Let’s Meet: Andy McIlwain

Good morning yeniverse!

One of the more exciting piece of news is that the small team that I have has grown by +1 today! Hiring anyone is hard and I’m so excited to onboard Fred onto our 🚀 that is the yeniverse!!

Oh! We’ve added these tools — thanks everyone for making submissions!

To infinity & community,

— john


Today we’re going to get to know Andy McIlwain, a “content wrangler,” community builder, small biz advocate, and occasional developer — apparently he also doodles a bit as well.

Andy’s deep into the WordPress community and is someone that I’ve crossed paths plenty of times with in the past; WordPress has an important place in my heart and I’m so grateful for learning the ins, the outs, and even the ups / downs of open source directly from a significant (understatement of the year) project.

You can find more from Andy via his blog at andymci.ca,  @andymci on twitter, and the ‘gram as @andy.mcilwain. Let’s jump into the Qs!

Andy, take us back to the first encounter of online community. What was that like and how did that begin to formulate your early ideas into a career (or did it)?

My first encounter would be with this old message board network called ezBoard. I was a regular on a few different boards, all related to tech or gaming. This would’ve been around the early 2000’s.

Those communities introduced me to open source software and blogging platforms, and that led me down a rabbit hole of tinkering with web hosting, content management systems, self-hosted forum software, portals, IRC, et al.

In the mid-2000’s I started contributing to some larger gaming forums and fansites. I kept that up for about ten years. I did a lot of work on the content side as an editor, and a lot of work on the community side as a moderator.

Community management as a career never crossed my mind — I saw it as a hobby. Gifts and freebies from game publishers were payment enough. Having grown up in a working-class family in rural Canada, comp’d economy flights to the US and free “merch” were like big, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

In hindsight, we were really just a bunch of overly enthusiastic fans doing content marketing and community management at minimal cost. I wouldn’t understand the real value of it until years later.

What have been some of your favorite and more memorable communities over the course of your career?

Getting involved in the WordPress community has done a lot for me. I was introduced to the platform in 2007 by one of my college instructors. I fell in love with it and immediately became a vocal WordPress advocate.

It was serendipitous timing. When I graduated in 2009, nobody was hiring. But because of my self-taught web skills, all built around WordPress, I was able to get a job with a local digital marketing agency.

It was like a snowball effect from there. I moved to Toronto a year later, joined the local WordPress group, volunteered to co-organize our WordCamp conference, and helped organize monthly meetups after that.

Every job I’ve had since then came from connections I made through the WordPress community.

“Community as a career” finally clicked for me in 2015. I was approached about a Community Manager role at GoDaddy. Reading over the job requirements was like reading a summary of everything I’d done for the past fifteen years.

It’s a dream job, and I’m still super grateful for it.

Who mentored and coached you up in terms of community & leadership? What did they practice that you still do today? What did they tell you to be wary about?

Chris Carfi, my former director at GoDaddy and now the VP of Marketing at Duda. Chris saw what soft skills I had, and he helped me reframe those skills within a business context.

A handful of tactical things I picked up from Chris:

  1. Clarify objectives before starting anything new. What does success look like?
  2. Embrace the Plus/Delta. After every activity, ask: What worked? What should we do differently next time?
  3. Use decks to communicate your ideas. Simple visuals and powerful statements resonate.
  4. Empower your team to make decisions and experiment with different approaches.
  5. Share your wins, and back everything up with data.

I was never told to be wary of anything in particular, but I have learned to watch out for internal fiefdoms. Some folks prefer total control instead of collaboration and it can be hard to work with people like that.

How would you steer or navigate your career now, armed with what you know? What advice would you give to the Junior or Senior in college who’s looking at jumping into this full-time?

I’m freshly in the middle manager phase of my career, just starting to build a team of my own. So it’s a lot of give-and-take right now within groups like Community Club and CMX. I’m absorbing what I can from others who’ve been through it, and sharing what I can with those who are just getting started.

My top piece of advice? Embrace the flexibility that naturally comes with community management.

You can lean into a bunch of different areas — CMX’s SPACE model is a great representation of that. To quote Bruce Lee: Be like water. Get ready to flow with the needs and changes of whatever organization you join. You’ll learn a lot from adjacent teams, be it support or marketing or something else.

Second most important piece of advice? Figure out where you, personally, can drive the most value.

One way to do that is to build strong relationships with teams around the org. It’s easier to get buy-in when you can show how your work aligns with theirs.

One of the first things I did after joining GoDaddy was talk to different teams about what they wanted to get out of a customer community.

What is your biggest grievance to community in (big) business? What could we be doing better?

That’s easy: Politics and resourcing.

Community means different things to different people. Combine that with the flexibility of community and you can end up with an ill-defined program that’s passed around like a hot potato.

That said, I think we’re on the right track as a profession and industry, as a whole — 2020 has been a hell of a year for community management. Between the longstanding work done by groups like Community Roundtable and CMX, the more recent launch of the Community Club community (so meta), and the growing awareness of community as an asset, we’re in a great position to develop more standards and best practices.

Peter Thiel Q: What important truth do very few people agree with you on as it relates to community?

Your community doesn’t need to be a bastion of free speech. There are hot topics that will inevitably spark arguments and hostility, especially in bigger communities.

My rule of two: No politics, no religion.

The open web is great because you can spin up a site or a community about nearly any topic. People can go find a place, or create a place, that welcomes those discussions and have at it.

Who should we do a deep-dive with next?

Randy Jordan, aka @randydeluxe, aka Kaivax, Community Manager at Blizzard. I’m a longtime Warcraft player (sup fellow nerds!!) and am very curious about how their team operates across different channels and platforms.