The Admin Zone recently asked the Customer Support Manager of vBulletin for an interview as he is well known for his swift knowledgeable help with the customers of vBulletin. In addition to being on staff with vBulletin, Steve Machol is the administrator of several online communities.
Thank you Steve for answering our questions. We appreciate the time you have given to us out of your busy schedule.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Well, to begin with I'm certainly one of the oldest members on vbulletin.com and the oldest person on the Jelsoft staff. I don't know why that matters but it does seem to intrigue a lot of people so I might as well mention that first.
I'm 51 years old, been married for 26 years to the same beautiful lady whom I first met when I was 13 years old. (She was the 'older woman' - all of 14.) Thanks to Marlena we have had 5 wonderful kids. Sadly my 'baby' girl Elizabeth died suddenly last September and I'm still having a very difficult time with her loss.
I have worked in the eyecare field for almost 30 years in various capacities as a Lab Technician and Manager in various Optical Laboratories, then as Technical Service Manager, R&D Lab Manager and Director of A/R Services (anti-reflective coatings) for one of the largest lens companies in the world. As Technical Service Manager I was responsible for putting together and managing the team that provided on-site and telephone support to our customers in North America. During my tenure we developed what was generally regarded as the finest Technical Support organization in the optical industry - something I still take a lot of pride in.
When did you first become interested in Forum Administration?
I can't say I ever wanted to be a 'Forum Admin' when I grew up. Heck, we didn't even have cell phones or calculators when I was a kid! (I wonder how many people reading this went through High School without using a calculator?)
I started my first online forum - OptiBoard - in 1995 using Matt Wright's WWWBoard script. In 2000 I upgraded to UBB5 which was a tremendous improvement. A year later I converted to vBulletin and have never looked back.
My goal for OptiBoard hasn't changed over the years. I wanted a place for eyecare professionals to discuss issues relating to their field and to build an online community where people can share knowledge and build relationships with others in their field. So as an Admin for OptiBoard I view my role as helping build and maintain this community so it remains a valuable resource for eyecare professionals everywhere.
How many Forums do you Administer? How many hours a day do spend online?
I currently admin 4 forums, including the vBulletin Community forums at http://www.vbulletin.com/forum/. In total I probably spend 6-10 hours a day / 7 days a week online in various capacities. By far, the largest chunk of my time is devoted to providing support to vBulletin customers on their forums and in the support system. My OptiBoard site requires very little management and I spend less than an hour a day on that.
Tell us about your own online community.
As I noted earlier my first personal forum was OptiBoard. I started OptiBoard in 1995 with Matt Wright's WWWBoard script. Since then OptiBoard has grown into what I can honestly say is the premier online community for eyecare professionals worldwide. While relatively small by vB standards, I'm very pleased to say that OptiBoard has become the largest and most active eyecare community in the world. OptiBoard members tend to be career professionals and on average older than members on other forums. We currently have over 2800 members from 78 countries.
How would you describe your Moderation style?
I'm pretty laid back. I try not to moderate unless there is a clear violation of the rules or something gets out of hand (flame wars, personal insults, etc.) However I don't hesitate to step in and take strong action when the need arises. I also tend to let people freely voice their opinions, probably much more so than you would see on any other support forum for a commercial software company. Like it or not, customer feedback is critical to continuous improvement - a process I wholeheartedly subscribe to. Of course sometimes they say things we don't like, but stifling honest comment and criticism is never a wise business choice. It's better to listen to your customers and try to do so with an open mind. Granted it's not easy, but then again neither are most things worthwhile.
Can you tell us how you came to be the admin for the vbulletin.com community?
Like many others on the Staff I started out as a new vB user seeking help. After a while I became knowledgeably enough to begin helping others with their questions and problems. Then as vB use continued to grow, they were looking for additional people to help support it and John asked me if I wanted to become a Moderator. Later this lead to a paid support position, then finally they offered me the position of Customer Service Manager for Jelsoft.
I have to say I really enjoy doing this. It's not always easy, but I tend to have a be a bit of a problem-solver and I enjoy getting to the root cause of a problem and finding the fix. Given the large customer base we have, vBulletin gives me plenty of opportunities to do just that.
What's the hardest part of running a Board like vBulletin.com?
For me it's keeping my cool in the face of criticism and the sometimes unreasonable demands. I'm human like everyone else and it's not easy to take criticism without over-reacting to it. This has been even more difficult since the loss of my Daughter. I find my own emotional balance is not what it used to be and my tolerance for rudeness and criticism is at an all-time low. However I recognize that these are my problems and I think I do a pretty good job of not letting my frustrations show.
On the other hand I take a lot of pride and delight when I am able to help someone with a problem they are having. One sincere 'thanks' goes a long way towards making up for the critics.
Are there any comparable skills you use from other jobs that help as an admin of a forum?
The exact skill set needed to be a successful Admin will depend on the nature of the forums you are administering. Forums with highly specialized or technical subjects will of course require some knowledge in those subjects. An Admin should have extensive knowledge and experience in their subject matter. Otherwise you run the risk of losing legitimacy among the members that do have this knowledge.
In my case, my previous experience as a Manager and in providing Technical Support for a major company have helped prepare me for my role as and Admin and with vBulletin. I've had a lot of experience making mistakes in dealing with people and customers and fortunately I think I got most of this out of my system prior to joining the vBulletin Staff.
What trait do you think is most needed to run an online community?
I definitely recommend large doses of patience and understanding. One thing to keep in mind is that it is very easy for people to become rude and abusive when hiding behind the anonymity of an online persona. If this kind of things really bothers you, then perhaps you need to rethink becoming an Admin. On the other hand you also need to be realize that you don't know what is happening to the person on the other side of the message. Perhaps they just had a fight with a loved one, lost their job or are just having a bad day. My philosophy is that most people are generally good at heart. If you treat them decently, then you can expect to be treated in kind. Obviously this isn't true of everyone. Some people are just genuinely mean and unlikable. However I give everyone the benefit of the doubt first before coming to this conclusion.
Are there any resources out there you think are helpful reading for handling an online community?
I don't really have much extra time for online activities beyond the forums I administer. However I occasionally have used http://www.sitepointforums.com/ and now http://www.theadminzone.com/. Sorry I can't comment more but I really don't have a lot of extra spare time for these viewing other sites.
What types of Forums do you visit for fun?
Fun?!? What's that? Other than keeping up with the latest news via Yahoo, I really don't have much time left for browsing for fun. Honestly other than my own forums and providing support to vBulletin customers, I never visit any other forums. That's not a reflection on the nature of online communities. It's just that I really don't have the extra time for them beyond my normal duties.
How do you think online Communities will evolve over the next 5 - 10 years?
Hmmm...I've never been very good at prognosis. Technology will continue to improve of course, along with the availability of broadband access. These will have an impact on online communities in that more options will be available. I think you will see continued growth in various features and add-ons that extend the online community experience, including chat rooms, content management systems (CMS), galleries, file downloads and management, etc. The real trick is to be able to include these things without overwhelming the end user and ultimately turning them off to the experience.
Tell us something we don't know about you? (We won't tell anyone. )
Hmmm...I probably don't want to mention the time I was arrested in Mexico for 'fomenting a revolution' or something like that, and the rather embarrassing tattoo that resulted from this misadventure.
How about this. I was one of the leading campus anti-war radicals at Arizona State University in the early 70s. In fact, here's a picture of me taken during a press conference and that is in the ASU 1972 yearbook:
Here's another one. I also am a patented inventor. My patent came out of my work as a Research & Development Manager for Sola Optical and is for an 'anti-static, anti-reflective' coating for eyeglass lenses:
What advice do you have for Admins just starting out?
It's simple really. Don't be too uptight and don't let the jerks get to you. Have an open mind and treat people with respect. If you can manage these things then you are well on your way to being a good Admin.
What's the most rewarding part of your job?
It's great to hear from people who genuinely appreciate your work and take the time to tell you. One such person easily makes up for a dozen jerks. Even when I don't get that 'thanks' it's still satisfying to investigate and resolve a difficult problem that someone was having. I take a lot of personal satisfaction from helping people fix problems and find solutions.
Will you ever hit one million posts?
Not as soon as you would think. Based on a linear regression analysis of my current posting trends, I can expect to hit the one million mark sometime in the year 2103:
What are the strongest features of vBulletin 3, and what would you change?
That's a tough one for me. Honestly I'm so heavily involved in providing support for vBulletin that I haven't given this much thought. What I like the most is the control you have over virtually every aspect of the forums and features from within the vB Admin CP. The number of options and control is almost overwhelming at first, but if people take the time to go through these they will see that many of the most common questions and features they ask for are all there.
Also I like that some of the ideas I lobbied for got included in vB3, like being able to set the registration defaults within the Admin CP without having to modify templates. This saves a lot of time and trouble on one of the most frequently asked questions on the forums.
Do you have any pet peeves?
I used to have a lot more than I do now, but I've mellowed out quite a bit. One thing that sometimes bothers me are when you have given someone the answer they need to fix a particular problem and they completely ignore it. I can't count the number of times I've had to repeat the same thing over and over again before they actually listen and follow through. I don't know why this happens but when it does it's frustrating.
What do you do for fun offline?
Mostly I enjoy visiting with my kids and grandkids. I used to enjoy movies and music but these are both so strongly tied to my Daughter Liz that I have trouble enjoying them anymore. I've always also been an avid reader and read probably 15-20 books a year on average. And when I can find the right game I like playing CRPGs. Among my all-time favorites are Betrayal At Krondor, Planescape, Might & Magic (before they got too repetitive), Baldur's Gate and currently Neverwinter Nights. All in all, I'm a pretty dull guy.
The Admin Zone would like to thank Steve for taking the time to answer our questions for us.
You can reach Steve Machol at: firstname.lastname@example.org
OptiBoard Discussion Forums (http://www.optiboard.com)
In Loving Memory of Elizabeth Ann Machol (Sept 21, 1977 - Sept. 22, 2003)
copyright 2004 The Admin Zone (All Rights Reserved)