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Elizabeth Tobey

Head of Community Engagement at Medium

Being an avid user of Medium myself and after spending some time with the design team in San Francisco, it's clear that Medium's emphasis on community is a major part of what sets it apart. I stumbled across Elizabeth's writing while doing some research for ways we could better engage Ways We Work readers on the platform and it was her title that first stood out to me. After reading through a number of her posts and seeing the way she interacts with the Medium community on the platform itself, I was so curious to learn more about the role of community at Medium and more about Elizabeth. She shares the path that led her to working in community facing roles, the fast-paced nature of the work and why she thinks she hasn't really ever experienced burnout.

Tell me a little bit more about your role at Medium, what does it involve?

I’m the head of community engagement at Medium. Functionally, what that means is I’m focused on growing communities on our platform and helping them find each other as well as bringing new communities on to Medium. I focus a lot on dialogue and a productive feedback loop between people who use Medium and the company. What that means for my day-to-day varies wildly. I work closely with our content development team to help their projects. For example, we’ve run programs to highlight future criminal justice reform legislation. We also made a publication to talk about mental illness last month. Both of those projects relied heavily on talking with the community and getting their voices into the conversation mix, through stories and responses to other stories. I also work closely with our user happiness, marketing, comms, and product teams to make all our work and Medium as a product better.

What was your path to your current role, what drove you to it?

I’m an English and creative writing major and, growing up with a father who worked in marketing, I knew I was going to go into that field. Back when I was a wee lass, I got my start in marketing at a variety of tech companies. I sort of stumbled into community management. I am a pretty hardcore video game player, and when I moved from Boston to New York, I didn’t know how to make friends, so I arranged for a bunch of gamers I knew online to start meeting up and hanging out in real life. One of those people was a producer for a video game company and when that company wanted to start their first community department, he asked me to apply, since I was basically already doing that work in real life in my spare time. I got the job, and that shaped the rest of my life. I spent eight years in games, where I ran community, support, marketing, and communications departments, and then made the jump to Tumblr in late 2014 to turn their support team into a community team. Now I’m at Medium, building our official community engagement initiatives.

I have a strong belief that marketing, community, support, and PR are all basically the same thing because they all are strongly involved in communicating with users and customers, albeit in different ways, at different times, for different reasons. What gets me out of bed in the morning is working with different communities to make their lives better. I know how I want to be treated as a user or a customer and I want to use my skills and my passion to help make the world a better place for others.

“There’s so much we can do, and want to do, so for me, it’s about making sure we’re doing the smartest things first and to the best of our abilities, even if that means sometimes other really cool stuff will have to wait a while longer to put into action.”

What do you find most challenging about the work you do right now?

Hah! Well, I love a challenge, so everything, and that’s awesome. Medium’s a unique place because they’ve cared about and integrated their community into their product since day one, so while I’ve begun to build a lot from the ground up, I started with a very active, engaged, and fully formed group of people as well as a very robust product. There’s so much we can do, and want to do, so for me, it’s about making sure we’re doing the smartest things first and to the best of our abilities, even if that means sometimes other really cool stuff will have to wait a while longer to put into action. It’s a good problem to have.

Do you have any particular structures, or routines that you follow to kind of keep either your day, or your week as productive as it can be, or is it more organic?

I am the first person to say that no one should model their workflow after me. I keep Post-it notes with my to-do lists at my desk, rely on Notepad heavily, and only have one folder in Gmail, called “In Progress”, for categorization.

My day is about having a zero inbox, so that’s the first thing. The next thing I always do is catch up on the high levels of what’s happened on Medium: My own digests, any lists I have and monitor, my own posts and notifications so I can respond to anyone that needs it. Then, I split my day between issues as they come in, longer term projects and writing I have deadlines for, and keeping in touch with both community members and people in our company. Because I work in the New York office, I can knock out most of the work that requires my full attention in the morning, before the folks at headquarters in San Francisco are starting their day in earnest. That allows me to be more flexible for meetings and ad hoc requests in the afternoons.

What are the main tools that make up your workflow, right now?

Medium, of course, and our own internal version of Medium, called Hatch, are important. That’s how I communicate with users and with most people in the company.

Slack, for real-time communication with people at the company and to listen to a couple external communities of Medium users and what they are thinking and doing.

Gmail and Google docs and sheets for correspondence and sharing some writing, spreadsheets, or presentations that don’t fit in the format on Medium.

We have our own internal dashboards, a visualization tool called Databricks, and I also frequently run or augment SQL queries for the data I need to analyze stuff I’m doing.

I also use Facebook, Twitter, and Little Bird as tools to see what people are saying on social media. I use Twitter the most to actually talk to Medium users, of all the social media platforms.

My phone, of course, and the app versions of pretty much every tool I just listed. I am a firm believer in work-life balance but I also, personally, like to be able to check in on what’s going on even at night. That’s how I work best and am happiest. I wouldn’t recommend it for people other than me.

“Companies that are going to thrive in the future are going to do so because they have a meaningful and real relationship with their customers and users. Without a community, a company or a product has no purpose.”

Do you ever sort of experience periods where you feel disconnected from your work or just burnt out, and how do you bounce back from those, how do you deal with those?

I think I’m actually a bit odd in that I don’t think I’ve ever really felt this way. Several years ago, I was working at a company going through a particularly tumultuous time, running the community and comms teams, and particularly since the PR part was a new responsibility, I felt fairly stressed - but in general, I enjoy high-stress, fast-paced situations. I believe that’s an important driver for someone who is successful and happy in community-oriented careers. Things are always changing, and your job happens in real time. Whether it’s something super positive and amazing that’s happening or something not so amazing - both situations evolve rapidly and need a clear head and pretty rapid reactions. I’m not sure I’m built for an overly-structured work environment. Bring on the mayhem - I like it.

What’s a major aspect of the work you do that you don’t think people realize is such a big part of your role?

Probably data collection and analysis. When you are in a public-facing role, folks kind of forget that there’s anything else to the job. When I worked in video games, people honestly thought I played games and talked to gamers all day, but my work is about listening to what’s going on, making sense of it, and then mobilizing the right people to do something. That means a lot of my day revolves around research, collecting and visualizing data, writing, editing, or talking to people. The end product that you see through my posts on Medium take up maybe ten or twenty percent of my overall work life.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it so meaningful to you?

Companies that are going to thrive in the future are going to do so because they have a meaningful and real relationship with their customers and users. Without a community, a company or a product has no purpose. And to get there, you have really, actually, truly care about your community. My career - and really, my life’s passion - is about getting people to understand and embrace that and make that an integral part of their company - like, the marrow of the company’s bones. I also care very deeply and on a personal level that there’s a better, more productive, more respectful way for us to communication in online communities, and I want to be part of the future where we raise the civility of the digital world. The internet can be a toxic place and it might be hopeless to change that trend - but I think there’s a light at the end of that tunnel and personally and professionally, I think my work with community building is very important to getting there.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Great question! I don’t know about specific people, but I’d love to hear from someone at Bark & Co about how they work. There also might be an ulterior motive to see adorable dog pictures, here, too.