Code is the currency of the open-source realm but culture is king, says veteran community manager Jono Bacon.


Open source is playing a larger and larger role in companies but that doesn’t mean they understand how to play nice with outside contributors.
They face the challenge of connecting internal company goals with the external dynamics of an open source community  — a clash that can leave both sides complaining “They just don’t get it!” says veteran community manager Jono Bacon. Bacon outlined a series of recommendations and pitfalls at the Linux Foundation’s Open Source Leadership Summit.
Bacon, also the founder of the upcoming Community Leadership Summit, kicked off the session with a few numbers from Black Duck’s 2016 Future of Open Source Survey: 65 percent of companies polled are contributing to open source projects, 67 percent actively encourage developers to contribute or participate, and 78 percent run some open source — twice as many as in 2010.

Jono Bacon at the Linux Foundation Community Leadership Summit

That creates an interesting problem when corporate logic meets the open source community ethic, he says. If companies get it right, in return they see great engineering, community relations and growth. Get it wrong and they end up alienating both employees and community members.

“It’s a big change for companies to go from being a traditional waterfall style command and control environment to an open source one,” Bacon says. “It’s all about being permissive, you have to allow people to make mistakes. This is the open source way – no one is perfect, we all fail at times but let’s talk about what we want to do do improve it…”

Bacon outlined a number of recommendations as well as pitfalls to watch out for.

Treat community as part of the product

Companies have engineering, sales and marketing team and they’ll build the thing and then leave the forum or Git hub project over there – there you go. “To me that’s a mistake,” Bacon says. “If you want to embrace open source, it has to be something that everyone in the company plays some kind of role in.”
He cites the example of one of his consulting clients, HackerOne, where the CEO Mårten Mickos gave everyone at the company the “assignment” to know at least one hacker. “Everyone in open source should know at least one community member. The only way to do this is if the community is treated as a strategic component of the product development. It shouldn’t be that you hire someone to just ‘take care of it.’”

Give that “product” an owner

But someone has to be responsible for community just the same, he says. “Ultimately, there should be a single point of contact for ownership of all these ideas and concepts and how we work with communities, someone should be responsible for owning that and getting things done,” Bacon notes. “In a lot of companies it’s a side thing – we set this thing up in the community and when we have time, we’ll do something with it.”
A good example is when companies say they want to get the community involved by writing a bunch of blog posts —then people get busy and no blog posts get written. Companies need a plan in place with someone responsible for executing that plan. He believes that person should have some seniority — not necessarily reporting to the CEO but someone with the clout to have a frank conversation with senior management team to lay down a strategy.

Engage in extreme clarity

This can be as simple as writing a weekly report about what’s going on and sharing that in the community and within the company, Bacon says, adding that general anxiety levels increase in the absence of feedback. The preventative cure for that is openness. “When the company has differences in strategic work, share that with the community. It doesn’t have to be every single detail, but just be open about it,” Bacon says. “And, at the risk of sounding like Tony Robbins, failure really should be embraced. It’s how we learn. It needs to start with the top because the leaders shape the culture, if you have a CEO who is not a nice person, you often get a not-so-nice culture in the company.”

Earn trust

It works both ways. Companies need to earn trust but it’s a partnership, a collaboration. “Get to know each other – have a drink, eat lunch together, be sociable.”  That’s the kind of community interaction that helps members find jobs, fosters partnerships between companies and makes things all around more pleasant, he adds. That includes regular in-person meetings. “It’s amazing how valuable meeting in person is, having regular conversations. Developing friendships really matters. That’s something you can’t out a price tag on,” Bacon adds.

Avoid private development and code dumps

Fear that someone will steal your idea is not a good enough reason to keep your code to yourself, he says. “A lot of companies think they’re going to build this great piece of software and then provide it as a code dump, but don’t do it.” Bacon says he thinks this closed, one-off approach doesn’t work outside communities where there are very modular projects — like a driver, or a plug-in for example. “Try to be part of the process.”

Ignore the community (or companies) at your own peril

What Bacon hears from both companies and open source communities may sound familiar:
“They just don’t get it!”
“They have an unrealistic view of the world.”
“They are constantly complaining!”

And that both sides adopt that’s most likely: ignore the other side and hope it will go away.
“The community is not just a bunch of single-origin tea drinking weirdo hippies,” he says. “These people are part of how we build great things, so build a relationship don’t just write them off.”
It’s a simple concept that can be hard to out into practice, Bacon admits. If you’ve been working in business development in the airline industry, for example, the open source ethos is going to seem “weird” — so it helps to acknowledge that and help people adjust. Companies invest so much money in feature development in a lot of open source projects so it’s important to treat those people with the respect they deserve There’s a group of people in the open source/free software world who are anti-company — viewing companies as both a risk and a threat. “That’s wrong. Companies can play a really valuable role, but they need to be members of the process not dictators.”

Emotive decision making

This is another major pitfall, Bacon says. “When I see conflicts happening, invariably we’re not talking about the problem but the perception of the other person. This is the worst thing that can happen.”
He says the challenges mirror the currently supercharged political climate where it’s difficult to have an objective conversation. What happens often is that people immediately take sides and start firing shots — not a way to improve things, he says.
“The only way we can do this – as communities and companies – is to step back and look at the objectively defined things that we can talk about. There’s a lot of interpretive data and perception going on,” Bacon says. “But I think in those situations where you get that kind of conflict you must step back and focus on outcomes. Then we can solve it.”
Stefano Maffulli is an open-source marketer and community manager currently at DreamHost.

Cover Photo // CC BY NC