it might be a virtualization, or blockchain conversation but one the groups we have is called newbies. It might be a blockchain conversation, that’s a newbie question and they’ve put both of those on there at once. As someone who’s been in that area of expertise for years, I can go ahead and say, “I see this is about something I’m knowledgeable about, but quickly see this individual is not.”
It sets that threshold so they already know who they’re have a conversation with. This isn’t someone who has their say local experience, this is someone you want to make sure you’re walking through best practices and not making those assumptions right away.
[00:19:09] Patrick O’Keefe: That is a funny thing because we have the ability to show different things to different people, obviously. If you have that group of people that is experts and you know someone who’s not, you could just throw a flag up on that page in bright red that says, “Hey, this person is new and not part of the group of people so keep that in mind.”
It’s something that doesn’t happen enough frankly in communities.
I think maybe because it’s just the software we run, and I know you run a custom thing but in no matter what software it is, just thinking of changing a core experience and for forums like viewing a thread, viewing a conversation is a core experience but changing how that page looks even in small way based upon user group membership or number of this, or reputation or whatever it is. It’s something that isn’t that hard I don’t think, but it takes some custom coding usually and that’s why we don’t see it but when you do it, it can be a really beneficial thing.
[00:20:06] Sean Dahlberg: It works out really well and the dev team loves me because I’m always coming up with these crazy ideas. And by love me, I think they actually hate me.
One of the other challenges that we have is we use what we call the pepper scale system. You get points for engaging the community and everyone starts as a little pimento and you can work your way up to pure capsaicin.
One of the challenges with that is we have individuals who are up at ghost chili, Thai pepper, even pure capsaicin and when they’re making posts, people are automatically giving it an assumption of expertise. The challenge there is with IT professionals, there’s so many avenues, there’s so much technology, technology is changing so much that just because I’m a pure capsaicin, that just really means I post a lot.
One of the features we started, I want to say it was about a year ago, is — I call it the status system. The status system, one of the parts of that takes all of the answers you’ve given the users and they voted as a best answer and gives you a level expertise on the different technology areas. I could be an expert when it comes to active directory, but I may know nothing at all when it comes to Linux. Now that’s highlighted on my profile, but also in the topics themselves.
If I’m posting analytics conversation, it doesn’t give me any special treatment but the moment I’m posting in active directory, it’ll say, “Hey, Sean has an active directory expert.” As I’m reading all these great suggestions from others, seeing who the experts are, it helps me weigh my decisions based off of those answers now.
[00:21:30] Patrick O’Keefe: Just thinking about this business professional mix Ziff Davis has a number of different brands obviously under their umbrella, I don’t know if I can ask you this and you can answer me or not, but what do you think it is about the Spiceworks brand that that’s the right brand to build a community for business professionals under. Because like I said, they have different brands, they have I’m on their website now and there’s some logos here I know, some I don’t but some sound like they could also work for business professionals. Why Spiceworks?
[00:21:57] Sean Dahlberg: It’s just the best, of course. That’s a hard one. I think it’s because we already have so many individuals, that not just know our brand, but trust our brand. Knowing a brand and trusting a brand is a totally completely different thing. When Spiceworks first started, trust was and is still a big thing to us today because this is back in 2006. If you remember 2006, this is when Gmail was getting started. This was when social media wasn’t even really a thing. What we were asking IT pros to do was taking our application, putting up behind their firewall but opening a port up so we can run ads into them. Today, that’s an everyday practice, but back then, you really had to trust someone before you’re starting to open up your infrastructure to anyone. I think it’s because of that level of trust that we treat them like individuals.
Even when I used to run the brand program, the partner program, I would do onboarding calls with any new green guy or green gal and they found that just the weirdest thing. When I did a campaign, I won’t say the other social networks out there, but hey, I did one with this company, they sent me a quick one-pager on how to get up and running and that was it. We set the calls, we talk them through it, I answer the emails as quickly as possible.
I think there’s a lot of that personal touch that bring awareness to that trust, we just have a big jump on it because of that. There may be other properties as if…They’re not as familiar with or maybe a little bit more hesitant because of experiences they’ve had before. One of the challenges we actually have is we announced that this acquisition is happening, people asked if our Spiceworks would turn into Mashable and have 40 different ads running on it and take over the full page with a video. We’ve expressed to them no, no, no.
There’s going to be change because every community evolves, but we’re going to do what’s right for the community because at the end of the day, they bought us for reason, they didn’t buy us just to have the Spiceworks thing. They bought us because we have a great community, we have great data, we have great employees, and we have great offerings. They’re going to want us to continue involving that. Hopefully, they’re still going that way, things are still looking good. Users are still enjoying it. To the extent sometimes they worry we’re not changing fast enough because you can never please them all.
[00:24:01] Patrick O’Keefe: Right, no, you can’t. You manage two teams, a community manager for Spiceworks and Ziff Davis and then the Agile coach team at Spiceworks. I know about community managers and community management teams. Tell me about the Agile coach team.
[00:24:12] Sean Dahlberg: The Agile team coaches are basically scrum masters. I want to say it’s about two years ago, maybe three years ago, we were doing waterfall development and we decided to go more with the Agile methodology. I was previously a scrum master when I worked at EA and Bioware and we didn’t have a lot of individuals who have that experience in our company. We brought a few individuals.
We started calling them scrum masters and a scrum master’s essentially, it’s always a fun one to figure out how to call it. To me, a scrum master is a lot what a community manager does but they do it for development teams. It’s not devrel, it’s more about sitting in a team and helping block obstacles. As a squad, they’re made up of different things. Part of your squad is your developers, part as your product owner who has that vision and moving you towards it. We also institute something we call as an engineering manager. They’re helping the developers grow their skill set. Therefore, higher-level architecture questions, things like that. Everyone’s, they’re more about making an outcome or product move forward. Agile coaches are really about making the team move forward. If there’s obstacles, they’re, “Hey, maybe our ops team isn’t working on something. Maybe they’re waiting on another spot to do something.” They’re running in between. They’re trying to grease those wheels as quickly as possible.
They also sometimes help the squad defend itself from itself. We have some times squads who were take on way too much work and they know they’re not going to get done in two weeks, but they try anyways. The scrum master or what we call them agile coaches, their job is like, “Hey guys, do you realistically think you can get this done in two weeks?” Sometimes the answer is yes and they go, “Hey, can you realistically have done this in two weeks without doing overtime?”
Then all of a sudden the answer becomes no. And then it’s going like, “Hey, what are the things that we can take off of your plate that will still reach the outcome we need in two weeks?” That’s what our agile coaches do is they’re there to really keep the squad moving forward, but also making sure they’re not burning themselves out.
[00:26:08] Patrick O’Keefe: You seem like you probably had enough to do on the community side? Spiceworks is a pretty big community. Did that fall under you because of your tech and dev experience more so than community experience?
[00:26:18] Sean Dahlberg: I think a little bit of both. As a community manager, I run community teams little different. It depends on what part of the world you come from. You’ll see some community teams are very marketing focused. I’ve always been one of those where I’m trying to spread my power all across the company. I believe in the dark side, no, not really. I’m one of those why I do feel like community works in tandem with almost every part of an organization.
I work daily with marketing, with sales, with development, and so I have my fingers in lots of things. That’s what you needed an agile coach to be as well. An agile coach doesn’t need you to just know their team well, you have all these stakeholders. If I’m building something for the sales team. I need to be able to coordinate and engage with sales property. I need to make sure that it’s also working well with our HR department if we’re ordering lunches or all just these weird things.
A community manager’s skill set actually transitions pretty well into an agile coach. On top of that, having worked with developers for so long, being a scrum master myself, it just felt like it was a perfect opportunity.
[00:27:18] Patrick O’Keefe: It makes sense to me. The Spiceworks daily challenge is a trivia question asked each day, which you referred to as Trivia Crack for IT pros. Trivia Crack is an app for those who aren’t familiar. HQ is another trivia app. I just ended recently, unfortunately. How does that work?
[00:27:33] Sean Dahlberg: One of the challenges we have, so again, you’ll see me reference to chapter two of the company or chapter three. For us, we always look them up based off of the company’s focus. The end of chapter two where we were just growing community, it grew in leaps and bounds. We were coming to chapter three, which we started wanting to be more of an internet destination. We wanted people coming to Spiceworks daily for their IT questions, but also just for knowledge sharing and everything else. For me, I always think of what are the other ways of bringing people back. We get all of these great questions and the answers is that’s already happening. I can do nothing and that wheel is going to keep on moving.
We started updating the homepage to be a little bit of a news source so they know if there was a big change in the world that might affect them, they would know about it.
For me, I’m always trying to look at what are the fun things that you can also do. I’m a big fan of webcomics, so we try our hand at that. We have a little webcomic that comes out every once in a while called Submit A Ticket.
For me, was that a good way of testing your knowledge? It just makes you want to come back to the site every day and that’s where daily challenge comes from. It’s essentially you can only take it once a day and it’ll scale you based off of your previous answers. There was about, I want to say, 17 categories of technology it will bring you into, so not every day you’re answering a question about Linux or about hyper-convergence. It keeps bringing you into different areas but the better you’re doing, the higher up and the harder those questions are getting.
We have quite a few big foundation of questions. It’s all easily last like three to five years without anyone taking the same question again. We’re always building on it. Much like Trivia Crack, you can actually submit questions. That also goes through my team to look at those and make sure it’s not a duplicate and also make sure it’s worded properly and it’s true. Yes, it’s just one of those fun facets every day, you get a new question. If you like, you get an email reminder or a push reminder on your mobile phone. It’s just one of those gateway things though.”Hey, it’s my daily challenge. While I’m here, I see that someone has an open questions in windows server, let me go help them.”
[00:29:31] Patrick O’Keefe: Who’s responsible for that? I’m not saying it’s a full-time thing, but it seems like a big enough thing where you’d keep an eye on. Who’s adding those questions?
[00:29:39] Sean: This is where I run my community in different than I think some other teams do. For me, my community has really grown like a live service team. That’s probably because I have a gaming background. That’s where I started building a lot of my online communities. It’s more about the service we’re giving. For me, it’s not just about the forums, it’s not just about marketing and social channels. I service all of our products. Our team, we take care of the daily challenge, we take care of our review section, we take care of our learning section. A lot of that comes through the community management team, so IT pros submit them. I also have about, I want to say 40 or so, bless their hearts, volunteer moderators that help out. While I bless their hearts just because they help moderation, these 40 are actual IT Pros. I did IT Pro back in the ’90s and as you imagine technology’s changed since then. These are guys and gals who are very up-to-date on their technology and can really help out when there’s a question like, is this true? Is this a real thing? They help and go through a lot of those questions as well.
We also have our standard practices as much like with the topic if it gets too many downloads if questions start getting downloads, and starts getting flagged for us to review. If it’s getting a lot of uploads, we actually do the opposite. We start surfacing those to new users because we know they’re well-written questions. We do some stuff behind the scenes data, the data-wise, but also the moderators who were all IT pros really help out to comment in that section.
[00:31:02] Patrick O’Keefe: Is the reason people participate because they’re interested in leaderboards and because they’re interested in that habit? Is there any other benefit to it?
[00:31:10] Sean Dahlberg: Yes and no. With a large community, you’re going to have people who love better reports and some who just love the brain tease in the morning. We do our best. Well, one of the challenges we have with the daily challenge, no pun intended, is that we base it off of your time zone. There’s a little bit of weirdness that we get every once in a while because of that or an IT pro changes time zones between questions, they could go, “Hey, my score’s messed up, what do I do?” They get very energized about this, shall we say. There’s some who just really loved the leaderboard aspect.
They like to see who’s there. We don’t just say, “Hey, here you are, here.” Here’s how you weight against your followers and your friends sort of tests their brain, gives them something quick but also lets them give back to the community. That’s one of the things I actually love about this community, probably more so than any other community and sorry if any of my other community members are listening is from previous communities. This is a community that comes together about helping each other. Because of that alone is probably one of the nicest communities I’ve ever run across. They came here because they needed help or they came back because they felt the help they got and they want to pay that forward or pay that back.
[00:32:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Now, that makes sense. When I asked you for a metrics you measure or that you keep an eye on, there was a long list you send me, but it wasn’t at the top, but one of the ones that you had in there was the retention rate for the daily challenge. Why?
[00:32:31] Sean Dahlberg: It wasn’t my top one at first because that is a program I inherited a couple of years ago. Whereas a lot of my dashboards were things I come from day one. A lot of the things I’ll talk to my community members or even internally about is I try not to make decisions just based off of someone’s posts. Their post is more contextual to the data that we have.
If I see there’s this member who’s raging about how the daily challenge is terrible and like you should shut this down, but I see more people are taking it and more people are coming back to take it. I can go back to this conversation say, “Hey, I see you’re really upset about this, I want to figure out why you’re upset about this and see if we could even solve the issue. Let me point out, our membership on daily challenges grown by whatever that number is and not only is relevant, these are members are coming back day in day, week and week, a month and a month. There’s something there that is working and let’s see if we get that working for you.” The idea that with all of our data things. It’s also grateful and reversed if we see registrations diving all of a sudden and we see community members talking about it, it’s a signup process. Maybe there were some posts, it helps us use the context of why the numbers are going the way they are, but yes, I love my dashboards.
[00:33:40] Patrick O’Keefe: I think in some ways I would say you’re lucky to have them. I’ve talked to a number of people who in myself, one of them at a previous job where I joined the company saying we needed to actually measure things and here’s what we should measure and can you put it in a dashboard and I left saying the exact same thing. [laughs]
[00:34:03] Sean Dahlberg: I feel I got lucky with this. I used to be a front end developer myself. I know a little SQL to make myself super dangerous. Don’t ever hire me for it. I used to base, I won’t say what it’s called, that’s a security issue, but we do data downloads every day of what’s going on with the community. I had access to it at the time and so I was running my own reports in spreadsheets. One of our business analysts came by one day and they just saw this like Excel sheet with 50 tabs doing all these weird things, they’re like, “What are you doing?” I said like, “Hey, this is showing my first-time posters. This is showing my retention rate based off of the different pepper levels.” I guess they were so insulted about how bad these Excel sheets were that they actually went and built the real dashboards.
[00:34:45] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s a good, proactive person. I don’t know that I know a lot of people who would say that.
[00:34:53] Patrick O’Keefe: When I asked you to name some of your biggest community wins, you mentioned your work on Star Wars: The Old Republic for Bioware where you built and led a community around that MMORPG, but that it was “probably the project that could have broken me.” Why?
[00:35:13] Sean Dahlberg: This was my younger days. I’ve worked on things previously, I worked at Ubisoft and a couple of other companies. I’ve always worked on MMO so massive multiplayer games. Most people think of massive multiplayer games, they think Warcraft, there’s ones that have much smaller population, shall we say. For me, I actually had made the jump from the community manager to being a designer and a lead designer between Bioware and my previous job.
It was the Bioware job that actually brought me back to community management. One of the individuals working there, this was all hush hush at the time no one knew. Even though everyone knew of the terrible rumor in the MMO industry, and like, hey, you had a potential to work on a Star Wars game and ta-da-da-da back in community management, would you come back? I was like, “Don’t even have to ask, when do I start? Can I go now?”
It was a big one because Bioware was known for a single-player game called Knights of the Old Republic. It had its own flair. You also have your Star Wars fans. There’s a lot of Star Wars fans who don’t play MMOs. Then you have your MMO players who are totally different kind of players, shall we say. This was the game that was trying to merge them all together into one thing and on top of that, it being Star Wars that in itself just made it very challenging because these are different personalities, different personas that don’t altogether see eye-to-eye. As someone who is playing KOTOR 1 looking for that story, I want to know what’s happened to HK-47 or what happened in Darth Revan. As an MMO player, I’m like, “Where am I raids? Where are my points? Can I PvP?” You have your Star Wars fans who are like, “I don’t know what these little games are talking about, but tell me can I be a gray jedi?” They told me how the lightsaber dimensions are incorrect or things like that. That part made it challenging. On top of it, even though I worked at other companies that were a part of a smaller company, I never had to deal with someone else’s license before. We deal daily with LucasArts.
We were also acquired by Electronic Arts previously right before all this began. It wasn’t just all the external community, it was also the internal side of dealing with the publisher and dealing with the license owner and making sure everyone’s happy and then again, we’re talking Star Wars. There’s some things that you just don’t break. There are things that are chained in and then there are things that you have to check and make sure everything’s working and everyone’s happy about.
In some of my previous jobs it was like, “Hey, we need screenshots of the new thing.” We’d go take them and we have them in a week. There were certain things that sometimes would take weeks or months once the asset was created before we can even publish it just because of some of the internal red tape, so to speak. All of that coming up at once, I got a huge team, so for me, I had led teams before but I think I had about 15 on-site and then like 20 something off-site. These were all paid employees.
Also for me, it was, now I’m not just a manager, I’m a manager of managers and making sure I’m giving people the right authority and the right ability to get their jobs done and me not being a bottleneck for it. It was a lot of learning experiences all at once for me.
[00:38:22] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s get to the broken part. I’m just kidding.
It sounds like it was just a substantial burden and I think self-care has always been a thing. It’s evident, we take care of ourselves. The advent of people, we do things to take care of ourselves. I think as a term, it has really grown in popularity. I don’t know and people can tell me I’m wrong, but let’s say last five years. It predates that is a really popular term. It sounds like there was just a massive responsibility, a massive things that you had to deal with internally, externally, lots of different people pulling lots of different directions and it was overwhelming.
[00:39:05] Sean Dahlberg: Yes, and it’s funny because anyone who works with me can easily tell when I’m having one of those timeframes. When everything’s running smoothly, I go to the gym very often, I’m very calm, I come in the morning, just got my coffee, and almost a smile on my face. I’m not a morning person that’s why there’s never an actual smile. There’s the times where everything’s hitting the wall at the same time and somehow I’ll do the gym next week, I’ll drink more coffee and less food today.
It’s hard to notice it pretty quickly, but I always do my best when I see or I’m noticing that myself, it’s like, I need to take a day off, take an afternoon off. Just something to go and decompress for a little bit, because I’m doing not just myself favors by doing that, but my team, my community, everything else. That’s when you start making bad decisions. That’s when you don’t start giving your all. For me, I always try and do that, but I’m also one of those terrible bosses because I make my employees take time off. They’ll start talking about, “Hey, I’m having a really hard day and I’m like go home. Go away.” They’ll say, “Well, you’re having a bad day and you’re still here. Well, that’s different.
[00:40:09] Patrick O’Keefe: “I get paid more than you.”
[00:40:12] Sean Dahlberg: I never told them that. They hate that.
[00:40:14] Patrick O’Keefe: In the Marine Corps, you had a lot of technical roles and you switched over to gaming at some point. You were in gaming for a long time. I talk to a lot of gaming people. I know a lot of gaming people. I hear a lot of things about struggles in the gaming industry. I’m sure you have those same stories. Now, you’ve been in this technical non-gaming side for eight and a half years. Would you ever go back to gaming? Is that an industry that you feel one day– You’re happy at Spiceworks, I’m not suggesting otherwise, but is gaming something that an industry that you’d go back to?
[00:40:44] Sean Dahlberg: Definitely so. I probably would go back in community change management but also I still have a lot of heart and desire and passion when it comes to designing experiences, not so much on level design. There are people who do that fantastic for me. This is actually how I got into community management. I like building virtual worlds, whether that’s form for IT pros or for gamers, where they’re coming together and they’re having these engagements with other people that they may never have had before.
For me, that’s actually how I got started back in a little game called Ultra Online. I didn’t work on there officially, I was just a gamer. I started doing this thing called Pacific Shard Times. It was like a server newspaper, will say, and I was just, “Hey, here’s where this guild fought this guild,” or “Here’s where these role players did this.” People started coming and read it and we started having in-game events. From there, it just grew. I like bringing people together, sometimes in fun ways where it’s, “Okay, let’s talk about stories.” In other ways, I like PvP. For those unfamiliar, that’s a player versus player, where you have people engaging against each other, not working for each other. For me, I just enjoy that and that’s how I got into community management because I say, “Hey, I can actually do this as a career.” I would definitely go back for the right opportunities, I think. Don’t worry Spiceworks, I’m not going anywhere right now.
[00:42:02] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s clear, it’s definitely a part of you because when you send me your longer bio, it had this name, Ashen Temper and I couldn’t focus. It’s like, they clearly, clearly someone that spend a lot of time building up a reputation in that industry where it occupies such a large portion of your background.
[00:42:20] Sean Dahlberg: Well, it’s funny that you bring that up. Back when I just started community management, at least in the game industry, you didn’t use your name. Part of the reason was, was fear of people coming and finding you and putting pies in your face, which we have this weird story where a user had found the office and had a VHS of just videos of someone getting a pie in their face for 40 minutes. Then at the end of it said, “See you soon.” You never used your real name. If you go look at the game industry, especially back in the early 2000s, everyone had these weird names. Mine was actually, Temper, there was a guy named Sun Sword. I can’t remember what Raph Koster’s name was. It’s just everyone liked this Lord Ultima, who’s Richard Garriott. Everyone just uses a pseudonym, because you didn’t want to put your real name out there. In fact, when I went to Bioware for Star Wars, that was a change I’ve made for the community there. I was like, “Hey, guys, because of the community we’re dealing with, and because they’re not all MMO players, I want to try and make it natural, real, tangible relationships with individuals, so we’re using our real first names.” A lot of people thought I was ludicrous at the time, but I think it worked out well.
[00:43:30] Patrick O’Keefe: I’m talking to you right now. Not that this is the highlight of your career. [crosstalk]
[00:43:37] Sean Dahlberg: [crosstalk] This is up on the board somewhere.
[00:43:39] Patrick O’Keefe: Well, Sean, thanks so much for the time and for the conversation. I really enjoyed it.
[00:43:43] Sean Dahlberg: No problem. This was great. Like I said, I’ve been a fan of the show for a little while. Listening to myself will probably be a little weird.
[00:43:50] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s always the case. The difference is I have to deal with it every week.
[00:43:55] Sean Dahlberg: You do a great job.
[00:43:56] Patrick O’Keefe: Thanks, Sean.
[00:43:57] Sean Dahlberg: It’s why I keep coming back and listening to it.
[00:43:59] Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Sean Dalhberg, director of community for Spiceworks. Check out their community at community.spiceworks.com. You can also find Sean at seandahlberg.com and follow him on Twitter @ashentemper, that’s A-S-H-E-N T-E-M-P-E-R.
Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Until next time.
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