Archive for August 9th, 2004

“Community Building” surfaces at OSCON

August 9th, 2004

“Community” in the open source world is one of those words that seems obvious at first, but is actually pretty elusive. For those folks who saw r0ml’s talk at OSCON, community doesn’t mean what you think it does. “Building” and “managing” communities are even more elusive concepts. What is it? Who does it? Does it have value? If so, who does it benefit? Is it simply overhead?

I’ve been thinking about community building and management for a while now, and have had periodic and unstructured talks with folks such as Danese Cooper at Sun, Louis Suarez-Potts of OpenOffice, Brian Behlendorf and Ted Leung of Apache, David Axmark of MySQL, Chao Lam of OSAF, and of course staff. Lots of talk, but nothing organized. And to date, there hasn’t been a good way for discussing issues of interest to all of us. We’ve talked about organizing something related to community building, but never gotten to it.

Then this year at OSCON, something surprising happened. Two separate activities related to understanding “community” occurred. First, Zak Grant of MySQL came to talk to me as part of a survey MySQL is conducting about community-building. I’m always glad when I see the MySQL folks get involved in something I care about. To date, they’ve been organized, gracious, diligent and effective in the areas where I see them in action. It was late when Zak and I found a chance to talk so I can’t recall the specific questions, but I do recall an interest in both learning and communicating what other projects have tried, what works and what doesn’t.

Then on Thursday evening there was a Birds of a Feather session on “Managing Community.” It was quite astonishing to see this on the agenda. I was late so didn’t hear exactly how it came to be, but I know that Karim Lakhami, a graduate student at MIT’s Sloan school, was instrumental in getting this set up. Karim’s listing of academic studies relating to open source is a great resource. I think some combination of Chris DeBono, Michael Tiemann and Stefano Mazzocchi may also have been involved in organizing this. There were probably about 25 people for the 2 hour BOF, and we covered a lot of ground.

We started out comparing projects which are driven by individual developers doing what is of interest to them with projects like the Mozilla project where there is an overall roadmap and some degree of project-wide planning and prioritization which affects (or at least informs) what developers work on. The choice of the Mozilla project was not mine; I believe it was Michael Tiemann who suggested it. As a sidenote, I would say that the response to the Mozilla project was very different this year. In the past, we’ve been accepted as important, but not the focus of much real excitement as OSCON. This year was different. Mozilla Firefox and Mozilla Thunderbird are changing the way people think about the Mozilla project, and that change was palpable. Perhaps some of the change may be that we are no longer in the shadow of a corporate sponsor. Stefano may this case clearly when he noted that now he sees some reason to think about fixing the bugs that bother him rather than wait for someone else to do it.

There was a discussion about corporate involvement, and the difference between companies paying employees who work on open source projects as individual contributors (think IBM and Apache) and companies who have corporate teams chartered to work on open source project through the management structure (think Sun and IBM with the Mozilla project). This in turn lead to an eloquent description from Stefano of the Apache view of collaborative development, and how the need for working together trumps hot-shot hackers. The more people I meet at Apache the more I am struck by the degree of focus on work-style, community building and management. Someone, I believe Sam Ruby noted that sometimes an active community does not develop until the original developer steps back, citing Gump and Cocoon as examples.

We also talked about how important a name can be for a project. Sam Ruby noted this, the Jabber folks agreed, and I had to grimace and note how the Mozilla project learned the same thing through our iterative renaming process that finally resulted in Firefox.

One topic we didn’t discuss much is a sort of historical record. I would love to hear people describe the early phases of their projects, who the first people were to get involved, what the early community looked like, how it grow, what made it grow and so on. Maybe next time.

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