Marketing Hackfest

2009-11-20

Last week, eight of us converged on Chicago for a Gnome marketing hackfest. Thanks to Google and Novell for thier generous sponsorship. There are other blogs posts about the event, including posts from Brian Cameron, Paul Cutler, and two posts from Jason “The Chronicler” Clinton.

Unfortunately, I had to leave early on the second day, which seems to be when the dust settled and some real work got done. But we had some great discussions on day one. Others have recapped most of our discussions well, but one thing they haven’t talked about is our discussions about mentoring.

I’ve spent the last eight years trying to build and foster a community of documentation writers, most of whom are not professionals. So I’m particularly interested in how the marketing team can mentor new team members who, like me, don’t really know anything about marketing.

My one contribution was a lesson I’ve learned over the years: Give new contributors achievable and concrete tasks. If you tell them to pick something and do it, they usually won’t.

Stormy, Denise, and I continued this conversation at the bar on Tuesday night. One of my big questions was “What do people need to learn?” If you have no background on something, it might not just be the answers you’re lacking; you might not even know what questions to ask. Not only do I not know things about marketing. I don’t know what I don’t know about marketing.

Stormy and Denise rattled a dozen things off, most of which I’ve already forgotten. (There’s a reason I carry a notebook everywhere. I don’t know why I didn’t take it to the bar.)

So how do we pass knowledge like this along? Sure, we could braindump into a wiki. And somebody who’s skilled at content organization could turn it from a braindump into something useful. But it’s actually really hard to write down everything you know about a subject. The good nuggets of wisdom are things you don’t think to mention until the right situation arises. Real life experience matters.

I’m curious what others have found helpful in bringing new contributors up to speed. This isn’t marketing-specific. It happens in any community where many members aren’t professionally trained in what they’re doing. (And I realize I’m asking about those very good nuggets of wisdom about community mentoring that you don’t think to mention.)

Sponsored by the Gnome Foundation

Earlier this week, DMN Communications posted a blog entry about the Top Open Source technical writers on the Web. This was in response to Ivan Walsh’s Top 50 Technical Writers on the Web, which had a notable lack of any open source technical writers. Karsten Wade—someone I respect very much—followed up with Calling out superrockstars considered harmful, in which he argues that top-ten lists drag down morale.

This is particularly interesting to me, and not just because I happen to be on that list. (Or, at least, one Shaun McGance is.) It’s interesting to me because we discussed recognition programs during the recent Gnome marketing hackfest. (And, by the way, a big thanks to Google and Novell for their sponsorship.) I was generally supportive of the idea, though wary of alienating contributors who don’t get the recognition.

I think Karsten has a valid point, but I don’t want to throw away all individual recognition. I don’t think there’s much point in throwing a parade for our Owens and Federicos. Yes, they rock. We all know they rock. Putting them on a pedestal doesn’t accomplish anything. The only thing it can do is disenfranchise the people who don’t think they can ever reach that status.

But the story is different for people who haven’t yet made a name for themselves. Two of the people on the list are teammates of mine. They’re relative newcomers, compared to an old fart like me. Giving them public recognition can inspire them to stay on. I’ve seen a lot of contributors come and go. Slowing that revolving door is a win in my book.

Furthermore, I think there’s value in lifting up what we do. A list like this shows interested folks that there are open source people out there who love technical writing. People who strive to provide more than dry stereo instructions. People who are earnestly trying to help users. Then again, maybe calling out vibrant communities of writers would do the same.

Lastly, the fact is that open source rides on the shoulders of individuals. We are not interchangeable parts. In open source, we bring our own ideas and inspirations to the table, and we shape what we do. We wouldn’t be where we are if it weren’t for our rockstars. There are people on that list that I admire. Their work inspires me to be a better writer. And I have no doubt their respective projects would be worse off without them.

Maybe the list would have been less alienating if it had been more personal. List the poeple that inspire you, but don’t pass it off as anything but your personal list of heroes.

So back to the idea of recognizing Gnome contributors, is this doomed to be a well-meaning idea gone wrong? Is there any way to publicly recognize people who have done great work without alienating everybody else?

Comments on the blog please. I’m very interested in what you think.