Building a Big Community with Tom Robertshaw

Brent and Tom (@bobbyshaw) discuss ways to build community and how people can become more involved in the BigCommerce Community. We talk about different channels and how inclusive or exclusive those channels are. We talk about the BigCom DevX event that Space48 recently organized and the upcoming BigCommerce.

Hackathon happening August 15 – August 26, 2022, Starting at 10:00 am CDT


Brent: All right. Welcome to this BigCommerce. Big talk. Hey, that’s a good one. Big talk, BigCommerce, the addition of talk commerce on the BigCommerce community channel today. I have Tom Robertshaw who is a activist for the BigCommerce community. Can I call you an activist? Agitator? Okay. Agitator. Yeah. Yeah. So Tom, introduce yourself.

Brent: Tell us what you do day to day. One of your passions in life. 

Tom: Brilliant, Innovation Director at Space48, and I head up our initiative to build a suite of apps that help the commerce merchants grow their store. Passion day to day two main passions. First, my children about two that three years old and three months old.

Tom: So that’s a lot of time and energy goes into that. And I love it. But my second passion. Probably supporting on Manchester United in the football slash soccer. Although that’s more difficult of late in their recent seasons. 

Brent: Yeah. We have to stay away from controversy or as you would like to say controversy on our podcast.

Brent: Let’s dive right in. Let’s just talk about community. We’ve both been in another community of another platform for a long time. And in our green room talk, we were just going. Some of the reasons and we landed on the word. Why? Like, why are you involved in the BigCommerce 

Tom: community?

Tom: Yeah. That’s a great question. And as you say, we’ve been involved in communities in the past and some, I think when you’re in a community, you think it’s special. And lots of communities are special. I think like for me, personally, whatever I’m doing, whatever I’m involved in, I want to give it my all.

Tom: I want to be involved fully. Get the joy out of it, but to make the most impact as well. Like it feels like if you’re gonna be working with a platform to be involved in the community, gives you so many benefits, whether or not that’s learning like from others in the community, rather than just being whoever you’re working with day to day.

Tom: If you can broaden that to some of the best minds in the community, just by being active, whether that be at in person events online events, forums slack groups and things like that. It’s a greater opportunity to learn from others. I also, particularly when moving to BigCommerce over the last couple of years, I’ve loved being involved in answering other people’s questions, because it was the best way for me to learn rather than just what challenges am I taking on day to day?

Tom: Like I’m building this app. Okay. I need to learn this API. And just the problems that I come into. Building that app, if I’m listening to and helping others I’m researching other APIs, finding out about their problems. And for me that for both Magento and commerce has been fantastic ways to learn myself.

Tom: And the old age old adage of teaching is a great way of learning because you really have to put thought into it. It’s not just oh, I know how that works. Once you tell someone else how it has to work, then that the inside out. So those are like a few ways why I really enjoy learning.

Tom: One of our values is we thrive and we learn. And so there’s so much about being involved, helping other people, getting help from other people that resonates with 

Tom: me there. 

Brent: yeah, I like that. So thrive when we learn. That’s a great, that’s a, that’s one of the core values of Space48 and that’s such a great, that’s such a great way to look at it.

Brent: And I think you had mentioned earlier, too, that like maybe 90% of the people that are involved in doing BigCommerce stuff. We’ll just say whatever they’re doing, they could be implementers or they could be a developer. They could be a salesperson project manager. They aren’t involved in the community.

Brent: And there’s not a lot of interest to be involved in the community, which means that we slice up the pie. We have a very small group of people that are involved and out of that pie, there’s people that would be the ones that are. Pushing that involvement or pushing that engagement.

Brent: And then there’s the people that are learning from the broader community itself. How do we get people to be more engaged and I’m just gonna also target maybe the introverts that aren’t, that don’t feel as though they want to be engaged, but sometimes feel left out when they aren’t engaged.

Tom: Yeah, it’s a great question. And a difficult one and I’m sure it’s, sure it’s one that the like developer advocates and community moderators at BIgCommerce are tackling on a week by week basis as well. I feel like inclusivity and making it a, an a, an open plate environment, whichever environment we’re talking about.

Tom: If it’s on the forums or if it’s on the BigCommerce dev slack, which is where I spend probably most of my day to day time engaging with the community. It’s just, I guess the best thing you can do is making it a welcoming environment. So it is answering people’s questions.

Tom: So people see that people aren’t like judged for their point of view or corrected and told that’s not how you do it. And providing and showing that everybody is welcome. And there’s so many different ways to to approach a problem. I think that’s the best that we can do to encourage I do the, there’s a couple of people within the community.

Tom: Andrew Barber in particular, in the BigCommerce Dev Slack like that, we’ll pose like questions each week, then there might be like slightly off topic questions or a bit more bringing any sort of personal lives into it, like music interests or what have you learned this week? What’s your favorite, like local cuisine.

Tom: And I think that’s a great way of building up a relationship with other people. And that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day, with everything that we’re doing it’s all about the people, relationships will live on. People will move to other industries, whatever other platforms.

Tom: But I feel being, being real in those communities as well is an important part of making people feel like they don’t have to perform or be particularly as you mentioned for introverts they’re more likely to be nervous about what they’re sharing or if they’re going to be corrected.

Brent: Yeah. And I’ll just say right this morning, anyways, it is gonna be Branston pickle on. Simply because I’m out of Branson pickle right now. Now I’m on a mission to find some more. So I know I can find an on Amazon, but it’s incredibly expensive. Anyways, 

Tom: Beans on Toast for 

Brent: lunch, say . Yeah, it’s also Marmite, which Tom you very nicely gave me a 500 gram jar of Marmite a number of years ago, but I’m sure that’s still going.

Brent: Yeah I ate the whole thing, so don’t worry. It’s been that long. I think one of the things in the community space and we talk about slack, like that is a closed channel. And if people don’t know about it, they’re never gonna know about it because it’s not public. , it’s public in the sense that anybody can join, but if you don’t know about it, you don’t know about, it’s like that speakeasy.

Brent: That’s a great little place to go to, but until you know about it, then you know about it. So maybe from a community standpoint, there has to be some more outward evangelism that helps people understand where the places to go in the community and help them find the places where they fit best, and I think the slack group is great.

Brent: There’s been some talk about a discord group. And because, I set up a Twitter community and again, that’s a closed group. Anybody can join, but if you don’t know, it’s there, you’re never gonna know it’s there. So how can we. Make it more, how can we get our voices heard better through the broader scope of say social media and then invite people to come to these communities.

Tom: Yeah, I think from my experience and so far in industry, it’s been, Twitter has been the place. I dunno if that’s changing, I know LinkedIn has its own sort of place for people to come to and share and build a network. But depending on which role you’re talking about, like from a developer perspective wouldn’t say necessarily like LinkedIn is the place.

Tom: But Twitter outside of groups, I think we are, all we can do is provide many different options for people for their personal preferences. Like you say is slack isn’t for everyone. I dunno if discord is what, like hip young people are using these days. But I was forced to sign up recently.

Tom: So I think to learn about that now. But yeah, and the Twitter community I think is a great. It’s actually new to me in this, in, in general. Like I’ve joined the eCommerce community group on Twitter as well as a PHP one. But I’m, they’re new to me, so I don’t know. How to make the most of them and what other people’s experiences are other than that, it, yeah.

Tom: Feels like for me personally I enjoy sharing on Twitter, as you say, that’s there’s, it’s public. You still need to be following your network. But that seems like the most practical way. The alternative that I mentioned earlier is the forums. That can be a bit more

Tom: transactional rather than conversational. So I have this problem or, critique my site. And so you, that’s another place if you know about it and if you’re in the becomes community, then I’m sure you do. But that would be another one to 

Brent: mention, yeah. Forums is how I got started in the Magento community.

Brent: And just as you were describing earlier, I asked so many questions that I started thinking I can actually answer questions and the, I. Wanna be a teacher in any way, but I answered questions because I knew by finding the answers, it would help me understand the problem better. And I’ll be honest this is 13, 14 years ago I did a lot of Googling and it’s amazing how just some little investigative Googling would help you find answers for that.

Brent: And then getting into a network of people to help you find those answers. which what followed from joining those forums and forums are more of a public thing? I’ll be I’ll be transparent. I’m not part of the BigCommerce forums yet. have to be part of that. And I don’t do much of a technical role anymore, so maybe that’s shows where that pivot comes from more of a architectural thought leadership role,

Brent: you’re not so much in the forums, but I do feel like it’s an important place for people like myself to at least try to answer some of those questions. So tell us a little bit about the BigCommerce forums and why developers should go there. 

Tom: Yeah, and I had a similar experience. I was a moderator on the Magento forums.

Tom: And now I didn’t initially get involved in the BigCommerce forums. I started out with the slack group and then have grown from there. I think one of the reasons I chose to get involved is like you say, it’s, it feels more open. it feels more open and accessible. So there’s a wider group of people that are in and on the forums as opposed to the slack group.

Tom: But also like slack, particularly in most communities, the messages are lost. So it’s again, it’s very transient of the logistic, the experience of being in a slack community, whereas with forums. while we’ve talked about relationships, there is, a commercial and brand building reputation, building aspect to being involved in the community as well.

Tom: Naturally. It’s a kind of a, it’s a strategic choice. And one of the be benefits of forums is the SEO of them. You answer a question a few times. If that question is popular or it’s linked to, then it’s more likely to show up in search results. And it’s there, forever, or as long as it becomes forums and this shape or forum are around.

Tom: So there’s a lot of it’s nice to know that the time that you’re investing is going to be useful to others in the future, not just the person that’s asking it, whereas slack, its, who asked the question and who maybe saw that question at the time after that it’s gone or forgotten.

Tom: And so I think that’s one of the great advantages over a forum. Even over Twitter for the same reason that if you search for a problem, your solution that you posted a year ago is much more likely to be found. And therefore the value that you’re creating is greater. 

Brent: Yeah. It’s of like an encyclopedia, so you can go back and look up things where I definitely agree on slack is something that does get lost even after a day.

Brent: It depends how busy the channel is. And it’s hard to go back and find it. Maybe speak to a little bit about the developer community now and just let’s touch on big Devex and how you are helping to bring those developers together in a place that we can all talk together. 

Tom: Yeah, sure.

Tom: We created and had our first BigCom DevX, which was a virtual event for developers to come together and listen to a few different talks from people within the community, sharing about their experiences, neat ways about solving problems that they’ve tackled or deep dives into things like stencil and handlebar and how to build

Tom: more advanced themes. And the reason we created that is we internally have a dev X every month where given that we’ve been across offices are now like multi, multiple locations for many years, we wanted a way for the development team to come together and just learn about what other projects have been working on?

Tom: What cool things have you been doing? What challenges have you faced that we other we might all want to avoid in the future. And so we were having a monthly kind of an hour to two hour call Talk set up in advance for some people might be five minutes just to share this one thing they learnt.

Tom: Some might be longer if it’s a deep dive on a particular tool of technology and I got a lot of value from it. I learned and met people in the other offices that wouldn’t have got to know otherwise, and after doing that for so long and particularly post pandemic and getting like really involved in the BigCommerce community, I was going through the the process of

Tom: getting to know other people manually reaching out to them, having a catch up call learning about like their backstory, which I’ve really enjoyed so far and wanted to provide something else. And it felt like an appropriate time to, yeah, let’s run this as an experiment.

Tom: Let’s create what we would normally do for a monthly dev and make it. Announce it three months in advance get people from the community to talk. And we’ve got really good feedback from it. So we had about 75 people attend it. It was a free event, as I say, for a couple of hours. And all the videos are now posted on the BigCom DevX YouTube channel for you to find later.

Tom: And we certainly hope to run it again, not sure on the frequency. Right now may, perhaps the next one will be in the new year. 

Brent: There’ll be one in Manchester hopeful. That’s a big in conference developer conference. I think you, you had mentioned a little bit about answering questions helps your, I don’t know if you were used the word reputation, but it does help you create more awareness about yourself in the broader community.

Brent: I think it’s important to note that both of us don’t work for BigCommerce, but we work for places that are BigCommerce partners. But I don’t think your motivation ever should be self-promotion or trying to be commercial and answering a question, cuz you’d like to sell somebody, something I, as a developer a long time ago, always saw through that

Brent: when somebody was saying, you should use this extension because blah, blah, blah. And it that self-promotion in terms of trying to be commercial and selling something is different than I think the motivation to be in a community to help others, there’s two competing factors there.

Brent: Maybe with the few minutes we have left here, we could talk a little bit about why we want to get people to join and some of the big things that they get out of the community, other than just commercial benefits. 

Tom: Yeah, I think it, it comes back to some of the things I mentioned earlier.

Tom: Like I, I really wanna meet other people in the community. I enjoy kind getting to know people like, like myself getting to know you Brent and me visiting Minneapolis. What was it a decade ago now? So it’s amazing what can come out of getting involved and meeting other people, not least, the things you mentioned in terms of how it can be better for you

Tom: personally from a, the knowledge that you can apply at work or the projects that you might win because of it, those things are there, but they’re not the reasons that you go into it. Like you say. For me, it’s definitely been about the people. I think if I, my personally, if I can, if.

Tom: Be brutally honest. If I hadn’t got involved in the first conference that I’d been to, then I wouldn’t have gone on a tour of America and met my future wife. So there’s a good reason to do it. 

Brent: yeah. Your kids have everything to do with the Magento community. We’ll give the Magento community full credit for both of your kids now.

Brent: I’m gonna edit that out. Definitely. it’s a joke, everybody. So you know, the other thing that, that has come up in our past community started with an M ended with an O had gento in it was inclusive versus exclusive. A lot of people saw Magento, some of the community members as being exclusive

Brent: and they felt it was hard to be involved with those other people. How do we stay away from that? How do we stay away from this sort of notion of being a clic or being some kind of in crowd? And if you remember, there was a hashtag called real Magento that was going around and people then started associating that with the in crowd.

Brent: And it wasn’t, it was I think it was meant to be a label of, Hey, this is where the Magentol community. not that there should be a fake Magento, but it also, we have to have a differentiator from the hashtag Magento, or BigCommerce, because that’s gonna be a commercial hashtag. How do we make it inclusive, but also say here’s how you find the content for this community.

Tom: certainly, and I’m probably the last person that should advise on how to be inclusive, but from going through that experience, and I recognize why those kind of hashtags were created, when there’s lots of Twitter, spam and things like that. And I think in some ways it regarded as a time back to your previous point about like being authentic and connecting those that are just there to be authentic.

Tom: So I think that’s some of it In terms of how to continue being inclusive. I think it’s about always being open to new members. I think it can be difficult, particularly if you’re an introvert. Like you’ve got people that, it can be like a little difficult when the new person walks up to the group, whether that be in, in real life or new person enters the slack chat, like I can appreciate like why we don’t really talk about it.

Tom: That is a strange experience that we, we have to deal with on a day to day basis in our modern lives. And I think it’s about recognizing that they probably just have a wealth of experience too. And even if they don’t, they can provide as just as much like value to the community.

Tom: And they’re just as important. I think I have certainly been lazy in the past of not necessarily considering myself in a clic, but trending towards like the same people that I already knew, because it was. And once you have found a group of people or people that you recognize, they are gonna be the people that you are drawn towards, you engage with because you know them, it’s safe, yeah. It’s gonna lead to a good time. And so it takes effort, doesn’t it, to be inclusive. And I think sometimes it’s hard to make that effort. And so I think we can all forgive each other for the times. And we, when we don’t but to continue to try to make that effort to stay as inclusive 

Brent: as possible.

Brent: Yeah. And I think there is a challenge as well. You have to put effort to maintain relationships with the people that, there’s a certain amount of energy that has to go into putting the effort into maintaining a friendship like between you and I, if we both don’t put any effort in soon the relationship falls apart because there’s no effort put in either.

Brent: So the times that we did get to see each other in an event or something, we, you definitely wanna make time to spend time with your other community members and as it grows, and as there’s more people you wanna spend time as many as possible. So there I do see there’s a dichotomy in there between wanting to make sure everybody feels inclusive, but also wanting to maintain relationships within the community.

Brent: And I think. Like the relationship building and relationship maintaining. Like now we’re getting into more psychology and community, but the word is community, we’re trying to build community. And I don’t think it’s ever gonna be solved. I do feel as though the idea of diversity in our community can be solved.

Brent: Like we can invite more women, more people of color, and you and I are both not good examples of either of those. And how can we bring those people in? I feel like both of us could be open about making sure that we’re talking about the fact that we need more people of color and people that aren’t men and, that’s just a simple fact, right?

Brent: That, that has to be talked about. And it can’t be swept under the rug from a community standpoint and from an inclusion standpoint. 

Tom: Yeah. And I think more, even more effort in that case, because, naturally, psychologically we are going to be drawn towards people that are like ourselves.

Tom: And if it takes effort to continue to Welcome by new people. It’s gonna take even more effort. If you don’t anything about the background or than what they’ve been through. 

Brent: Yeah. I think that the perfect place for community building would be a community run together, which I’m a big proponent of changing your life through movement.

Brent: The Big Com Run. Huh? Are you getting it? feeling it now. I want to end, let’s end at a positive note. Tell us a little bit about what’s coming up for you in the BigCommerce world. And is there any, anything exciting that you’re working on right now?

Brent: And then I’ll make sure we put all these links and things like that in the show notes. . 

Tom: Yeah, sure. Our most recent app just launched which we are about to more formally announce, which is a mega menu builder which I would be remiss not to mention on this particular episode we’ve worked.

Tom: with BigCommerce for a couple of years now, and we’re a bit frustrated what you can do out the box. And we know how important, like the store navigation is to draw people in help their product discovery and just simple lists of categories that it’s not gonna cut it.

Tom: And over the years we’ve created solutions with. Page builder, but again, that’s on a project by project basis. And so we’ve now built an app that allows you to manage your menu completely independently of your cater hierarchy, add images, choose your different sort of designs for the flyout menu.

Tom: And so it’s great for people just to install, configure and get working, but also for agencies to use as just to perhaps an admin interface and provide their own front end from menu. So that I’m really excited about.

Brent: Excellent. Yeah, and I’m all, I’m always excited about the concept of open SaaS, which BigCommerce likes to tout and the fact that BigCommerce, even though it’s a SaaS platform they offer a lot of ex extendability to their existing code and allow you to to work within that similar to open source.

Brent: You. Necessarily download it and run it, which would be actually cool if you could do little local instances of it, but I will, I’ll mention that to Brent Bellm. The next time I talk to him that we need local instances of BigCommerce run with warden. Anyways, I digress. 

Tom: I’ll also quickly mention I’m excited for the BigCommerce hackathon.

Tom: That starts very soon as well. A two week event that BigCommerce are putting on to people to create whatever they would like, or whether that’s apps or scripts or demo stores, things that just create something with the APIs, following that open SaaS approach. And I’m excited to see that’s the first time that they’ve done anything like it.

Tom: First time I’ve been involved in that kind of thing with the BigCommerce platform. Looking forward to getting involved there. Yeah. And 

Brent: hackathons are super fun and there’s roles for non-developers and hackathons either. They need creative thinkers. There’s always there’s roles for everybody in a hackathon.

Brent: And I would encourage even non-developers to join hackathons at least to see what’s happening and learn a little bit about that experience hackathons, I feel are most valued in person, but what we’ve learned in the pandemic and in the last couple years is that they are successful online and they build a lot of great relationships.

Brent: And I, I know that from the Magentol side they did some 24 hour hackathons that happened, starting in one time zone and just continually went for 24 hours straight around the world. And that was all done online collaborative. It’s a proven concept that works so great.

Brent: Definitely. Tom, thank you so much for being here today. I appreciate all the work you do putting in on the BigCommerce community. Thanks. I enjoyed it. When I finish off a podcast, I give everybody a chance to do a shameless plug. What would you like to plug today? 

Tom: I will plug our apps. So if you search Space48 on the BigCommerce app store you’ll find a nice long list of apps that we’ve been able to put out now.

Tom: And we’re continuing to add to so check it out. All right. 

Brent: Thank you, Tom Robertshaw. He is with Space48 in the UK. Have a great day.

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