Getting the most out of online communities

Some tips for networking, learning and living in online professional communities.

Published: 20-01-2020

I went freelance two years ago. Aside from learning that I really ought to call myself a consultant rather than a freelancer, one of the things that has struck me in that time is the value of a good online community. I was lucky enough to stumble across Write the Docs shortly before going freelance, and without it, none of the past two years would have been possible:

  • A substantial portion of my professional development has come through the community, from conversations in the Slack group to conferences.
  • It's my first port of call for "How do I turn this into a PDF?", "Anyone got a good basic contract?", "Why is MadCap Flare doing . . . ?" and more.
  • All my work has come from it, either through responding to job advertisements, or through recommendations from people I've met in the community. It's possible another thing I need to learn is to not be so dependent on one resource for work, but that'll be another blog post (when my luck runs out).
  • It's been my gateway to other valuable communities, including a MadCap Flare user group and a JAMStack group.

This post contains a few observations and lessons learned from being a part of an online professional community. I suspect it applies across most tech communities, and probably beyond. It has two aims: to encourage better community participation, and to show some ways community participation can benefit members. This means it tries to balance two rather different tones. On the one hand, it's about human connection and giving back. And on the other, self-promotion and networking. I don't think these are as opposed as they seem: altruism can be great self-promotion, and a more human approach to careers would improve everyone's wellbeing.

The short version

There are two key points about online professional communities:

  • Join to meet people and learn things. Anything else is a bonus.
  • You get out what you put in.

Feel free to ignore the rest of the post. Or read on, for tips and advice.

Choosing your community

Ideally, you're looking for a group of people who you will spend considerable time talking with. You'll share ideas, debate best practices, fight over favourite tools, and maybe even build things together. So make sure you're joining a community you actually like. All the business stuff (networking, self-promotion, learning new skills) will be much easier if you're happy to be there.

Some questions to ask when choosing a community:

  • Does the community have a code of conduct? There's a great summary of why this is important in the Write the Docs code of conduct.
  • Is the community relevant? You're here to have fun, but you're also here to learn.
  • Will it be possible to get more involved if you want to? You might start out in a Slack group, but if it's important to you to have in-person meetups, consider picking a community with meetups in your area (unless you're prepared to start one yourself).

Saying hello

It starts with your introduction. Compare these (imaginary) posts to the #intros channel on the community Slack:

Hi! I'm Jane. I'm a consultant tech writer specialising in API documentation. Check out my website.

Or:

Hi! I'm Jane. I'm a consultant tech writer specialising in API documentation (website). I'm so pleased to have found this community, I'm really excited to meet other API docs writers.

There's nothing wrong with the first one. It's not offensive, or unprofessional, and they've even posted to the correct channel. But it doesn't feel particularly friendly. It's an advert, not a greeting.

Joining in discussions

There's absolutely nothing wrong with lurking and learning. But joining in occasionally, when you have relevant experience or information to share, is the first step to giving back to a community that's supporting you. You'll gain more from discussions where you're an active participant, and you'll become more visible in the community. Asking questions and sharing problems is a valid form of joining in: other people may benefit from the discussion.

That said, a couple of pitfalls:

  • Don't make assumptions about the people you're talking to. They might be brand new to tech, they might have 20 years' experience and be leading a team of writers. And of course, the newbie may still be an expert on something that the senior writer hasn't encountered yet.
  • Don't forget that this is a professional community. Some communities (forums in particular) are a permanent record of everything you say. Others, especially Slack-based ones, may have information disappear after a few days, but it's always possible for people to copy, screenshot, or just remember what you said. You may be job hunting, or linking to your own websites, or other things that allow your community identity to be linked to your real identity. Assume that any potential employer will see everything you write.

Contributing more

If you're finding a community helpful, start thinking about ways to support it. Can you contribute a few hours to their website? Help organise meetups? Offer to do a shift as a moderator? Are there community projects looking for contributors? As well as being a nice thing to do, active community contributions can be a great form of self-promotion.

There are pitfalls here too:

  • Watch your tone. Taking a look at the website's GitHub repo and working on an open issue? That's probably welcome. Launching into a rant to a community leader about how you dislike the website? Not so great (I've done this one. It was deeply uncool of me).
  • Is your priority to benefit the community, or to self-promote? As mentioned above, contributing and self-promoting can overlap. For example, I don't hesitate to put "I run the north England Write the Docs meetup" on my About page. It's ok to do this, but it's also worth checking in with yourself. Make sure you are actually benefiting the community. Apart from anything else, a genuine contribution is probably better for self-promotion . . .
  • Don't overload yourself. In an active community with lots of fun stuff going on, it will be tempting to get involved with everything. If you have the time and energy to make the community your second job, then go for it. But most of us can't do that without compromising other things (work-life balance, other forms of professional development, re-watching Deep Space 9 with your cat, and so on).

Job hunting

Online communities can be great for job hunting. Many have job boards and channels where companies can advertise. If they also have space to list your availability, go for it.

However, there is a long-tail aspect to job hunting which sometimes gets forgotten. This applies to freelancers more than employees. If you just lost your full time job and need to pay the bills, then you can't wait months or years for a stroke of luck. But when freelancing, you're going to be almost constantly on the look-out for work. This means that recommendations and contacts become really helpful. You spend less time browsing job posts and sending off your CV if people in your community come to you saying "Are you looking for work? Would you be interested in . . . ?".

The gotcha here is that it's not predictable, and if you strategise for it, you probably reduce the chances of it happening. If you're active in the community, contribute, show up, present yourself well and (at least occasionally) talk sense, there's a chance you'll make a good impression and someone will remember you next time they have some work to offer.

Don't join a community just for this benefit. There's a lot of luck involved, and it's not a fast way to find work. But don't rule out the possibility, and don't forget about it when chatting online (see also: the pitfalls of online discussion mentioned above).

Oh, and when you have work to offer, or come across a relevant job that you're not going for? Share it. At the very least, share job adverts. If the community allows it, recommend it to recruiters as a place to advertise their roles. When a client asks if you know anyone for a role, put a few minutes into connecting people. Consider keeping a list of people you recommend. You get out what you put in.

Conclusion

This has been a slightly odd mixture of a gratitude list, a thank-you letter to a community that has been massive in my life, and an exploration of ways to make communities work for you. Thanks for reading. Be excellent to each other.