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16 min read

Jul 26th, 2021

Uncommon Conversations: An Interview with Ale Murray at Confluent [VIDEO]

Ale Murray, Global Community Manager at Confluent, the foundational platform for data in motion based on Apache Kafka, sat down for an Uncommon Conversation to discuss how she and her team built the Confluent community on five pillars: Hackathons, Leaders, Digital Platforms, Conferences, and Meetups. She also dives into how she empowers Confluent's community to build each other up and what she looks for when hiring new community team members.

Our interview has been lightly edited and condensed:

Uncommon: Hey Ale! Tell us a little about yourself, when you first stepped into a community-based role, and why?

Ale: I am originally from Colombia. I have been based in London since 2008, when I came to do my MBA and I never went back. I'm the Global Community Manager at Confluent. And the first time I stepped into a community role was in 2014 when I started at a company called DataStax.

I didn't really choose this path knowing everything that was in front of me, to be honest, it was a bit of an accident for me to land here. When I was first interviewing at DataStax, I was actually interviewing for a field marketing role. And when I went through the interview process and at the end when they offered me the role, they told me that there was this other role that was the community role that they thought I would be a good fit for. So I told my then hiring manager, who then became my mentor, Christian Hasker, that I didn't really know anything about community so I was nervous to accept the role.

And he said, "Well, nobody does. Nobody knows anything about it, and we can learn together, and you can learn on the go." And I did ask him what he thought about, what his advice would be. And he said, "If you don't like it, you can always go back to field marketing, but if you do like it, it can become really valuable for your career in the future, and it can be something that you really enjoy.”

I fell in love with it, I am still in love with it seven years in, and it was great advice, and one of the best pieces of advice I've gotten from him as a mentor, and from a manager in general. So I am really glad that he had the vision—he’s a community visionary.

After seven years, does what he said - “Well, no one knows about community” - still feel true to you?

I do see that there's a lot more buzz around it, but it's still quite a new thing. I mean, seven years, 10 years is just really nothing compared to many of the other industries or fields. And yeah, I'm looking forward to seeing more and more people learning about it because the more they do, then the more new ideas and new strategies we can all work towards and grow from learning from each other.

[Between your EMEA-focused role at DataStax and your global role at Confluent, are there] any similarities and differences to note about the size, the structure, or the expectations leading the two community programs?

It definitely was a bit of pressure to build something of this scale [at Confluent], but there was also something great about the fact that I could structure the program the way I wanted to do it. I was able to see it through to what it is today, and that has been a great satisfaction.

Part of that strategy, and I can imagine some of the pressure of that, is that you were going to seed and grow a totally new community program, which at Confluent you call the Confluent Community Catalyst Program, which you launched almost two years ago. Can you take us in the way back machine and tell us about the 'why'?

The Catalyst Program is our MVP program, and it was something I wanted to build from the beginning. What we wanted to with this program was mainly to recognize the amazing work of the community. Really the only thing that I was hoping for this was just to build people up, for them to be recognized, and recognized in the community and within the community. And that way we were hoping that they could feel confident enough to build others up as well and build the people that come behind them. So that's been the main goal.

We hear a lot about that key moment of identifying a champion. [At Common Room, we’re building the tools] to help people do that, but when you started this in 2019 there weren't necessarily tools to [do that]. How did you identify your champions at that time?

So it was definitely very personal relationship building that we had to do, so it wasn't really very scalable. That's actually one of the things that I'm looking forward to [getting] from Common Room—is being able to scale [the] program in a way that it gives us visibility to people in places that we didn't have visibility before, or that we were not looking at. And it is just so easy to focus on what we know, or who we know, or what we're used to looking at, but being able to identify people for their contributions on a single pane of glass and we can see everything that they're contributing to…I think that's something that's really great and is really rich.

How we had been doing it until now has literally been [asking], who do we know? Have we heard of someone? Let's go platform by platform and individually try to assess who's who. And that has definitely been a challenge that I'm looking forward to help with [from] the tools like the one you're building.

I know that different companies and organizations structure their recognition programs in different ways. [Can you tell us] about how you landed on the yearly structure and what kinds of things people in the program usually do within that year?

The main reason for this to be an annual rotation program is to give others the opportunity to step up and shine. I've noticed that a lot of time people are active in these programs at certain stages of their work life. A lot of the time they just get busy, or they change direction in their company, or they just don't have time to put into the community. So I didn't want to put pressure on people that they had to contribute or they had to be constantly present. I also think that the rotation allows for us to always find new faces.

And we have decided to recognize people and do the nomination process in a way that allows different types of personalities to shine. So we decided that our requirements could be something like contributions behind your desk, behind your laptop. So contributions [around] code or writing blogs or anything like that. But we also recognize people that love being in front of other people, so speakers and people that do podcasts and interviews and all these different types of personalities. So they need to have three [contributions]—you can mix and match however that suits you, but that way it gives people the opportunity to just shine according to their own personalities.

There are also so many other channels that you built into the original strategy that you brought to Confluent. And shout out, you discussed this a little bit on the Streaming Audio podcast with Tim Berglund. You talk about hosting formal and informal events, you also talk about the MVP program, which is the Community Catalyst program. And then you talk about hosting hackathons, enabling meetups, inviting community members to the Slack channel...How did you decide on opening and supporting these specific channels?

At the beginning of my time at Confluent I sat down and built a strategy based on five pillars. And I made these based on the experience that I had from my previous job and what I thought would be the best initial strategy to get the community excited. The five pillars include:

1. Hackathons pillar
2. Leaders pillar
3. Digital Platforms pillar
4. Conferences pillar
5. Meetups pillar

The components that roll under each pillar have changed over the years, and that has changed according to the maturity and the stage of the community.

For example, I think Meetups are a key component in a community strategy because it's one of the most comprehensive programs that there are for community benefit. So they are completely free educational events where people interact, and network, talk to like-minded individuals. They find jobs, they make friends, they hire other people. So in my opinion those are all key factors for the health of a community.

But then you have other programs like Conferences where we go to keep ourselves up to date with what other people in the industry are doing, with what other people in the industry are doing. But also it is one of the few places where we can feed our community flywheel, meaning it's one of the few places where we can go and talk to people about our technologies and our community. And it's people that have never heard off of us before. Because if you think about the other pillars, it needs to be people that are already familiar with what we do or who we are.

In the Leaders pillar, well you have the MVP program which is our Catalysts, which I spoke about just before. But we also are starting to see a lot of interest from people to hear about what others are doing in the community. So what are they doing with technology? Who are they? So we're adding a ‘use cases’ program to that pillar this year…because that's what we have been hearing is important for [members].

And then regarding the Digital Platforms, the first thing I did was set up our Slack space, which today actually has 28,000 people. So it's just great, it's been growing a lot. And the main idea with this was just to give the community a space and a platform for them to interact with each other from anywhere in the world. Being able to have that space for people to connect from anywhere in the world and build that community feeling in a space that didn't depend on their physical location was really important.

And then we saw a need to have those conversations searchable, to have history on those conversations. So we opened our forum on Discourse, which allows for this to happen. So as you can see, it's just been like, we decided to the initial strategy, but also it's been modifying and adapting to the needs of the community at that exact stage. Every community is different and matures in a different way. So I think you've got to listen to your community in order to understand what they want and what will work for them.

Are there specific ways that you reach out to hear from your community?

That's what I'm using Common Room for. We are defining our top 100 influencers in the community with Common Room. And now we're reaching out to them individually to ask what they're doing and what their use case is, and if they [are] interested in sharing that with the rest of the community. So [Common Room] has actually been a huge help for us to do this because before what we were doing was just sending generic emails to everyone in the community asking, “Hey, does anyone want to this?” And the engagement was very low, really.

So the way we're doing it this time is purposely targeting the people that we know are very involved in the community. And the people that we know are influencing our community in some ways. And we're asking them directly. So it was like, “Okay Rebecca, we know who you are. We know what you've contributed. Do you want to share it with the world?” It has way more weight and way more chance to succeed than if you just send a generic email with a form and say, “Hey anyone, can someone just help us and share their use case?”

If you were mentoring a new community manager who is like, “Okay, I need to build community,” what might you tell them?

I'd really encourage people that start working in community to see these as a labor of love and not a place to gather leads or to build pipeline. I think if that's clear from the beginning, then your whole strategy will fall from there in the right place. The idea is to build a community strategy, not a marketing strategy. I really encourage people to have that clear from the beginning and have that clarity with the executive level, because if you have that support, then everything else falls in place.

So that's one of the things I say. And then another thing is I do really encourage people to do meetups, even if they are not in person right now, because obviously we're in an online world as it stands. But even if it is just online, it's places where actually you build community. So it's like, if you think about what actually builds community, not how I can just send people to something, or just get people to do something that I want them to do. But actually, how do you put in place platforms and spaces for people to actually build a community?

Another thing is to really to get your hands dirty and get to know people. There's no golden button that you touch and then it just creates a strategy or finds the people. It's really hard work, and it's really personal. And it's really about building relationships. And another thing that I encourage is the top-down culture. So whether that is you or whether that is your CEO or whether that is just a community person that you think people follow, if they are cultured, educated, nice people that are willing to educate others for the sake of the benefit of the community and not themselves, then people will follow the lead for that.

When you're looking for people for your own community team, what are some things you look for as a hiring manager?

One of the things that I look for is people that are empathetic and people that are humble. You cannot come to this with a big ego. Someone who's humble, someone who speaks nicely to community members as they want people to speak to them. If we want to build a multicultural community and an inclusive community, we always need to come from a place of empathy. So I'm looking for an empathetic person that normally is open or has had experience working with different cultures and different kinds of people.

Another thing that I look for is someone who is incredibly structured and organized. Because you can get lost in all their strategies and all their programs, and all the stuff that we do, and all the day-to-day. Being able to build relationships in a structured and organized way is not something that comes so easily to a lot of people. But I think it's definitely something important, because otherwise, you lose track of what you're doing and who you're meeting and what people are needing more of or what you hear from here or there. So definitely that structure and organization is something I would focus on.

Are there certain types of questions you ask to get at that heart of empathy?

I think one of the key things for that to happen is for them to speak to a lot of people. You cannot close the process to only your team. I like them meeting the members from other teams, or from a totally different team in their organization, from a sales team, from an engineering team. And that way I'll be able to assess with their own feedback, the feedback from all these people from around the company, what they were like with them and how did they speak to them.

I feel that being able to build that inclusivity at an interview process is really important. Because if you ask them to speak to everyone that's like-minded, then we're all going to think the same, right? So if I ask them to speak to everyone from my team, or from people that think like me or speak like me in a community language sense, then we're all going to perceive the same. But when I ask them to speak to different people across the organization is when I really sense the empathy they have for speaking to different people from different groups. And I think that's a key.

Where do you go today, even after seven years, to learn about community-focused approaches?

I talk to a lot of the people that I've worked with before, but there are [also] these round tables and Slack channels and places that are good spaces for developer relations people. And I really like interacting in all of those and talking to other people from other companies and knowing what they're doing, what they say that their strategies are looking like now, how are they dealing with different things.

Hopefully here at Common Room and Uncommon, we can help you make more of those connections. [Lastly], we’re super excited to keep sharing the Uncommon Support Fund. So we ask every featured expert to choose a nonprofit whose cause and mission you want to highlight. Can you tell us about the organization you chose to dedicate your Uncommon Support to?

I really like Books for Kids. There's something that I've always said and it’s that if I cannot change the world myself, I want to give people the opportunity and the platforms to change the world themselves. And that's why I love working in community. And I think that Books for Kids is definitely perfect for that, it’s giving the chance to someone else to change the world and I love that.