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DataTalks.Club

Building Online Tech Communities

Season 2, episode 12 of the DataTalks.Club podcast with Demetrios Brinkmann

We talked about:

  • Demetrios’ background and starting the MLOps community
  • Growing MLOps community
  • Community moderations and dealing with problems
  • Becoming a community and connecting with people
  • Feeling belonged
  • Managing a community as an introvert
  • Keeping communities active
  • Doing custdev and talking to users
  • Random coffee and meeting with community members
  • Organizing community activities
  • Is community a business?
  • Five steps for starting a community in 2021
  • Shameless plug from Demetrios

Links:

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Transcript

Alexey: Should I start or you want to start? (0:00)

Demetrios: You start. It's your thing. (0:03)

Alexey: Thanks, everybody for joining us today. Today the topic is a bit different from what we usually have. But I really wanted to talk about this thing because data talks are an online community, machine learning, Ml ops is an online community. We have so many online communities. There are not too many talks about that, especially in the space of machine learning data science and I always wanted to get Demetrios on the podcast, because A) he had me on the MLOps community podcast, B) I wanted to get him back. I wanted to talk to somebody about building online communities. Who else could be a better fit for that than you, Demetrios? So thanks a lot for joining us today. (0:04)

Demetrios: My pleasure to be here. I really appreciate you having me on. It's very cool and nice of you because you actually had something to say, when I had you on. I'm not sure if I'm going to have much to say. But you're very kind in making this around communities. Maybe I can share a few words of wisdom. (1:02)

Starting the MLOps community

Alexey: So let's start. Before we go into the main topic about online communities, maybe you can tell us a bit about yourself. How did you end up being the mastermind behind this thriving big, lovely online community that has 3000 members right now. How did it start for you? (1:28)

Demetrios: It was all by chance. I was doing sales work for a company “dot science”. I think I tried to sell it to you even. (1:54)

Alexey: Yes, you did. (2:05)

Demetrios: I did try to sell. You didn't buy. But at least our relationship went somewhere. I was doing the heavy and hard legwork of reaching out to people, trying to get them to look at our MLOps tool called “dot science”. I was having “okay” success with it. Then COVID hit. And when COVID hit, nobody wanted to take a meeting with me. My job became really, really hard. Our old CEO had the brilliant idea. He comes from the Docker space. He had the brilliant idea of “why don't we have a community”, because the community needs to form around MLOps. We had been calling it DevOps for ML for like six months. But then MLOps term started to be used more and more. I know it's been debated who created that term. I know that Data Robot has ownership of it. Someone pointed that out to us in the community that they actually have a trademark on that. (2:06)

Demetrios: The thing that happened let me — for the time being, let me just start interviewing people. And we'll see where that goes. I had read enough books on marketing. I had actually wanted to create a podcast at my last job, which was in sales also. I was at this password management company. I wanted to create a podcast there. I felt like it would be a great way to have an excuse to talk to people that I don't usually get to talk to — that wouldn't answer my phone calls or that wouldn't talk to me. I did end up getting to talk to you. It just wasn't about the tool. It was about actually more informative stuff. We could argue that it was better in the end. I wanted to start a podcast. At the last company they asked me, do you have anything of you actually doing it?

Demetrios: They didn't trust that I was going to be any good at it, which is a fair assessment — because I'm not sure if I am any good. That never went anywhere. It never got off the ground. When we decided to do the podcast and the meetup, really it was a meetup. It started as a meetup and I was like, we should just record it and make it into a podcast. So we went from there. We also started a forum in the beginning, not just the slack. Nobody was using the forum after the first two months. So we stopped with that. But it was a place to congregate. From the beginning it was meant to be vendor agnostic — which was interesting to think about, because my CEO was the one who told us to do it. It wasn't connected to the company that we're working at — DOT science.

Demetrios: But it was, in a way, like, “you should do this. it might help.” So we did it. Then it was vendor agnostic. We didn't have to worry about selling our product. In fact, we were very much against that idea. A month later, the company went out of business. I definitely didn't have to worry about selling anything. Then I just kept interviewing people. The company was out of business, but I was enjoying interviewing people. The company went out of business in May, and I had scheduled meetups every week, until mid-June or July. That's what made me be like, wow, there's actually something here, people are enjoying this. Or at least people are willing to talk to me. I don't know if people were actually enjoying it.

Alexey: I did. (6:36)

Demetrios: You enjoyed the process. I don't know if people enjoyed what you said. It was a good time, man. I was learning a ton. You'll see that if you go back to the first meetups that I hosted. I didn't ever ask any follow up questions. One of the first meetup guests, Charles, made fun of me. He was like, “I'm not sure I want you to tell me the answer, but whenever you get the responses from people, you do this gazing off, like you're deep in contemplation. Then you ask the next question and I'm just wondering, if you're deep in contemplation about what that person said, like, it's so profound, or you have no idea what they just said, and you're trying to understand it.” (6:37)

Alexey: Which was it? (7:31)

Demetrios: I'm not gonna tell. I didn't know what people were talking about in the beginning. I didn't have any way to actually follow up. I was just there trying to hold on. I had prepared questions that I would ask people, and I prepared everything beforehand. I would generally just go through those questions that I prepared, and I wouldn't have any back and forth. By the time you came on, I was starting to feel more comfortable. Now I feel too comfortable. (7:32)

Alexey: Now you can consult on MLOps, right. (8:10)

Demetrios: Exactly, that's my next business idea. (8:12)

Demetrios’ background

Alexey: But you also were a English teacher, right? I think I read it in some of your LinkedIn posts. (8:21)

Demetrios: If you want to go way back, for sure. I got out of the US as soon as I graduated University. I wanted to not be in the US. I went to Spain, which is a long story on why I settled on Bilbao, Spain. We can say that in the next DataTalks.Club chat we have. But I ended up in Bilbao. I was there. The easiest way for me to stay there was to teach English. I also wanted to learn Spanish. I graduated with a degree in Spanish and Portuguese. I had been in Brazil and I knew quite a bit of Portuguese. I also knew Spanish, but I didn't know enough to be like, “hey, I have this degree in it.” I should be fluent. I stayed there for a few years teaching English. Then I met my wife and had a daughter. Then didn't leave for a long time. From there it was really easy to teach English. It was like this flywheel where you just go and you do it and you teach English. But it wasn't fulfilling at all. (8:29)

Demetrios: I felt I wasn't learning much because I spoke English. I was learning about how to be a teacher in the beginning and learning how to talk to people. You could argue that that helped me with this kind of stuff. But after eight years of it, it gets very monotonous. I was looking for a way out. A friend got a job in sales at that password management company. Then I went from there into sales, which is — just shouting out to all the sales people there — it’s hard work. I will say that. Then I got out of sales, which is another one where it's like, “Oh, I got lucky.” I was able to get out of that. I got lucky getting out of English teaching because I didn't want to be a lifer. I didn't want to be 40 and still be talking about the past participle.

How sales skills can be helpful in getting speakers

Alexey: I guess the skills you picked up when you were working in sales, they're pretty helpful in… “closings” the speakers. First of all, finding people to talk to, then convincing them to get on your podcast, then finally getting them, and talking to them on the podcast. (10:41)

Demetrios: You've probably seen this too. Within the ML space, it feels like it's really easy to get people to come on. I also had the community “Data on Kubernetes”, which I think you wanted to talk about, too. In that space, it was much harder to get people to come on. There I needed the sales skills, which is just basically being persistent. If you're persistent, you're gonna get a “no” or “yes”, but you're gonna get something. And I don't stop until I get something. Some people will stop asking after 10 times. But if you've done sales enough, then you know, I shouldn't stop asking until 20 times. Or until I get that “no”. Just tell me “no” and I'll go away on the first time. (11:04)

Demetrios: There were some definite skills that were useful. They transferred over well. But in MLOps you don't need it. I don't think it's necessarily needed, because people are willing to talk. It's not so saturated. With a million different podcasts and a million different communities that you get the same response, like when in the Kubernetes land. I think in Kubernetes, it's different because there are so many different companies that have their own podcasts, and they have their own community, and they have all of this. When I would approach people, they would be like, okay. And ask a bunch of questions. My least favorite question was, “how big is your audience?” That's what I told him: “there are only four people watching live on YouTube.”

Growing MLOps community

Alexey: Let's talk a bit about the community you built. I don't know how many people per day join. But every time I see the number of members, I think, it increases by 100 members per day. So this is an awesome growth. But it didn’t start like that. In the beginning, you needed to get some traction. How did it start for you? First, you started with events with speakers. How you — as a community — how did you manage to get this traction? What did you need to do? (13:09)

Demetrios: You're asking for my secrets, so you can replicate them? (13:54)

Alexey: Exactly. (13:58)

Demetrios: One thing that we did — which is quite useful if you're building a community — I reached out to a bunch of random people on LinkedIn. That's where I felt the majority of the people were. And it's easier to connect with people on LinkedIn. I remember I would tell them, “Hey, I'm stuck inside and I wanted to do something useful with my time inside. I started this community. If you're interested in MLOps, come join us.” I was doing a lot of cold outreach. That was all me. That's why in the beginning I was working like crazy. It's a lot of work to try and set it up and it was slow coming. It felt like it was like blowing up from the beginning — if we got 20 people in the slack and we had 15 people in a meetup. I was like, “wow, there are so many people, and this is huge now”. Then I stopped. I remember, there was a point when I stopped doing outreach. Probably like a month after we started the community. (14:02)

Demetrios: And people kept coming into the community randomly. I was like, “Whoa, how did that happen? I haven't been telling people about it. Where are they finding out about it?” Especially in the beginning, it was just me and somebody gave some great feedback to me in the beginning, when I was asking for feedback. Somebody said, “this is not yet a community”. They were like, “Don't take this the wrong way. But I don't feel this as a community yet. I feel this is just Demetrios sharing stuff that he finds online and thinks is useful.” In a way, it was. I was the most active member. I was always trying to keep things happening. Keep things new so that people would come back. Trying to tag different people into conversations. But it wasn't like what you see now where people ask questions, and then others answer them. I would always have to be involved in some way.

Demetrios: I don't think we get like 100 a day unless you tweet out something about the community. We usually will get like 100 a week. I think it’s probably more realistic on a good week. Did that answer the question?

Alexey: I think you did. The first thing you did was cold outreach. And I think these terms are coming from sales, which means — to translate it to the language that most of us understand — writing random people on LinkedIn saying, “Hey, join our community.” That helped to get some traction. You also mentioned that, at the beginning, it was just you sharing some articles you found online, just to keep the place live. “This is what I found, what do you think about this?” Then eventually you stopped doing this. People still took this on and kept posting things. So it's a lot of hard work that you did at the beginning. For how long did you do this before stopping the outreach? I think you said for one month? (17:13)

Demetrios: Month and a half. Also the other parts that were really hard — which you're going through now, I'm sure — are the editing of videos. I was making a ton of clips. I wanted to just get our presence on YouTube. Out of every hour-long session, I would make five or six clips of my favorite answers. That was a way for me to go back and review what people said. I remember after the third or fourth time watching it in the video editor I would go like, “I think I know what they're talking about now”. That helps me to get my MLOps chops. I don't feel like the community actually really got rolling. In June, I remember telling a friend of mine that if we can hit 500 slack members, that would be huge. That would be a great milestone. We hit that and then my friend asked, “What's next? Is it going to be 1000 before the New Year?” (18:21)

Demetrios: I was like, “No way. That's a lot.” It took us three months or four months to hit 500. Let's sustain this growth. That's all I cared about. 1000 before the new year, maybe, but I'm not going to put any pressure on myself. Because I figured that everybody that cared about MLOps had joined already. I didn't think there was gonna be that many people. Then when we hit 1000, it was right around September and I was like, “Whoa, that was fast”. Then we hit 2000, before the end of the year. Now we just hit 3000. And it's like, “Okay, this is doing that whole exponential growth” thing.

Demetrios: With more people comes different problems, I would say. Or different things that you have to worry about. In the beginning, when it was just 10 people, you knew everyone and everyone knew you. You knew who was active. Now there's a ton of people around so you got to moderate wisely.

Community moderations and dealing with problems

Alexey: What kind of problems you have? First of all, a lot of people and most of them, you don't know and you need to moderate. Are there some other problems like spam? How do you deal with them? (20:50)

Demetrios: We talked about this last week — the code of conduct. It feels like every day I'm trying to walk the fine line of what a vendor can and can't do in the community. All the vendors are really excited about MLOps community. If they don't read the code of conduct, then they come in, and they just start spraying their product all over the place. It's like, what are you doing, man? First of all, you're not going to get many sales like that, me knowing it as an ex salesman. The other thing is that we have a closed vendor channel. There are over 100 people in that channel. Imagine if every single one of those vendors did the same thing. Then every thread would just be 100 vendors spraying their product. It's never going to create a conducive environment for the community to grow. That is one that gives me a bit of a headache especially when I know these guys. (21:12)

Demetrios: I've talked to these guys. Most of them I've interviewed. So it's like, “Come on, dude, we know each other. We've had conversations, and you can't do that.” Then when you say you can't do that for one, then if another one does it, they come to you and they say, “Well, why can they do it?” I compare it to siblings. If one kid gets a candy, then I want a candy too. I don't want to dog on the vendors. I love the vendors. We are so happy that they're there, when they contribute their knowledge. The vendors are the people with the most advanced understanding of MLOps right now. They are the ones that are building the tools. If they come in and give their knowledge, without creating your commercial out of it, it's so valuable for the community. But as soon as it becomes, “Just try my product, it's cool”. Or they reach out and they DM someone because they saw a question that they're asking in the channel. Then it's like, “Dude, you can't do that”. Ego battles that you have with people. I try to just tell people “Hey, just be cool. You don't need to get riled up about anything. We're talking about MLOps. It's not politics.”

Alexey: You basically need to keep an eye. I sometimes go to the general channel, and then see there are some posts from one vendor, but then 10 minutes after that it's gone. (24:04)

Demetrios: That's the audacity. The audacity kills me where somebody doesn't have any prior knowledge and they come in. Imagine you just come into a slack. Then you go to the general area. And say, “Look at my product, it's amazing” before you even introduce yourself. That to me is like you're that dog that just peed all over a fire hydrant and now I got to go clean it up. Because we have a rule in this city that dogs can't pee on fire hydrants. (24:24)

Becoming a community and connecting with people

Alexey: That's the side you don't always see. When I go in the MLOps community it's usually clean. Because you help it to stay clean. You said that one feedback that you got was that it was not a community. But now it is a community. How did you go from that point when it wasn't the community to the point when it was? Did it feel like — now it is a community? What did you do to get there? (24:57)

Demetrios: I wish I knew the answer to that. I wish I could say that it was anything that I did. Because I know that it wasn't anything that I did. Or it wasn't because of me. Like I said, I did the “Data on Kubernetes” community. I also have “Are you a robot”, AI ethics community. Neither of those feel like they really hit the point where it's a community of people talking to each other. One thing that I think is useful is getting the core members to know each other. There are those moments where you have the connection between people. Then you see each other in slack. It's not like some random avatar picture. It's a person that you've actually had a call with, or you've known. (25:36)

Demetrios: You know what the tone of their voice is. And you know the inflection. And you know if English is their first language. You have this context. That makes people less shy when it comes to speaking up in slack. I think the majority of people that are in slack are just lurking, and they're not saying much. They're just looking at everything. A lot of people feel like they don't have anything to contribute. A lot of people just don't want to contribute. You get a lot of the same faces popping up and those people, especially in the beginning, should know who one another are.

Alexey: Did you somehow try to connect them? By creating a secret channel? (27:17)

Demetrios: We created the MLOps board in the beginning. That since has died out. But that was it — everybody who was super active and had very interesting things to contribute. I needed somebody to bounce ideas off. I need people to tell me if the ideas that I had were crazy or not. Crazy in a good way or crazy in a bad way? I just went and I got all of the people that I felt were the most engaged. Even people that were giving me critical feedback. I wanted them there too. I didn't want everyone to be like “Yeah, this is great”. I wanted people to tell me, “Hey, that meetup sucked”, which some people told me. I said, “All right, you get a job on the board”, so that I could feel the whole spectrum of good and bad. What was useful to people? What kind of people? We created the board in the beginning and I could ask them their opinions on stuff. They could also voice their opinions on different changes that we made. Then from there, it fizzled out because it wasn't being used as much, once the actual community camaraderie took hold. So that's been archived. (27:25)

Alexey: I took a note. I'm trying to squeeze as much information from you as possible. So I'm taking notes. So we have a question. (28:52)

Demetrios: There are people actually watching us? (29:09)

Feeling belonged

Alexey: 12 people. It's not a question but more of a comment. I've joined many communities in the past, but have never truly felt like I belonged. What do you think about this? How to make people feel belonged to a community? (29:11)

Demetrios: Good question. A lot of it is on your side. You have to put in a little bit of effort. You can't expect it. If it's an in-person community, totally different story. Like a community that you're getting together, your neighborhood community. (29:33)

Alexey: An offline community. Not in slack. (30:07)

Demetrios: Exactly. If it's an online community, you really have to do some work to get out there and put yourself out there. Because people aren't going to necessarily see your introduction, and then reach out to you, unless it's a really good introduction. Even then, you're not going to get that many people reaching out to you for your introduction. That's something that I try and do is when I see great introductions, or when I see people that are in certain fields, I'll try and tag them into different questions that arise. But you're not going to get people coming with open arms, if you're not really showing anything about you. I think a part of that has to be put on you. You have to put forth a little bit of effort. (30:11)

Demetrios: Then the rest is like how toxic or non-toxic is a community? Or how engaging is the community? How open are the people that are in the community? What's the point of the community? Right now — you're seeing — we're adding all kinds of different channels in MLPps that are not just for MLOps. Like funny channels, meme channels, bad startup idea channels, cat channels. All that because we've had so many different channels. I think the most important channel is the questions and answers channel. That's where people are going to come when they have questions. That's the main draw. But then again, this is coming back to MLOps as a lifestyle. We're all in this pandemic together. We don't really have the communities that we can have. We can't go to a meetup in our local area, and be there in person. But we can go to a virtual meetup. It's that way. I don't know if that answered the question or the comment.

Alexey: The main takeaway for me was — first of all, you try to keep an eye on what's going on. Who are the people who join, what is their expertise, what do they know? And then if you see that somebody is asking a question about the area — something that they can answer — you try to talk to them, “Hey, can you please help answer that question?” That's one thing. But then another one — it's not just about MLOps. There are people who have different interests. Somebody has stories of failed startups. Or evangelism, for example. This is not related to MLOps. But still, you have this channel, so people can talk about other things as well. That also creates the sense of belonging and a sense of community. (32:25)

Demetrios: Not everyone is going to be able to answer the crazy question about if Docker compose is similar to Kubernetes. What happens when I don't have that kind of skill set, but I still want to contribute and be a part, and reach out and talk to people? Aside from asking questions, maybe there are other groups or channels that I could get into and be a part of, and make connections. If it's a cat channel, and you have a cat, there you go. That's an easy way to do it. (33:20)

Alexey: If you don't? (34:04)

Demetrios: Pick up a cat. If you don't have a cat, you don't have a dog. Go into the bad startup ideas. I'm sure we all have a million bad startup ideas in that channel. There's enough for anyone. (34:06)

Starting a community as an introvert

Alexey: There's a personal question. Feel free not to answer that. Are you an extrovert or introvert? (34:24)

Demetrios: I really enjoy time alone. I consider myself an introvert. But everyone that knows me thinks I'm an extrovert. I don't necessarily have so many problems being with a lot of people. Like spending a day at a conference and talking to people. But I definitely am drained by the end. I would prefer to just sit at home and meditate. (34:31)

Alexey: I was reading an article one day about that. If somebody talks to people and likes that — it doesn't mean they're extroverts. They might as well be introverts. They just talk to people, but then they need a couple of days off of talking — to get the energy to talk again. There is a question — if somebody is an introvert, is it possible for them to start a community? I think you just answered that, right? (35:12)

Demetrios: I wouldn't let the fact that you don't know anything about this specific industry, and you're starting a community around handicap. That's what I did and it worked out all right. (35:59)

Alexey: Do you think your personality helped in building the community? (36:16)

Demetrios: I always want to say “yes”. But this is why I have to be more humble and realize that I tried to start with other communities. It didn't really go anywhere. It didn't have the level of success that we've seen with MLOps community. In that sense, maybe, but maybe not. (36:24)

Alexey: I think being charismatic — this is my impression of you — making jokes and making fun of people in a good way. I think this is a good thing. It makes events engaging. I don't remember if it was in the interview that I did with the MLOps community or some other occasion. It was probably some internal meeting where you were also hosting. You said I enjoy five minutes of fame because of my interview questions. It was fun — these kinds of jokes. I think it definitely played a role at least in the events. This is my personal observation. I don't know about others. Another thing — ML ops is popular. It's crazy. While Data on Kubernetes, maybe not so much. (36:55)

Demetrios: Exactly, that's what it feels like. That maybe it's a little bit of everything. It's not just my personality, or the personality, whoever it is that wants to build the communities. It's what are you building this community about? How many communities are already out there in this? I think one thing with the MLOps community is that there are not a lot of communities out there. For MLOps, I don't know if there are really any other communities. That's generally how it used to, or how it goes with communities. You get communities that are around a certain tool. You don't really get communities like yours — if we could call it yours — or MLOps community. The community is of no one. That's one thing that's important. I can't say “this is my community”. I'm just the guy that talks a lot in the community, and interviews people. That doesn't make the community mine. I think that is one thing. There's no ownership of a community. But the open source communities are generally around a certain tool. These communities that we are in like DataTalks.Club and MLOps. They're around a theme. Although your theme feels like MLOps 2.0 to me. (37:56)

Alexey: 2.0 means that it’s better, right? It's not just about MLOps. I am not sure, but would you have a similar talk on MLOps community? About communities? (39:53)

Demetrios: No. Touché. (40:11)

Alexey: It's not about MLOps, but about many different things. We have quite a few questions, actually. (40:17)

Demetrios: No way. People are actually watching us? (40:25)

Alexey: Yes, 11 people, and we have six questions. (40:28)

Demetrios: I like that the people that are watching are engaged. (40:31)

Keeping communities active

Alexey: Yes. Merth is asking. How can we keep communities active? I can see that a lot of people come with a passion in the community, but after a while, they become inactive. How can we try to make these people active before it's too late? (40:36)

Demetrios: That is something I'm not gonna lie and say, “I know how to do that”. What I've done with the MLOps community is we try and have giveaways. We have tried to reach people wherever they're at. That means having a lot of content for them, whether that's a blog, or a meetup, or a podcast, or slack, or whatever is their way of consuming content and engaging. That's where we're trying to meet them. In these different things, you have cool community stuff that anyone can get involved in with, like giveaways, or making the video. That mainly is the main thing I'm thinking of — to try and keep people engaged and coming back. The other thing — don't take it personally if people don't come back. Everyone's got their own life that they're living. Maybe when somebody doesn't come back, they fall off, because they just had a kid. There's no amount of anything that you could have done to make that person not fall off. If you see that your community is quiet, and there's not really new people that are engaging, then maybe you need to take a pulse check and see if the community is healthy. But I wouldn't be worried if you're seeing people that come and they engage, and then they fall off because life happens. Maybe it's like a slack fatigue. (40:59)

Alexey: Just internet fatigue. Tight now we are stuck at home and it’s just too much online. (43:10)

Demetrios: I’ve been at home for one year. Maybe they say, “My new year's resolution is to do less with communities”. Who knows? So don't take it personally at all. If you hold yourself to high quality — and this is one thing somebody told me. I think it was in a blog post that I read about DBT's blog, shout out to DBT. They purposely didn't like to gamify their community. That for me was really validating because I had thought about the whole gamification thing. Like giving people badges. Making people admins or whatever. I said, “No, I don't want to gamify it because it doesn't feel right to me”. They wrote out a nice, long, few paragraphs as to why that for them wasn't the way to go. I also felt like, that wasn't the way to go. I don't want people to come just because it'll give them points on a scoreboard. (43:14)

Alexey: I think they're really amazing. Once I checked, it was 9000 members and then I checked it again, it was 12,000. It was just over a month. That is amazing. I have no idea what DBT is actually doing. I just know it's popular. It's amazing. Also, with Kubeflow. It's also a community that grew around a tool that became popular. It's interesting to see how they manage to do this. How do they manage to attract... I talked to a few people who told me a few words about this DBT community. They're there not because of DBT, but because of other things. Because of the people who they can talk to. People who are there, who have a certain profile — like analytics or analytics engineers — and to be able to talk to them. (44:42)

Doing custdev and talking to users

Alexey: We have a question from Sviat. How often do you do custdev? Do you know, what is that? (45:45)

Demetrios: What was that? (45:54)

Alexey: I think it's like talking to users. (45:56)

Demetrios: Oh, customer development. I do that at least twice a year. We'll send out a form. I realized you got to give some incentive for people to fill out the form — some awesome gift card. The most recent one we did was this really cool gift card. It's for charity giving. I give you a gift card and then you can go and use that gift card — that money that I gave you — for a donation to a charity. We've started doing that instead. I like that better than just giving Amazon a bunch of money. I already give them enough money on a day-to-day basis. But maybe the people who win it are like “I didn't want this, I would much rather want an Amazon gift card where I can buy something actually useful”. But giving is a very powerful feeling. It feels good to give. I decided to go with that. (46:04)

Alexey: What do you have in the form? (47:17)

Demetrios: I try and ask about what we're not doing right. What's the least favorite part of the community? I really try and go deep into “What would you do differently?”, “Why don't you like what you don't like?”, “What's your favorite part about the community?”, “Where do you consume the content?”, “Are you a part of the newsletter?”, “Should I curse less in the newsletters?” That kind of stuff. (47:21)

Demetrios: I'll do that at least twice a year. I do that twice a year, because I feel it’s a lot of work to get people to fill it out. That's why I don't want to flood them with it every month. Then I do reach out to random people quite a lot. That's the beauty of being a community organizer. You have an excuse to reach out to people. I reach out to people and I talk to them about the community. I tell them I appreciate their presence there. I don't do one on ones with them. I just like to start chatting with them and see if there's anything that comes up. The other thing that I'll do is — I have this idea in my head of different people that are in the community, that are specialized in certain things. If we have a podcast that comes out about a certain thing, or we want to make a podcast about a certain theme, which is different than just like the podcast where you and I are interviewing each other. We're starting to do more produced podcasts where we have a theme and then we get different opinions from people. (48:01)

Alexey: A panel discussion? (49:22)

Demetrios: Have you ever listened to a radio lab? (49:25)

Alexey: No. (49:28)

Demetrios: I'm not going to say that we're trying to do radio lab because radio lab is really good. I'm telling you — you as one man are going to have fun trying to do it. It's great to involve the community with different initiatives. It goes back to that other question. How do you keep people engaged? Get them involved in initiatives. Get people doing different stuff. Everybody's got something that they want to do. Open it up to them. Use the community as the place to let them have their forum. If it's only me creating the initiative, it's gonna be my community again. It's not a “us” thing. It's like I'm the dictator. There's that classic phrase, “are you building a community or are you building an audience”. Audience is one-to-many. The community is many-to-many. (49:28)

Random coffee and meeting with community members

Alexey: There is a follow up. It was two questions in once. The first one was “How often do you do custdev?” The second one in the same question from Sviat is “Do you do a random coffee practice?”. I think you said that you don't have one-on-ones. Because this is what I think is random coffee. I have no idea actually. Maybe you know what is that (50:51)

Demetrios: We just started. There's that app in slack — Donut. (51:10)

Alexey: I used it at work — we have it at work. One-on-one for custdev — It feels to me that you are the community manager and you reach out to community members to see what's going on, to keep the pulse on, to know what's going on. But random coffee is something to go from — how you said — to go from an audience to a community — to the many-to-many thing. This is what Donut and random coffee is about, isn't it? (51:19)

Demetrios: That's true. When other people are in Donat, they're not asking specific questions about the community. It is a way for me to have an excuse to randomly be matched with someone. To have a meeting with them and see what their thoughts are on the community. A lot of the time, it's people that are reaching out to me that I do have one-on-ones with. I would say, the customer development and... If we want to call it a “customer” in the MLOps community, because they're not a “customer”. But I understand that some people that are watching this, they may be watching this for a product or a company. They're doing their task with the community at their company. Those people that reach out to me, generally 99% of the time, we'll sit down and have one-on-ones with them. When we're talking to them, usually it's an ask. When they reach out to me they want information or they want something. (51:51)

Alexey: Or be on your podcast, right? From vendors, right? (53:03)

Demetrios: Yes, so many of them. There's a lot of that too. If it's a vendor — it's not that I don't meet with them. I do meet with most of them. You know why I meet with everybody? I came from sales. I know how important it was for me to book meetings. I know how it was huge when I would get feedback. Even if it wasn't from anybody that wasn't going to buy. Usually when people reach out to me now, especially if it's like, “Hey I have a community”, or “Hey I like what you're doing with the community”. They play to my ego. That's my soft spot. Then I meet with him. I feel it would be very hypocritical of me to not meet with these people. When I’m going and I’m reaching out to people every day to try and get them on the podcast. I'm reaching out cold and asking them to spend an hour with me. If I don't do it to people that reach out to me, it's not cool. However I will ask that they clarify and give a really clear idea of what they want to talk about. Because that has happened a few times and I've been like, “This is a waste of my time”. (53:14)

Alexey: But most of the time it's not like that, right? (54:42)

Demetrios: Most of the time there are amazing conversations. And I make a friend out of it. (54:46)

Alexey: We still have quite a few questions for you. (54:51)

Organizing community activities

Alexey: Again a question from Sviat. Do you believe that a community needs a leader or immediate person to drive the community forward? Or can the community be independent? (55:04)

Demetrios: This is coming back to what kind of community are we talking about? If it's a community like MLOps, probably not. I've talked to other people about this. From my experience of talking to others — because I've never done it where there is no leader. I've always done it where I try and jumpstart the community. Talking to others, where they try and be more democratic about things, it just takes so much longer for things to get done. You end up being so slow. For me, I've noticed that, as soon as we start adding in complexity to the MLOps community — we have sprint meetings now, where we have the different initiatives that we're working on. There's so many things. There's so many plates moving now. It's not just the meetups, or the podcast, or the newsletter. Now we have a reading club. Then we have the website, whole revamp, where we're going to be comparing the tools. We have the engineering labs. And we have the new podcast series. We have so much that's happening with all of that. To keep a vision on all of that — office hours which you drop into, and women of MLOps.... (55:25)

Alexey: It’s a lot! It's like five or six? I was trying to count and take a note — so after I could do the same… (57:03)

Demetrios: It's recorded. You can go back and watch it. (57:07)

Alexey: That's a good thing. I counted six things, or five? I don't remember that. That's a lot. I know that you're not alone. There’s David. There are other people who help you. How do you keep up with all that? (57:13)

Demetrios: We have the sprint plantings that help. Then just giving people a lot of autonomy. And recognizing that it is a community, and people aren't getting paid. Not really pressuring them or holding them to what they say so much. But you have to be very clear about what you're going for. You can engage more people in the community. You can get people more interested. Like the website. That's probably what's taking the longest, because we're engaging so many people. When it's just me, I do shit fast. It was me in the beginning. It was me doing it, I was working myself to the bone. (57:36)

Demetrios: But now it's a lot more of a community feel. I still have the things that I'm doing. The things that I'm doing just have momentum. They're happening. But then there's all this other crazy stuff that we think up and think “This could be cool, let's try that. What about if we did this? What about if we did that?” Then we see who in the community wants to get involved? We see if it's actually a viable option. With all those different things, it's really hard to get done. Imagine if you had like six things going on and you didn't have a leader. Imagine you had 20 people. And everybody was just like, “Well, my thing is the most important. I think we should do it like this.” Then nobody actually has decision making power. Then it's really difficult to get anything done. I'm not saying it's bad. It's totally a viable way to go about doing your stuff. If you want to have and structure your community like that, go for it. Coming from Spain I know, especially in the northern part of Spain, in the Basque Country, that was like the de facto way of doing everything. I would just say it was the biggest pain in the ass for me because I wanted to just go. To go through all of the bureaucracy. It was a lot of work in it. It slowed me down, and then I would lose interest. But if I'm like “I can do this”. Then I'm just gonna go, and boom — I'm going to be much more inspired.

Alexey: How big is your team? (1:00:17)

Demetrios: Right now I'd say, core team, there's four of us. But then there are people working on different initiatives. With those people that are outside of it, I would say there's probably 10. Or maybe we could stretch it to 12 or 15. (1:00:24)

Is community a business?

Alexey: That's amazing. Do you consider a community a business? Not necessarily the MLOps community, but in general, any community? That's, again, a question from Sviat. If yes, what is the business goal? What would be the business goal for that community? (1:00:52)

Demetrios: That's an awesome question. I tend to look at it as “yes”. The goal in my mind is to create a place where people can learn, they can share and they can interact. It's not like to make profits for our shareholders. It's to create a place where people can get the most value in this specific space. That's how I look at MLOps community. Communities in general — there are so many different ways. One, if it's an open source community— yes, it's a business. You see so many different companies that are being created on top of open source. What is the goal of the business? If it's an open source thing, if it's a business on top of an open source community, then it's obvious that the goal is to make money. (1:01:16)

Demetrios: Looking at it as a business and looking at it like “you want to have a place that thrives and is constantly attracting new customers''. It has the marketing side, and it has the product side. Even though the product of the community — I'm not sure what that would be, other than the different initiatives that are brought to us? Podcasts... or newsletters — more marketing. The way that we're running MLOps community is like, it's an educational business. We're just not getting... The people are learning, they're not paying for their learning, which is fine with me right now. I don't want it to be behind a paywall. We had thought about it. We threw around ideas of creating courses. But in the end, we said, “No, we're not going to do it right now because everything's moving too fast”. By the time we launch a course, who knows where it'll be.

Alexey: Kubeflow, for example, if you record the course now in one month, the API changes. (1:03:36)

Demetrios: You always have to continue updating that. Also who knows if even Kubeflow is gonna be around in a year or two? That's a little bit of a cop out as to why we didn't start a course. It just felt a lot of squeezing for the juice. Does that answer the question? (1:03:46)

Five steps for starting a community in 2021

Alexey: I think it does. We still have quite a few questions. If somebody wants to start a community right now in a familiar topic, or in the topic they know about, what would you suggest them to do? What are the main five points you will suggest to them. (1:04:11)

Demetrios: Figure out where you want the community to be. Is it going to be in slack? Is it going to be in discord? There's a lot of new community tools that are coming up. Like circle or comissar. I think I told you I had a demo with them. They're more of an analytics tool for your community. But there are tools that look scarily like Facebook, but it's for your community. So, figure out where you want your community to live. At least in the beginning, it should probably just be on one of these platforms. Then when you grow bigger, you can go into forums and slack or discord and have both. (1:04:53)

Demetrios: Then what's the common goal that unites the community? Why would anyone want to come and be a part of this community? What are they coming there for? Figure out those questions. Then how are you going to feed that hunger that they have? Is it just going to be people talking on slack? Are you going to create blog posts? Are you going to create content in general? It could be a podcast, it could be a newsletter, whatever. Nurture the community in that way.

Demetrios: Then — who are people that are going to be in the community? Because you have this common thread then you can go and start finding them wherever they are, and start talking to them. Mention how you have a community also, or you have this community that you just started. For me, it was easy finding them on LinkedIn, if it's a professional facing community. I think it's gonna be a lot harder, if it's a toe fetish community. Where do you find those people? Because I know you're into that, Alexey. So I'm wondering, where do you guys hang out?

Alexey: I'll tell you offline. (1:07:19)

Demetrios: Sorry to make you blush, and tell all of your followers that you're into that. But where do you find them? I genuinely think it's easier to find people on LinkedIn, if it's around a professional network. You could technically say that a Facebook group is a community. Maybe that's where you find people. Maybe you find them in the comment section of a YouTube video. Where do these people hang out? And why are they going to want to go hang out in this community that you're starting? (1:07:26)

Alexey: What about the fifth one? The question was about five main points. (1:08:14)

Demetrios: I feel like I covered it though. (1:08:26)

Alexey: First you said, find out what the platform is. Then why should people join the community — and goal of the community. Then the third one was how do you want to attract people. And then where do you find them? So that was the four things? (1:08:31)

Demetrios: Why do people want to join this community? Why do people even care? What is the common thread that unites them? What are the answers they are looking for? What are they seeking? How are you going to be giving them those answers? (1:08:51)

Alexey: I think that these four are good enough to start. (1:09:26)

Demetrios: I hope so, if I think of another one along the way. I'll tell you. (1:09:31)

Alexey: To answer your question, where to find people for a non-professional community. I think you can find all sorts of people on reddit. I think that's all for today. Thanks a lot for joining us today for chat and sharing your expertise. I took three pages of notes, which are quite actionable. You'll see more initiatives coming up from DataTalk.Club in the future. (1:09:38)

Demetrios: You're gonna copy everything. (1:10:22)

Alexey: Not everything. (1:10:28)

Demetrios: If I wasn't fully supportive of you, making an MLOps 2.0, I wouldn't be here right now. It's great what you're doing. And you have really interesting stuff going on. Talking to you about this is really cool. Because it helps me formulate my ideas. I've thought about if I should just start making YouTube videos about creating community? How to create it? I'm not going to claim to be an expert in communities, because I know there are a lot of people out there with a lot more experience than myself. I just want to tell the story of how I created it. What's worked for me, what I've tried, what didn't work in these three communities that I've created thus far. Thanks everybody for listening. I can't believe that they're still listening. (1:10:33)

Alexey: There are eight people that are still in the stream. Successful stream, I would say. (1:11:33)

Demetrios: Yes, we're interested in this. (1:11:46)

Alexey: Maybe there is an idea for your fourth community, community about communities. (1:11:49)

Demetrios: That's kind of meta. (1:11:54)

Alexey: Yes, it is. (1:11:56)

Demetrios: I like it, though. Right now, honestly, I'm just trying to keep up with MLOps. This is so much to figure out. How to keep it in a healthy community state. (1:11:57)

Alexey: Yeah (1:12:18)

Shameless plug from Demetrios

Demetrios: Do I get to do a shameless plug? (1:12:19)

Alexey: Yes, please. (1:12:24)

Demetrios: No, I am joking. (1:12:26)

Alexey: How can people find your community? (1:12:28)

Demetrios: Just go to mlops.community online. (1:12:33)

Alexey: Are you on Twitter as well? (1:12:37)

Demetrios: Yep. @mlopscommunity. We don't have that many followers. But we are there and we generally just post about stuff that we're doing. All these different initiatives that I talked about. If anyone wants to get involved with initiatives — I imagine people that are watching, or have something to do with data science, or MLOps in general. But we've got a lot of stuff going on. If you want to get involved, come reach out to me. If you just want to keep talking, I usually take most meetings when people reach out to me. If I didn't answer all of your questions here, feel free to send me a LinkedIn Connect and we can go from there. (1:12:42)

Alexey: Yeah, there are still six questions that we didn't answer. I'm sorry. But we don't have that much time. Maybe for the next episode. (1:13:28)

Alexey: Okay. So thanks a lot. Thanks, everyone for staying on the stream. Thanks, Demetrios for coming. Everyone have a great weekend. (1:13:56)

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