Ecosystem Magic

Pop Quiz: Who got the One Ring back from Sauron and tossed it into Mount Doom? If you are like most people, you would answer “The Hobbits.” They clearly did the majority of the grunt work, killing spiders, orcs, climbing mountains, fighting with Golem and running away from the Balrog. But if you think about it really carefully, you might conclude that the answer is actually…Gandalf. Without Gandalf, Sauron would have won, no contest. Gandalf studied the problem, did the research, recruited and trained the team, framed the problem and enabled the Hobbits to do their jobs by only intervening at moments where it was absolutely necessary. I feel like Gandalf has a lot in common with most managers in this regard: His value may not be superficially apparent and is easily forgotten. 

I have had a very hard time describing what I do for a living to other people as an ecosystem manager. When they ask, I say “Microprocessor Marketing.” That is about as far as I am going to be able to get with explaining how I get things done. In order to really explain what ecosystem management really is, I would have to explain developer relations, partner management, developer experience, program management, business development, product management (to design the programs required to run an effective ecosystem), technical evangelism, content marketing and probably several other sub-fields as well.

Ecosystem Management is all of these things happening all at once. There is no one book you can read. I have tried to write one but I was only able to describe the topic superficially (See the link at the top). To really “get” ecosystem, you would have to read dozens of books plus have a ton of very rare experiences stacked together.

To use an analogy: An ecosystem is like a very large and complex synthesizer with tons of patch cables and signal processing elements all wired together, just like the picture above. It is the job of the ecosystem manager to route signals through this monstrously complex network of interlocking relationships in order to achieve some end result. There is a lot of luck and creativity involved. In the case of an electronic musician, the desired result would be pleasing music. In the case of an ecosystem manager, the desired result would be valuable business outcomes.

A properly functioning ecosystem seems to magically produce miracles, one after the other. Ecosystem are fundamentally large collections of very talented people working on similar problems. These miracles (which I refer to as “Ecosystem Magic”) are the result of momentary collaborations between extremely talented people. To make the ecosystem magic happen, an ecosystem manager has to be able to envision the results they want to happen and understand how to put the pieces together. Ecosystem management is therefore a creative endeavor more than anything else.

If I were to characterize the type of music that ecosystem management is, it would be jazz. There is a significant amount of improvisation. You need to have a constant flow of good ideas to keep the music coming. If you were to ask me what miracles I plan on creating next year, I would be unable to answer. Things will happen and I am going to respond to those things as they come and turn them into magic, where I can. Don’t get me wrong, there can be a general outline of a plan, but it doesn’t take much for everything to get thrown completely out the window from one week to the next by massive changes in market momentum.

The primary tool of ecosystem management is something I call a “combination.” My job is to create Ecosystem Combinations in order to catalyze something that I want to happen. A good example is putting together the team who built the Intel Edison 900Mhz board. In order to create a combination, you have to know all the moving pieces of the ecosystem and how they fit together as well as how to talk the right people into working together at the right time.

Another thing to keep in mind: The ecosystem is attached to people, not to companies. When an ecosystem manager or technical evangelist leaves, their relationships leave with them in the same was as if the person operating the synthesizer leaves, the music stops. Out of the $10,000 speakers – a loud hissing noises will emerge instead of pleasing music. Dark and acrid smoke will start shooting out from the cabinet of your $300,000 Moog synthesizer as vacuum tubes start to burn. The purple clouds of ecosystem magic formerly issuing from the piles of musical equipment will cease and the whole thing will stop producing. 

When it comes to measurement, ecosystem managers are generally screwed. You can identify a set of dimensions (workshops created, developers activated, prototypes built, sample code written, articles produced, white papers created, webinars curated, chat rooms organized, conferences produced) but those are not going to be terribly helpful in demonstrating the true impact that catalyzing an ecosystem can bring. You can measure the impact of ecosystem by observing what seems to be happening over time, or by what happens if your ecosystem manager quits and gets a higher paying job someplace else. 

When you bring a group of people together (an ecosystem) and enable them to do something, it can take months or years for seeds that have been planted to bear fruit. By the time The Hobbits are tossing the One Ring into Mount Doom, the attention is fully on the people getting the project across the finish line (as it should be), not the people who catalyzed everything to make this result possible. But that is ecosystem management and it is very fun.