Tech Role Models: Karen Baker, Senior Community Manager at Udacity


Today’s Tech Role Model is Karen Baker. Today, Karen is the Senior Community Manager of Alumni at Udacity, a San Francisco-based education company offering open online courses. Karen studied Rhetoric and Chinese in college conducted branding research with Millenials, and later transitioned into managing tech communities. She’s also a proud alumna of Seth Godin’s altMBA program.

What’s the common thread?

She loves to hear people’s stories, turn those insights into action, and lead communities to incite real change.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

I am the Senior Community Manager, Alumni at Udacity. I’ve been in this role since January 2018.

What attracted you to this role?

I’m passionate about helping people do together what they couldn’t do alone. This position sits on the Careers Team, which empowers students to achieve their career goals. So much of career advancement comes from not only what you know, but who you know. We base the Udacity Alumni Network on this premise, and with nearly 40,000 graduates around the world, my role is to build relationships and interactions at scale.

Walk me through a typical day in your community manager role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

We are a global company, so I begin my day with early morning meetings on Google Hangouts. Yesterday I started with a 7 am Global Careers Team monthly meeting. Then there’s a call with the India Careers Team lead to hear about results from their hiring experiments. Next, there’s a call with the Berlin Community Manager to collaborate on an upcoming careers webinar. Finally, there’s a call with the Sao Paulo Community Manager to brainstorm a shared events workflow for the Community team – all before 10 am!

Udacity operates on a quarter system; new OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are set quarterly. Your KRs act as your north star for target outcomes, and you have a good amount of flexibility and creativity to develop projects that drive towards those outcomes. That fact, coupled with how I like to work, means that I get to work with members of teams like Student Experience, Growth, and Partnerships.

Lunch arrives at 12 pm (#startuplife) and I usually eat first – can’t keep me from food!

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

That’s a great question – in tech, hard skills tend to be valued more than soft skills, but I believe soft skills let you excel. At the end of the day (until we’re all replaced with robots) we’re imperfect human beings working with other imperfect human beings. The skills I draw on most are:

  • Getting alignment – building alliances, getting buy-in from stakeholders, working collaboratively across teams, aligning teams, and keeping everyone in the loop so we’re all rowing in the same direction
  • Making meaning – story-telling, determining what an initiative is “for” and “who” it is for, what it wants to achieve and how we’ll define success.
  • Seeing possibilities and taking initiative – articulating the big picture goal, communicating concepts in an accessible way, generating ideas, building excitement, and just doing it.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your community manager role?

The most fun or creative part of my role is the freedom I have to think big – ideas excite me, and in this environment, I get to entertain seemingly crazy ideas all the time. I’m happiest when I’m brainstorming with others for what something could be, or how we could do something better.

Another aspect I relish is stepping back and pulling out the ‘story’ of a project. With product development in education, so much of product design comes from the design team’s assumptions and beliefs, their philosophy (so-to-speak) of how learning happens. I find the process of identifying those beliefs and designing experiences in response deeply intellectually satisfying.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

The biggest challenge I face is the sheer scale of the task before my team. To help 40,000 alumni thrive professionally by learning from one another – where do you begin? We have an ambitious goal and a relatively small team, so prioritization is key. I find balancing the excitement of a new potential initiative with the reality of limited time and a full plate one of the hardest aspects of my role.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

Since my core team consists of myself and my manager, we heavily collaborate with other teams. A few examples come to mind:

  • Each year, we hold an annual conference in Mountain View. A few of us wanted to bring the experience globally through distributed ‘viewing parties’. I worked with members of the Scholarships team, Community team, and Engineering team to produce (from afar) events for our students and alumni in London, Berlin, and Cairo, all through Slack and Google Hangouts. It was exhilarating!
  • I’m standardizing the Udacity event experience by developing a playbook anyone in the company can use. To get it off the ground, I worked with the Marketing team and the Video team. I needed to understand the process they require for capturing an event, streaming it, promoting it, and measuring analytics. Then I identified leads from the student-facing teams across our offices. Next, I set up a Google Doc with a core structure and specific ‘asks’ for them to contribute to the content. I closed by holding a meeting to review and creating a shared Google Drive workflow across teams.
  • We’re experimenting with virtual ‘open house’ sessions where alumni share their experiences with a particular Nanodegree program with prospective students. Team members from the Growth, Content Development, Community and Careers team are all involved to help promote the event on the website, capture ‘top of the funnel’ leads, create content, coordinate globally (e.g. choose amenable time zones) and source alumni.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

Many areas – I want to nurture my overall management skills, both managing projects, managing up, managing laterally, managing expectations and so on. We are a distributed team, so communication is especially important and a skill I’d like to lean into.

In your community manager role, what metrics define success?

A community can be a ‘squishy’ field as far as measuring impact; some measure broad impact and others measure deep. We’re a data-driven company, so we measure broad impact as far as the total number of alumni reached, engaged, and reporting back career outcomes; the total number of learning webinars and impressions; and experiments run and analyzed.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

In the past six months, I’ve improved my ability to navigate a complex system with many stakeholders (e.g. the legal team, the marketing team, the product team) and ultimately arrive at a satisfying outcome. I’ve improved my ability to go with the flow and be committed to a goal rather than attached to a process and to reach out for help when I need it. I still strive to ask for feedback early and often, and to build in public, and to fully debrief when things don’t go as planned, so am working to improve those skills going forwards.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your community manager role?

An ideal candidate would have to possess endless energy, reserves of enthusiasm, and an unshakeable belief in people’s ability to reach their full potential. They would be extremely detail-oriented to execute well, while also being able to hold the big picture objective of the work. Given that we are a startup, the candidate would also have to be able to pivot quickly and not need too much direction. In essence, having a vision and the commitment to pursue it is key.  

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