Of humans and feelings

community, freesoftware Comments Off on Of humans and feelings

It was a Wednesday morning. I just connected to email, to realise that something was wrong with the developer web site. People had been having issues accessing content, and they were upset. What started with “what’s wrong with Trac?” quickly escalated to “this is just one more symptom of how The Company doesn’t care about us community members”.

As I investigated the problem, I realised something horrible. It was all my fault.

I had made a settings change in the Trac instance the night before – attempting to impose some reason and structure in ACLs that had grown organically over time – and had accidentally removed a group, containing a number of community members not working for The Company, from having the access they had.

Oh, crap.

After the panic and cold sweats died down, I felt myself getting angry. These were people who knew me, who I had worked alongside for months, and yet the first reaction for at least a few of them was not to assume this was an honest mistake. It was to go straight to conspiracy theory. This was conscious, deliberate, and nefarious. We may not understand why it was done, but it’s obviously bad, and reflects the disdain of The Company.

Had I not done enough to earn people’s trust?

So I fixed the problem, and walked away. “Don’t respond in anger”, I told myself. I got a cup of coffee, talked about it with someone else, and came back 5 minutes later.

“Look at it from their side”, I said – before I started working with The Company, there had been a strained relationship with the community. Yes, they knew Dave Neary wouldn’t screw them over, but they had no way of knowing that it was Dave Neary’s mistake. I stopped taking it personally. There is deep-seated mistrust, and that takes time to heal, I said to myself.

Yet, how to respond on the mailing list thread? “We apologise for the oversight, blah blah blah” would be interpreted as “of course they fixed it, after they were caught”. But did I really want to put myself out there and admit I had made what was a pretty rookie mistake? Wouldn’t that undermine my credibility?

In the end, I bit the bullet. “I did some long-overdue maintenance on our Trac ACLs yesterday, they’re much cleaner and easier to maintain now that we’ve moved to more clearly defined roles. Unfortunately, I did not test the changes well enough before pushing them live, and I temporarily removed access from all non-The Company employees. It’s fixed now. I messed up, and I am sorry. I will be more careful in the future.” All first person – no hiding behind the corporate identity, no “we stand together”, no sugar-coating.

What happened next surprised me. The most vocal critic in the thread responded immediately to apologise, and to thank me for the transparency and honesty. Within half an hour, a number of people were praising me and The Company for our handling of the incident. The air went out of the outrage balloon, and a potential disaster became a growth opportunity – yes, the people running the community infrastructure are human too, and there is no conspiracy. The Man was not out to get us.

I no longer work for The Company, and the team has scattered to the winds. But I never forgot those cold sweats, that feeling of vulnerability, and the elation that followed the community reaction to a heartfelt mea culpa.

Part of the OSS Communities series – difficult conversations. Contribute your stories and tag them on Twitter with #osscommunities to be included.

3 things community managers can learn from the 50 state strategy

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This is part of the opensource.com community blogging challenge: Maintaining Existing Community.

There are a lot of parallels between the world of politics and open source development. Open source community members can learn a lot about how political parties cultivate grass-roots support and local organizations, and empower those local organizations to keep people engaged. Between 2005 and 2009, Howard Dean was the chairman of the Democratic National Congress in the United States, and instituted what was known as the “50 state strategy” to grow the Democratic grass roots. That strategy, and what happened after it was changed, can teach community managers some valuable lessons about keeping community contributors. Here are three lessons community managers can learn from it.

Growing grass roots movements takes effort

The 50 state strategy meant allocating rare resources across parts of the country where there was little or no hope of electing a congressman, as well as spending some resources in areas where there was no credible opposition. Every state and electoral district had some support from the national organization. Dean himself travelled to every state, and identified and empowered young, enthusiastic activists to lead local organizations. This was a lot of work, and many senior democrats did not agree with the strategy, arguing that it was more important to focus effort on the limited number of races where the resources could make a difference between winning and losing (swing seats). Similarly, for community managers, we have a limited number of hours in the day, and investing in outreach in areas where we do not have a big community already takes attention away from keeping our current users happy. But growing the community, and keeping community members engaged, means spending time in places where the short-term return on that investment is not clear. Identifying passionate community users and empowering them to create local user groups, or to man a stand aty a small local conference, or speak at a local meet-up helps keep them engaged and feel like part of a greater community, and it also helps grow the community for the future.

Local groups mean you are part of the conversation

Because of the 50 state strategy, every political conversation in the USA had Democratic voices expressing their world-view. Every town hall meeting, local election, and teatime conversation had someone who could argue and defend the Democratic viewpoint on issues of local and national importance. This means that people were aware of what the party stood for, even in regions where that was not a popular platform. It also meant that there was an opportunity to get a feel for how national platform messaging was being received on the ground. And local groups would take that national platform and “adjust” it for a local audience – emphasizing things which were beneficial to the local community. Open source projects also benefit from having a local community presence, by raising awareness of your project to free software enthusiasts who hear about it at conferences and meet-ups. You also have an opportunity to improve your project, by getting feedback from users on their learning curve in adopting and using it. And you have an increasing number of people who can help you understand what messaging resonates with people, and which arguments for adoption are damp squibs which do not get traction, helping you promote your project more effectively.

Regular contact maintains engagement

After Howard Dean finished his term as head of the DNC in 2009, and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz took over as the DNC chair, the 50 state strategy was abandoned, in favour of a more strategic and focussed investment of efforts in swing states. While there are many possible reasons that can be put forward, it is undeniable that the local Democratic party structures which flourished under Dean have lost traction. The Democratic party has lost hundreds of state legislature seats, dozens of state senate seats, and a number of governorships  in “red” states since 2009, in spite of winning the presidency in 2012. The Democrats have lost control of the House and the Senate nationally, in spite of winning the popular vote in 2016 and 2012. For community managers, it is equally important to maintain contact with local user groups and community members, to ensure they feel empowered to act for the community, and to give the resources they need to be successful. In the absence of regular maintenance, community members are less inclined to volunteer their time to promote the project and maintain a local community.

Summary

Growing local user groups and communities is a lot of work, but it can be very rewarding. Maintaining regular contact, empowering new community members to start a meet-up or a user group in their area, and creating resources for your local community members to speak about and promote your project is a great way to grow the community, and also to make life-long friends. Political organizations have a long history of organizing people to buy into a broader vision and support and promote it in their local communities.

What other lessons can community managers and organizers learn from political organizations?

 

Encouraging new community members

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My friend and colleague Stormy Peters just launched a challenge to the community – to blog on a specific community related topic before the end of the week. This week, the topic is “Encouraging new contributors”.

I have written about the topic of encouraging new contributors in the past, as have many others. So this week, I am kind of cheating, and collecting some of the “Greatest Hits”, articles I have written, or which others have written, which struck a chord on this topic.

Some of my own blog posts I have particular affection for on the topic are:

I also have a few go-to articles I return to often, for the clarity of their ideas, and for their general usefulness:

  • Open Source Community, Simplified” by Max Kanat-Alexander, does a great job of communicating the core values of communities which are successful at recruiting new contributors. I particularly like his mantra at the end: “be really, abnormally, really, really kind, and don’t be mean“. That about sums it up…
  • Building Belonging“, by Jono Bacon: I love Jono’s ability to weave a narrative from personal stories, and the mental image of an 18 year old kid knocking on a stranger’s door and instantly feeling like he was with “his people” is great. This is a key concept of community for me – creating a sense of “us” where newcomers feel like part of a greater whole. Communities who fail to create a sense of belonging leave their engaged users on the outside, where there is a community of “core developers” and those outside. Communities who suck people in and indoctrinate them by force-feeding them kool-aid are successful at growing their communities.
  • I love all of “Producing Open Source Software“, but in the context of this topic, I particularly love the sentiment in the “Managing Participants” chapter: “Each interaction with a user is an opportunity to get a new participant. When a user takes the time to post to one of the project’s mailing lists, or to file a bug report, she has already tagged herself as having more potential for involvement than most users (from whom the project will never hear at all). Follow up on that potential.”

To close, one thing I think is particularly important when you are managing a team of professional developers who work together is to ensure that they understand that they are part of a team that extends beyond their walls. I have written about this before as the “water cooler” anti-pattern. To extend on what is written there, it is not enough to have a policy against internal discussion and decisions – creating a sense of community, with face to face time and with quality engagements with community members outside the company walls, can help a team member really feel like they are part of a community in addition to being a member of a development team in a company.