What’s in a job title?

community, freesoftware 1 Comment

Over on Google+, Aaron Seigo in his inimitable way launched a discussion about  people who call themselves community managers.. In his words: “the “community manager” role that is increasingly common in the free software world is a fraud and a farce”. As you would expect when casting aspertions on people whose job is to talk to people in public, the post generated a great, and mostly constructive, discussion in the comments – I encourage you to go over there and read some of the highlights, including comments from Richard Esplin, my colleague Jan Wildeboer, Mark Shuttleworth, Michael Hall, Lenz Grimmer and other community luminaries. Well worth the read.

My humble observation here is that the community manager title is useful, but does not affect the person’s relationships with other community members.

First: what about alternative titles? Community liaison, evangelist, gardener, concierge, “cat herder”, ombudsman, Chief Community Officer, community engagement… all have been used as job titles to describe what is essentially the same role. And while I like the metaphors used for some of the titles like the gardener, I don’t think we do ourselves a service by using them. By using some terrible made-up titles, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to let people know what we can do.

Job titles serve a number of roles in the industry: communicating your authority on a subject to people who have not worked with you (for example, in a panel or a job interview), and letting people know what you did in your job in short-hand. Now, tell me, does a “community ombudsman” rank higher than a “chief cat-herder”? Should I trust the opinion of a “Chief Community Officer” more than a “community gardener”? I can’t tell.

For better or worse, “Community manager” is widely used, and more or less understood. A community manager is someone who tries to keep existing community members happy and engaged, and grows the community by recruiting new members. The second order consequences of that can be varied: we can make our community happy by having better products, so some community managers focus a lot on technology (roadmaps, bug tracking, QA, documentation). Or you can make them happier by better communicating technology which is there – so other community managers concentrate on communication, blogging, Twitter, putting a public face on the development process. You can grow your community by recruiting new users and developers through promotion and outreach, or through business development.

While the role of a community manager is pretty well understood, it is a broad enough title to cover evangelist, product manager, marketing director, developer, release engineer and more.

Second: The job title will not matter inside your community. People in your company will give respect and authority according to who your boss is, perhaps, but people in the community will very quickly pigeon-hole you – are you doing good work and removing roadblocks, or are you a corporate mouthpiece, there to explain why unpopular decisions over which you had no control are actually good for the community? Sometimes you need to be both, but whatever you are predominantly, your community will see through it and categorize you appropriately.

What matters to me is that I am working with and in a community, working toward a vision I believe in, and enabling that community to be a nice place to work in where great things happen. Once I’m checking all those boxes, I really don’t care what my job title is, and I don’t think fellow community members and colleagues do either. My vision of community managers is that they are people who make the lives of community members (regardless of employers) a little better every day, often in ways that are invisible, and as long as you’re doing that, I don’t care what’s on your business card.

 

Project naming

community, freesoftware 6 Comments

Number two in an occasional series of “time I wish I could have back” topics related to releasing proprietary software projects as free software.

What’s in a name?

It was famously said that there are 2 hard problems in computer programming: Cache invalidation, naming things, and off by one errors.

Naming a project is a pain. Everyone has their favourite, everyone’s an expert, and there are a dozen different creative processes that people will suggest. Also, project names are subject to approval by legal and brand departments often, which are 2 departments most engineers don’t want anything to do with. So how do you come up with an acceptable name without spending weeks talking about it? Here are some guidelines.

Avoid anything related to the company name or products

You don’t want to have corporate trademark guidelines, certification programmes, etc impacting the way your community can use the project name, and avoiding names related to company assets will make it easier to transfer trademark ownership to an independent non-profit, should you decide to do that in the future. In terms of maintaining a clear separation in people’s minds between the community project and your company’s products, it’s also a good idea to avoid “line extension” by reusing a product name

Outside of that, the number one thing to remember is:

Projects names are not the most important thing about your project

What’s important is what problems you solve, and how well you solve them. The name will grow on people if they’re using the project regularly. You can even end up with interesting discussions like “is it pronounced Lee-nooks or Lie-nucks?” which can galvanise a nascent community. Also, remember that:

Project names can be changed

How many projects fall foul of existing trademarks, end up rebranding soon after launch, or are forced to change names because of a change of corporate sponsor or a fork? Firefox, Jitsi, WildFly, Jenkins, LibreOffice, Joomla, Inkscape all started life under different names, and a rename has not prevented them from going on to be very successful projects. The important thing, in an open source project, is to start small so that you don’t have a huge amount invested in the old name, if circumstances require you to change it.

Avoid a few pitfalls

Avoid using anything which is related to the trademarks of competing companies or projects, unless it is pretty abstract (Avid to Diva, Mozilla to Mosaic Killer, Eclipse to Sun).

That said, don’t worry too much about trademarks. Yes, do a quick search for related projects when you have a shortlist, and check out USPTO. But just because there is a Gnome Chestnut Farms in Bend, Oregon doesn’t mean you can’t call your free software desktop environment GNOME. Domain of use is a powerful constraint, take advantage of it.

Avoid potentially politically incorrect or “bad language” words. Also, avoid artificially smart acronyms. The Flexible Add-on Release Tracker might seem like a good idea, but… don’t.  GIMP is a notable exception here to both rules, and countless days have been spent defending the choice of name over the years.

Do worry about the domain name. This will be the primary promotion mechanism. People shouldn’t spend time trying to figure out if your project is hosted at “sandbla.st” or “sandblast.org” or “ProjectSandblast.org”. Make sure you get a good domain name.

Empower a small group to choose

The decision on a name should belong to 1, 2 or 3 people. No more. Once you realise that names are not the most important thing, and that the name can be changed if you mess up badly, that frees you from getting buy-in from everyone on the development team. The “committee” should include the project leaders (the person or people who will be identified as the maintainers afterwards), and one person who is good at facilitating naming discussions (perhaps someone from your Brand department to ensure their buy-in for the result). Beyond that, do not consider surveys, general calls for names, or any other process which gives a sense of ownership of the process to more than 2 or 3 people. This way lies many weeks and months of bikeshedding arguments.

Have a process

  1. Start with a concept and work from there. Break out the Thesaurus, make a list of related concepts.
  2. Names can be abstract or prosaic, it doesn’t really matter. Discourse is one of the most wonderfully prosaic project names I’ve seen, but StackOverflow has nothing to do with a questions & answers forum. Ansible is a made up word, Puppet and Chef both evoke wonderfully orchestration while being dictionary words.
  3. Keep the shortlist to names which are short and pronounceable in multiple languages.
  4. Cull ruthlessly – don’t keep “maybe” names. If you get to the end, go back to the concepts list and start again.
  5. If you get to a shortlist of 2 or 3 and can’t decide, use random() to pick the winner or go with the choice of the project leader.

In general, don’t spend too much time on it. You should be able to get a couple of candidate names in a few days of discussion, submit them to Legal for a trademark review, and spend your time on what really matters, understanding your users’ problems and solving them as well as you can.

Of course, this is easier said than done – good luck!

Choosing a license

community, freesoftware 10 Comments

One in a series of indeterminate length I am calling “mostly unimportant questions which take an inordinate amount of time to resolve when releasing a project as free software”. For the next topic, I’m hesitating between “naming”, “logo/icon/mascot design” and “mailing lists or forums”.

 

Choosing a license

Free software projects need licenses. But choosing a license is such a pain that most github projects don’t even bother (resulting in an initiative by Github to rectify this). And when taking a closed source project and making it free software, the topic of license choice will take a huge amount of time and effort.

I have found the following questions accelerate things nicely.

  1. Does the project exist as part of a greater ecosystem (eg. Apache, Eclipse, GNOME, Perl, Ruby)?
  2. If so, is there a predominant license in that ecosystem (eg EPL for Eclipse, MPL for Mozilla, MIT for Ruby gems)? Then use that license.
  3. Does your business model depend on you having total control of the project for the foreseeable future? (Aside: If so, consider changing your business model) Consider GPL v3+/proprietary dual license
  4. Do you want to grow a vibrant developer community around your project? If not, why not? Avoid dual license, copyright assignment
  5. Do you want to grow a vibrant service partner/extensions ecosystem, including proprietary extensions, around your project? Avoid GPL v2+ or v3+ – prefer MPL v2 or Apache v2
  6. Do you have any dependencies whose licenses you must comply with (eg. GPL v2 hard dependency)? Ensure you can distribute result under a compliant license
  7. Do you have concerns about the patent portfolios of potential project contributors? Choose from GPL v3, MPL v2, Apache v2 for stronger patent protection for contributors
  8. Do you believe that all contributors to the project, including extensions, should be subject to the same rules? Choose GPL v3
  9. Do you believe that the source code is free, and people should do whatever they want with it as long as they give you credit? Choose MIT or Apache v2
  10. After answering these questions, are you considering a license outside of (L)GPL v3, MPL v2, Apache v2 or MIT? Don’t.

After all of this, there are still situations which can lead to different outcomes – perhaps you want to join a specific non-profit later, and your license choice will be influenced by that. Perhaps you have a dependency currently which you plan to work around later, and you might dual license source code contributions under multiple free software licenses to allow relicensing easily (as OpenOffice.org and Mozilla have done). But the answers to the 10 questions above will at least reduce the scope of your search to one or two licenses.

Any considerations I have missed? Comments welcome!

The value of open source (for customers)

freesoftware, General, openstack, red hat, work 1 Comment

Over at community.redhat.com, the Red Hat community blog, I have posted an article detailing some of the value I see to customers of companies who support and build on free software. The article is basically notes from a presentation I will be giving next Wednesday at the Red Hat Summit, “Community Catalysts: The Value of Open Source Community Development”. The problem statement?

It’s not always obvious, however, what the value of that is to our customers. The four freedoms of the free software definition which personify open source software – the freedom to use, study, modify and share modified copies of the software – at first glance appear to benefit only participants in open source communities. If you are a customer of a company like Red Hat, does it really matter that you have access to the source code, or that you can share the software with others? Aren’t customers, in some sense, paying us to “just take care of all of that stuff?”

This line of thought is not original, but it’s one I’ve had for a long time – and others such as Simon Phipps have given voice to similar insights in the past. Hopefully I can give it a fresh treatment for Red Hat Summit attendees next week!

Open Source Parenting at OSCON 2013?

community, freesoftware 5 Comments

The OSCON 2013 Call for Participation just opened and the list of tracks this year is mostly the same as last year. I am a touch disappointed, because I suggested to some of the conference chairs that a track I’d love to see, and which I think would get lots of attention, would be on how we grown-up hackers ensure that we’re growing the next generation of open source hackers. In other words, as a parent, tips on sharing our passion for technology and the open source, free software, hacker ethos with our kids.

This generally fits into the “Geek lifestyle” theme, which is the most marginal of the tracks, but I bet that if there’s a critical mass of quality proposals on the topic, that we could have a separate open source parenting track at OSCON – and it would be standing room only all week.

Some things I would love to talk about or hear people talk about:

  • Hackable living space – teaching kids they can control their environments
  • Preschool engineering – toys and games that teach your child to hack before they can walk
  • My First Electronics Kit – How my son and I learned how to make a solar powered car from scavenged parts
  • Teaching kids to hack – coding literacy in K12

And anything else which gives me ideas for projects I can do with the kids and their friends, or that I can bring to the local school.

Wouldn’t that be the coolest track *ever*? All it needs to happen is to totally blind-side the conference chairs with a dozen high quality proposals that no-one could possibly refuse! Who’s with me? Won’t somebody please think of the children?!?

 

Open Source communities

community, freesoftware 1 Comment

I was re-reading one of my favourite blog posts on running an Open Source community today, and thought I would share it.

Max Kanat-Alexander is the Bugzilla Release Manager, and put a variety of thoughts on leading an Open Source community together – Open Source Community, Simplified.

The TL;DR version, for those too lazy to click through, is:

  1. Don’t freeze your trunk for long periods
  2. Turnover is inevitable, so recruitment is vital
  3. Respond to contributions immediately
  4. Be extremely kind and appreciative
  5. Encourage a total absence of personal negativity

His own tl;dr version of this is: “be really, abnormally, really, really kind, and don’t be mean”.

He then talks about removing barriers to contribution, promoting your project and getting new contributors interested.

All in all, an excellent contribution, and well worth the read.

“Community citizenship” survey

community, freesoftware 1 Comment

I spoke to Kevin Carillo about what makes a good community citizen a few months ago – he had already been working for some time on his research at that point, and I thought that his approach and ideas were interesting.

Recently, he blogged about his work, and released a survey targeting recent contributors to a variety of projects, including Debian, GNOME and Mozilla.

As a long-time participant in various open source projects, I regularly see sociologists posting announcements for surveys to lists asking for developers time without first trying to get a feel for the communities involved, and figuring out how their work can benefit the community. They are zoologists, studying the behaviour of strange and wondrous beasts they don’t understand.

Kevin, like Evangelia Berdou and Malgorzata Ciesielska in the past, has adopted another approach – talking to people one-on-one and crafting a survey after building an understanding of community dynamics. I have high hopes that his resulting research will be as valuable to us as Evangelia and Gosia’s work was in the past.

I encourage anyone who fits the target profile to participate in his survey.

Humanitarian Free & Open Source Software meeting place

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This year, we hosted a Humanitarian Free and Open source software track at the Open World Forum for the third time. The track has been of great value to participants as a way of communicating with other practitioners in the space, and exchanging best practices and experiences around funding, community, and working with NGOs.

Once again, we had great participation from representatives of a wide range of projects, in crisis management, healthcare, social enterprise and microfinance. And the quality of the presentations was excellent – when discussing after the conference with Leslie Hawthorn what our favourite presentations were, the short answer was “all of them”. My personal favourites were Mark Prutsalis’s description of the EUROSHA project, Heather Blanchard’s experiences from working closely with aid agencies, and Leslie’s presentation with Julius Awakame of the great work that OpenMRS is doing in electronic medical record management targeting the poorest communities in the world.

The number one request I have had for the track is to turn it into more of a conversation – part presentations to establish a baseline for discussion, but mostly workshops or discussion forums on issues common to projects in HFOSS. Some organisations have funding, but have not succeeded in developing a commercial ecosystem of partners to support the deployment of the software. Other organisations have a partner ecosystem, but have not succeeded in growing an active community or identifying a sustainable funding model. Others have vibrant communities, but do not have either the funding or the organisational infrastructure to have a full time staff, or to bid for projects with aid agencies.

How would you feel about making next year’s Humanitarian track at the Open World Forum a worldwide meeting place of leaders of HFOSS projects, over two days, with a more traditional conference component including presentations, round-tables and workshops, and a Humanitarian BarCamp the day afterwards in Paris? I bet that if we can get critical mass for the idea that we could make this a regular meeting place for these projects. If there is somewhere else more appropriate as a meeting of minds, I’m happy to point people there instead, but I do not have the impression that there is. It has become obvious to me that there is a need for such a meeting place, and Paris in the Autumn seems like the ideal place to have it – central location, easy accessibility internationally from Europe, America, Asia and Africa.

Is there interest in making a real Humanitarian FOSS conference in Paris next year?

 

 

Attention! Speed bump ahead!

community, freesoftware, General 13 Comments
Speed bump ahead

Speed bump ahead!

This week I was reminded that the first step in an Open Source project is often the hardest. We’ve been using MediaWiki for a project at work, with the “ConfirmAccount” extension to deal with spammers – a very nice extension indeed! It adds account creation requests to a queue where they can be handled by members of the bureaucrat group.

We had one wishlist item. We wanted to have a notification email sent out to every member of the group when a new request was received. There is an existing feature to send a notification email to a configurable email address, but not to the whole bureaucrat group.

So I said to myself, how hard can that be? And I rolled up my sleeves and set aside an afternoon to make the change, and submit it upstream. After a few false-starts which were nothing to do with MediaWiki, I got down to it.

First task: Upgrade to the latest version of MediaWiki – the version on Fedora 17 is MediaWiki 1.16.5, and the latest stable version is 1.19.2. So I download the latest version, and follow the upgrade instructions to over-write the system MediaWiki install in /usr/share/mediawiki with the upstream version. Unfortunately, the way that $IP (the Install Path) is set changed in version  1.17, in a way that took a little time to work around.

Once that was done, I downloaded the HEAD of the trunk branch from SVN which was linked from the old version of the extension home page, and got the extension working. That needed a few additional modules, and some configuration to get the email notifications working locally, but eventually, I was good to go.

I got to work making my change. It took a while, but once I figured out how to turn on debugging and the general idiom for database queries, it was easy enough. After a couple of hours hacking and testing, I was happy with the result.

The first date

I headed back to the extension home page to figure out how to submit a patch. At the same time, out of habit, I joined the project IRC channel, #mediawiki on Freenode, reasoning that if I got lost I could ask for help there. No indication on the Extension page, but a web search showed me that MediaWiki uses Bugzilla. So I registered for Yet Another Bugzilla Account, and confirmed my email address a few minutes later. Then I created a bug on Bugzilla, and attached my patch to the report.

Simultaneously, on IRC, I was asking for help and was told by a very nice community guy called Dereckson that the preferred way to submit patches was through Gerrit. It turned out that the extension home page should have been pointing to the more recent Git repository all along, and I had been developing against the wrong version of MediaWiki. Dereckson updated the extension page with the right repository information as soon as he discovered it hadn’t been updated before. No big deal, I cloned the Git repository, and tried to apply the patch from svn to git. Unfortunately, it didn’t work – some other changes related to translatable strings had changed code in the same area, and I had to re-do the change, but that was pretty easy.

I did try to submit a patch by following the procedure in the git workflow document, but without an account on Gerrit it didn’t work, of course. Dereckson convinced me to apply to developer access. After some initial resistance, because I really didn’t want to be a MediaWiki developer just to submit a drive-by patch, I requested developer access with the comment “I just wanted to submit one patch to an extension I use, Extension:ConfirmAccount.” Half an hour later, jeremyb approved my request with the comment “That’s what you think now!” :-)

Then I went to the documentation on getting access and followed the instructions there until I was directed to upload my ssh key to labs and found I did not have access to that resource. Thanks again to Dereckson (once more to the rescue!) on IRC, I found my way to getting set up for git and Gerrit, and got an SSH key set up for Gerrit. Then I went back to the instructions for submitting a patch and a quick “git review” later, I had submitted my first patch ever to Gerrit.

Jumping through hoops

Jumping through hoops (CC by-sa, rwp-roger@flickr)

Pretty quickly, the first couple of reviews came in. First comment: “There’s some whitespace issues here.” Gee, thanks. Second comment, from Dereckson (again!) started with a “Thank you”, said the idea was a good one, and then gave me an example of the project norms for commit comments,  and made one comment on the code suggesting I use an option.

As a first time user of Gerrit, I noticed a few issues with it for newbies. It’s not at all clear to me how to distinguish “important” commenters from trivial-to-change things like whitespace issues. It’s also not clear whether a -1 blocks a commit, or how to have a discussion with someone about the approach taken in a patch. Also, it was unclear what the suggested way to update a patch was and propose a new, improved version. My first try, I made some changes, committed them into a new revision on my local branch, and pushed the lot for review (normal git workflow, I daresay). Unfortunately, this was not correct. I ended up squashing the two commits with a “rebase -i”, and since then I have been using “commit –amend”.

After a few more rounds of comments (another whitespace comment, and a suggestion to avoid hard-coding the group name), I am currently on the 5th patchset, which I think does what it says it should, and will pass review muster, when someone gets around to reviewing it. I’ve been told that the review time for a small patch like this can be up to 5 or 10 days, and I don’t know exactly how I know that the process is over and it’s good to commit.

Sunk costs

The end result is that for a small change to a fairly simple MediaWiki extension, I spent about 2 hours coding, and about 4 or 5 hours (a full afternoon) going through the various hoops involved in submitting the change for review upstream.

I’m aware that this is a one-off cost – that now that I have a Bugzilla account, and a git and Gerrit account, it will be easier next time. Now that I have spent the time reading the MediaWiki coding conventions, git workflow, and have spent time understanding how to use Gerrit, I won’t have these issues again. The next patch will only take a few minutes to submit, and I won’t be wondering if I did something wrong if I don’t get a review in the first 10 minutes.

But along with some installation and firewall issues, I ended up spending slightly more than a full day on this. In hindsight, I’m saying to myself “was it  really worth a full day of work to avoid maintaining this 20 line patch over time?”

I think it’s important that projects make newcomers jump through some hoops when joining your project – the tools you use and the community processes you follow are an important part of your culture. Sometimes, however, the initial investment that you have to put into the first-time use of a tool – the investment that regular contributors never see any more – is big.

If you’ve never used Bugzilla, git, Gerrit, or SSH, how long would it take you to submit a first patch to a project? How many hurdles does someone have to jump through to submit a patch for your project? Is there a way to ease people into it? I could imagine something like an email based process for newcomers, and only after they’ve made a few contributions, insist that all of the community’s preferred tools and processes be used. Or having true single sign-on, where you have only one account-creation process for all of your interactions with the project, so that you don’t end up creating a wiki account, a Bugzilla account, a Labs account and configuring a Gerrit account.

I want to make clear – I am not picking on MediaWiki here. I rate the project well above average in the speed and friendliness with which I was helped at every turn. But they, like every project, have adopted tools to make it easier for regular contributors, and to help ensure that no patches get dropped on the floor because of poor processes. Here’s the $64,000 question: are the tools and processes which make it easier for regular contributors making it harder for first-time contributors?

Joining Red Hat

community, freesoftware, work 30 Comments

I’m joining Red Hat on May 2nd, where I’ll be working with the Open Source and Standards team. We’ll be working hard to help all of the projects that Red Hat contributes to kick ass at growing community. I have known several of the team from years gone past, and interviewing for the position was frankly a pleasure.

I’d like to thank Karsten Wade for thinking of me and making the connections back in February. When my future boss described the position and the team to me around then, and asked me whether I might be interested, I couldn’t help myself from saying “I think you just described my dream job”. I know you’re supposed to show restraint and play hard to get in these situations, but I got carried away.

Red Hat is one of the few companies out there that could tempt me away from independent consulting. They have a range of projects covering the server, desktop, middleware, cloud services and virtualisation. They are the top, or one of the top, corporate contributors to dozens of projects I use every day. I love the Red Hat philosophy of working with communities to make great Free and Open Source software.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything is roses. There are projects within Red Hat (or that Red Hat contributes heavily to) which need to improve their community processes, that could do a better job of promoting themselves, or that have hung on to former business models post-acquisition, at the expense of community growth. And it’ll be our job to fix those issues. It’ll be challenging, it’ll be a slow, incremental process. But I have no doubt that it will be very rewarding. I’m looking forward to it!

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