Football clubs and free software projects

5:49 pm community, freesoftware, gnome, maemo

A few weeks ago I pointed out some similarities between community software projects and critical mass. After watching Chelsea-Barcelona last night – an entertaining match for many of the wrong reasons and a few of the right ones – I wanted to share another analogy that could perhaps be useful in analysing free software projects. What can we learn from football clubs?

Before you roll your eyes, hear me out for a second. I’m a firm believer that building software is just like building anything else. And free software communities share lots of similarities with other communities. And football clubs are big communities of people with shared passions.

Football clubs share quite a few features with software development. Like with free software, there are different degrees of involvement: the star players and managers on the field, the back-room staff, physiotherapists, trainers and administrators, the business development and marketing people who help grease the wheels and make the club profitable, and then the supporters. If we look at the star players, they are often somewhat mercenary – they help their club to win becauise they get paid for it. Similarly, in many free software projects, many of the core developers are hired to develop – this doesn’t mean they’re not passionate about the project, but Stormy’s presentation about the relationship between money and volunteer efforts, “would you do it again for free?” rings true.

Even within the supporters, you have different levels of involvement – members of supporter clubs and lifetime ticket holders, the people who wouldn’t miss a match unless they were on their death bed, people who are bringing their son to the first match of his life in the big stadium, and the armchair fans, who “follow” their team but never get closer than the television screen.

The importance of the various groups echoes free software projects too – those fanatical supporters may think that the club couldn’t survive without them, and they might be right, but the club needs trainers, back-room staff and players more. In the free software world, we see many passionate users getting “involved” in the community by sending lots of email to mailing lists suggesting improvements, but we need people hacking code, translating the software and in general “doing stuff” more than we need this kind of input. The input is welcome, and without our users the software we produce would be irrelevant, but the contribution of a supporter needs to be weighed against the work done by core developers, the “stars” of our community.

Drogba shares the love

Drogba shares the love

Football clubs breed a club culture, like software projects. For years West Ham was known for having the ‘ardest players in the league, with the ‘ardest supporters – the “West ‘Am Barmy Army”. Other clubs have built a culture of respect for authority – this is particularly true in a sport like rugby. More and more the culture in football is one of disrespect for authority. Clubs like Manchester United have gotten away with en masse intimidation of match officials when decisions didn’t go their way. I was ashamed to see players I have admired from afar – John Terry, Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack, in the heat of the moment show the utmost of disrespect for the referee. That culture goes right through the club – when supporters see their heroes outraged and aggressive, they get that way too. The referee in question has received death threats today.

Another similarity is the need for a sense of identity and leadership. Football fans walk around adorned in their club’s colours, it gives them a sense of identity, a shared passion. And so do free software developers – and the more obscure the t-shirt you’re wearing the better. “I was at the first GUADEC” to a GNOME hacker is like saying “I was in Istanbul” for a Liverpool supporter.

This is belonging

This is belonging

So – given the similarities – spheres of influence and involvement, with lots of different roles needed to make a successful club, a common culture and identity, what can we learn from football clubs?

A few ideas:

  • Recruitment: Football clubs work very very hard to ensure a steady stream of talented individuals coming up through the ranks. They have academies where they grow new talent, scouts, reserve teams and feeder clubs where they keep an eye on promising talent, and they will buy a star away from a competing club based on his reputation and track record.
  • Teams have natural lifecycles: When old leaders come to the end of the road, managers often have trouble filling the leadership void. Often, it’s not one player leaving, but a group of friends who have played together for years. Teams have natural lifecycles, but good teams manage to see further ahead, and are constantly looking to renew the team, so that they don’t end up in a situation where they lose 5 or 6 key players in one season
  • Build belonging: Supporters want to show their sense of belonging, and people who don’t have the skillz to be on the field still want to wear their team colours, and share their passion for the team. Merchandising is one way to do that, but not the only way. We should look at the way clubs cultivate their user groups and create a passionate following
  • Leaders decide the culture: We owe it to ourselves to systematically grow a nurturing culture at the heart of our project – core developers, thought leaders, anyone who is a figurehead within the project. If we are polite and respectful to each other, considerate of the feelings of those we deal with and sensitive to how our words will be received, our supporters will follow suit.

Are there any other dodgy analogies that we can make with free software develoment communities? Any other lessons we might be able to draw from this one?

4 Responses

  1. Zaheer Abbas Merali » Blog Archive » Istanbul and Guadec Says:

    […] Dave, saying I was at Istanbul for a Liverpool fan is more like saying I was at the 5th Guadec not the 1st Guadec for a Gnome hacker […]

  2. Andy Wingo Says:

    I don’t have anything to contribute at the moment, but I did want to say that I liked your elaboration of the analogy :)

  3. Donnie Berkholz Says:

    Nice point about lifecycles.

  4. Dave Neary Says:

    OK, if you’re being a sticker, then a “real” liverpool fan will have been in Rome, Wembley, Paris, Rome 2 and Istanbul. And probably Heysel too.