Archive for June 6th, 2006

The “community” and decision-making

June 6th, 2006

Periodically I hear people say things like “the community will decide.” Or “let the community handle it.” This has always sounded amorphous to me and I’ve finally realized why. This way of looking at things assumes there is little clear leadership and no actual decision-maker. This is a misunderstanding of many open source projects, which have real leadership and ultimate decision makers. For example, Linus Torvalds makes decisions for the kernel, Apache has a committee system, Brendan is responsible for technical decisions in the Mozilla project. In the Mozilla project we try to delegate authority so that:

  • many decision-makers are involved in their areas of expertise;
  • an ultimate decision-maker exists but is involved only when necessary; and
  • decision-makers are chosen and evaluated by their ability to provide leadership that draws in other contributors.

This last point is extremely important. Decision-makers who don’t provide leadership make it hard to build a good project. Decision-makers who people don’t want to follow will struggle. Open source software always gives people a choice. Participants are always free to try something different using the same underlying code. So the decision-maker’s role has many facets. Basically it boils down to making enough decisions correctly enough that people continue to choose to participate. In other words, leadership.

Other projects may invoke the authority of the ultimate decision maker more or less often. The important point is that many open source projects incorporate clear decision-making into their processes.

Coming 10 July 06: More on the grants and donations program

June 6th, 2006

In late March I wrote a bit about a grants and donations program I’d like to get started. Since then I’ve received some great comments about some of the issues this raises, some suggestions and seen some press comments. Even more important, we’ve come across someone we think is the right person to help us make progress. He’s someone with a proven commitment to the thoughtful use of funds to improve community and community leaders as well as background in business matters, which is important and designing and implementing programs related to money. He’s just graduating from business school, is taking a month off and will start working on this program on July 10. So this is a note to say that we haven’t forgotten about this, we’re making progress and expect more in a month.

Until then I want to emphasize that the goal of any program we test is not to turn our community into employees. The goal of such a program is to learn if and how we can use some of the Firefox revenue to support and strengthen the activities of the Mozilla community beyond those people employed by the Foundation and Mozilla Corporation.

A number of the comments I received refer to the dangers of doing anything with money. They express the concern that any programs involving money run the risk of contaminating our community, or of turning it into a mercenary group interested only in money. I understand the risks. I also believe there are risks in ignoring money. Firefox generates revenue now, that’s a fact. So we need to deal with money. (And we have the privilege of being able to employ people to work full time on Mozilla, which I believe is necessary for a project of our size and scope. Not all open source projects believe this however, and some are wary of employees or almost any activity that requires the distribution of funds.)

We use all other resources to strengthen our community. Key contributors devote time to paying attention to others, to helping others, to getting help from others. We redesign our planning, development and marketing processes to make them easier for others to particulate and to build on what we do. We evaluate our technology to make it increasingly useful for others to build things. We distribute authority and leadership. We value reviewing patches written by others, sometimes above having experts code themselves.

The idea of using money to help strengthen our community is new. Having revenues is new for most open source projects and so there isn’t a lot of experience in how to use it wisely to build community. It’s possible the doubters are correct, and the best thing to do is use it all for employees, expenses, bandwidth, infrastructure and a savings account. I hope this is not the case and we can strengthen the commitment and effectiveness of the Mozilla contributors and the reach of the Mozilla project through small applications of funds to the right places.

It feels to me that we should try. Our DNA is to distribute all sorts of things that conventional wisdom says (or said) can’t be done: distributing code without charge, distributing the development of that code, distributing authority over that code, distributing outreach programs (think Spread Firefox and the localization communities), distributing motivations, expertise and leadership. I’d like to see if we can develop some programs to distribute funds where appropriate.

We’ll turn to this in detail in mid-July.

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