Archive for August 11th, 2005

Building Communities and Organizations

August 11th, 2005

While at the Open Source convention I spent a bit of time introducing Joi Ito to a set of Mozilla and non-Mozilla open source people. Joi joined the board of the Mozilla Foundation recently, and OSCON was a great chance to introduce him to as many people as possible. One discussion was Joi, Allison Randal, Zak Greant, Cliff Schmidt and me. Allision, Cliff and Zak described their roles in the open source world, a focus on working towards consensus, on taking the pulse of the community, of keeping it healthy and an approach to problem solving. Zak outdoes us all with his organization, having found ways to track all sorts of non-coding issues in bug-tracking systems. But aside from this, we found a remarkable similarity in what the four of us think about.

For a moment it was odd, each person saying something like “I do a lot of what Allison does” or “My work sounds a lot like Zak’s.” At first it made it seem like there was nothing very special about the work. Then we realized that the O’Reilly gatherings are one of the few places where one could find enough people with this experience to make it seem mundane rather than highly unusual. Then we had a blast. It is actually a relief to find out that other people are doing similar things, finding the same problems, and trying out new things. There is a sense of adventure in having a role that is new enough that we figure it out as we go along. It’s also very helpful to have a few other people out there solving similar problems. It helps me know that I while I’m figuring things out (or “making them up”) I’m at least heading in the same direction as those I respect.

So, for example, what does it take to guide a foundation, as Allison does? Well, it takes a sense of people, and good intuition for what sorts of seemingly simple topics are likely to generate giant tensions if not handled delicately. It takes knowing when to let an issue fade away and when to make sure it is completely resolved. It takes an ability to find a common ground, and enough presence (or trust, or reputation, or *something*) to get people to consider that common ground. It turns out the rest of us either have, or wish we had, the set of skills to do exactly these things. I don’t see these as the main requirements in job descriptions or the main skillset on resumes, but each of us finds them to be fundamental to what we do. This isn’t unique to open source of course, but the use of these skills in an open source setting is pretty specialized.

I think it’s fair to say that none of us set out with this role in mind. Zak started coding (and is still the maintainer for part of that work), Allison started as a programmer (and is still the project manager for the Perl 6 project), and Cliff and I also have rather eclectic paths to our current roles. Maybe we’re self-selected to stepping in, thinking about organization and making things up when the need arises. Maybe none of us cares if others think what we’re doing is a dead-end path. Certainly moving to in 1999 did not look promising as a “career path.” (For those that don’t remember, 1999 and 2000 were the years when everyone proclaimed the Mozilla project a failure.) In any case, I’m interested in the questions of how open source projects self-organize and how they relate to other groups. Increasingly other creative people are thinking about this too. It’s a great time to be part of open source.

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