Careers & Community with Carter Gibson

Good morning yenizens!

Quick reminder for leaders: Vulnerability (and its close cousin, transparency) starts with us. We must go first. We must model this to our teams and communities. I shared this note with my team yesterday morning:

Sometimes… … … you know. 🤦🏻‍♂️

To infinity & community,

— john

If you’ve happened to encounter Carter Gibson (@cartergee) on a panel or as a guest speaker or test-driver of new community tech via a Zoom hangout, then, you already know who I’m talking about.

And, like you, he left quite an impression and so I had to connect with him on one of the very first career-focused deep-dives, especially after I heard him share a few candid thoughts in our last hangout together.

I asked him to first share a few standard-issue questions and then we get much-deeper into the who and the what and then looping around to who helped him get to where he is today.

And, if today’s issue isn’t enough, then, you can find more of his writing via

Let’s jump in.

What first got you into community? Tell us that story:

It was a total accident.

I was about to graduate college and needed to find a job. The only problem was that the interviews weren’t going great. Nothing felt like a fit. To avoid this anxiety, my friend gave me early beta access to Google+.

Remember Google+?

Well, long story short I started writing – a lot. Eventually I was added to their Suggested User List which resulted in 1.2M followers. My first experience as a community manager was my own audience.

It was an interesting twist on it, but I was fortunate to have mentorship from G+’s community manager. She would go on to be a long term mentor for me and I would eventually join Google as the community / content lead on, you guessed it, Google+.

What was the moment that you first realized community could be a full-time job?

Well, like most college students ten years ago, I had no idea it was a job. My first exposure to it came from my mentor on Google+.

But I don’t think I realized it was something I could do. When I was a senior in college, I was invited to speak at a conference about my experiment on Google+. I said I needed a job at the end of the talk (shamelessly, like the about-to-graduate-jobless college student I was).

The most interesting offers were in CM, but I don’t think it felt real until I had an offer letter that let me move to San Francisco.

How has “community” changed over the course of your career? How has it impacted your professional decisions? And how have you navigated salary and compensation?

Community feels more central to brands than it used to. It felt more like an experiment when I was starting out. There was so much talk over small networking events about how this work was so important, but didn’t get the love or independence it needed. If companies did have CM teams, they felt auxiliary to Marketing or Customer Service.

Nowadays, I think we’ve earned our stripes a bit more and operate both more independently and in clearer partnership.

Professionally, I used my background in community to transition into Program Management when I joined Google. That helped me realize that I actually had a bunch of Program Management experience I didn’t know I had.

This brought me into a much more strategic position than day-to-day CM functions and, at Google especially, helped me integrate community fundamentals into products more easily – thanks, especially, to the technical acumen required for that kind of role.

As for salary? I mostly just begged for money in my early career! My first role paid $50k per year in San Francisco and I learned that I needed to advocate for myself. That means setting expectations early with my managers / CEOs about what I needed to do to get that next raise.

I also learned, in time, that “options” aren’t compensation when you’re at a startup or smaller company. Even if that company does well or gets offers, it doesn’t mean they want to sell — I think I’ve made the mistake of overvaluing that compensation until I got to Google where the stock matters. 

What are some of the better examples of “big cos” doing community well? 

I’m not sure if it’s a “Big Co” but I’ve recently began appreciating NextDoor more and more during Covid and work from home.

Fundamentally, it’s an app about what community used to mean before the internet: your neighborhood. They’ve worked extremely hard to be useful and, most recently, with their Good Neighbor Pledge.

It’s always cool to see brands that are confident in sharing / posting their guidelines and seeing theirs pop up as a full screen interstitial was cool to see.

A bigger company example would be Twitter, which has been impressing me lately. Election years are extremely tough for any huge social network, but especially on Twitter which has a… storied reputation regarding respect and misinformation.

To me, a huge part of community means caring for users after listening to their concerns. It doesn’t always mean forums, etc. Taking a strong stance this year on voting security and the recent “Did you actually read this?” notice before sharing an article are, ultimately, compassionate features.

I want more brands to do those kinds of community-centric acts.

What are some things you wish would change in the larger community space? What have we gotten wrong?

I want “community” to be more central in other roles, not just a separate function. For example, I’m an engineering program manager (technically) with a CM background. More of that in more places would be great.

Another thing I think CM is growing out of is the approach of “One CM per Platform”. Instead of having a CM manage one space (eg, a forum section, a specific game, etc) and another CM manage the other, CMs should manage horizontal programs across specific places.

For example, one CM leads moderation strategy and another can lead events. When CMs work across platforms and aren’t so territorial, I think better work happens.

The last thing I’d say is more a word of caution than it is something we’ve “gotten wrong.” As CM becomes more well-known, the temptation to “sell out” becomes more prevalent.

One thing I really appreciate about the people in the CM space is our shared set of principles. As our work continues to gain recognition, we need to be careful to create the right partnerships with the brands and companies that actually care about us.

We’ll need to resist parts of the tech industry that feel inauthentic (eg, pay-to-speak conferences, uncomfortable branding, etc) to keep our integrity in this pivotal moment of CM getting the resources we need. That doesn’t mean, “Don’t go seek resources / funding,” but rather to be intentional about it.

Who inspired you the most in your career? Who pushed you the hardest?

I’m going to cheat on the inspiration question and give you two. First, there was my first boss Evan Hamilton. Evan gave me my foundational understanding of what community management was.

He is, truly, the one who inspired me to love this field and showed me how impactful it could be to people. Without his mentorship, I’m not sure I’d be as passionate about this space. And now he’s the Director of Community at Reddit!! Evan is a superstar in my eyes.

The second person who inspired me the most was my first manager at Google. He taught me the fundamentals of program management, yes, but more importantly he showed me that I had been a program manager for much longer than I thought.

He was able to show me the characteristics I’d been displaying for longer than even I knew. Giving someone the confidence to succeed at a place like Google is no small feat and my first manager there believed in me, empowered me, stood up for me, and made me love program management as much as community management.

I won’t say who the manager was that pushed me the hardest because it was a really negative experience (hah…!) but what I can tell you is that pushing someone to do something they’re not naturally good at isn’t a winning management strategy.

I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder or felt worse about myself. I’ve taken that example and made sure I never do that with my own reports. Success is finding someone’s natural strengths and empowering them to use them.

… … Okay! — I’m so sorry but I have to give one more example of someone who inspired me!

I worked at my university’s business school career center and every single career counselor there helped me so, so much. I worked at the Kogod Center for Career Development for three years and Annie, Arlene, Jen, Corinne, and more taught me so much about who I was and what I could do.

When I first started writing, it was the people who worked here that encouraged me to get into this community management space at all. At one point, I had the opportunity to fly to LA and give a talk and it was these amazing women who made me realize that this talk would be the genesis of my career. They were right.

What was one of the most satisfying career achievements and how did that impact the way you thought through community?

After “twenty-percenting” for about a year on the internal community project at Google, we became a stand alone team. I couldn’t believe it. Originating my team was wild, validating, scary – but mostly just amazing.

It made me realize that this work could be an actual…. thing. It felt like a new field had opened up right in front of me and, since then, I’ve been loving every day we figure it out. 

A less serious moment was when the team I managed on Google+ made me a Beyonce-themed birthday card. Management is really tough and I care extremely deeply about the experience my reports are having. Getting that thoughtful card was a super rewarding, albeit totally silly moment.

Every time I look at that card I smile. It’s still on my desk.

You mentioned mentorship, which many of us love. How can we be doing this better in the community space?

More 1:1 time with fewer people.

I don’t know if anyone else feels this way, but I don’t think mentorship is a Twitter group. Mentorship is having a trusting relationship with one person over a long period of time.

You don’t share your articles or communicate with character limits. You ping your mentor when you’re going through it and set up a call to talk it out.

Too many places had made mentorship this very public experience that’s closely tied to a brand – and I just think successful mentorship is much more private than that.

I have to give a shout out to Commsor’s Community Club which has made mentorship a core aspect of their space. They’re doing it right. I am obsessed with the people behind this and if you’re looking for a mentor, highly recommend signing up.

Peter Thiel Question: What is one thing you believe to be true about community that very few people agree with you on?

Not every company needs community. Listen, I know we’ve all been working really hard to tell everyone everywhere how important it is to have community, but it also needs to make sense.

A community not making sense isn’t always a failure. Failure, instead, can be trying to force community and not recognizing that it’s just not a good fit.

Should we have a community?” is a worthwhile question and, “No” is perfectly legitimate.

I tend to think that if community is inevitable, it’ll happen naturally. It’s at that point companies should hire a CM, rather than when they’re super new, don’t have critical user mass, or haven’t figured out their core value proposition.

Hiring CMs too early or on products that don’t generate the kind of excitement needed for a thriving community sets the CM up for a very tough, thankless uphill battle.

Finally, who should i ping next for a deep-dive like this?

Holly Firestone. There is no better option.