Automattic’s Nicola Heald on strengthening ties between developers and users.


Fear the word salad. That’s when you think you’re saying one thing but find random phrases coming out of your mouth, says Nicola Heald who worked at IBM, HP, Canonical and “a million different contract roles” before landing as a core developer at Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.

Speaking at the recent WordCamp Bristol, her talk gave tips on communicating based on how the OpenStack community works that provides pointers for any open-source community. She kicked things off by introducing OpenStack and why it could serve as a good model.

“OpenStack is big, really big. You might think WordPress is big, but it’s just peanuts,” Heald notes comparing the 560,000 lines of code at WordPress to the 9.5 million at OpenStack. When you take into account that it’s written in Python (a more concise language than PHP) it’s far more complex, she says. So how does OpenStack keep the lines of communication open and land releases at a sustainable rate? How are these releases communicated to clients and users? And how do all the project teams cross-coordinate?

Each one of the OpenStack projects represents a team of developers and testers who they all talk to each other “and they do a pretty good job.” The key rests with the Four Opens: Open source, open design, open development and open community.

There’s more to communication than words: there’s tooling, the behavior of teams, there’s onboarding of new contributors, there are the “loose tiles” (when you introduce someone to the project or ask someone to achieve something to the project.) Heald found it difficult to begin using WordPress because of all of the jargon involved adding that having specific project jargon “also communicates something about the project.”

OpenStack ensures easy access to communication, namely with IRC and text files. “There’s no secret sauce about these, but they are completely open and accessible to anyone. “There are a million IRC clients and about as many text editor programs. Anyone can access these.” While Heald admits that IRC is not the easiest thing to connect to, the protocol is open meaning it’s not tied to any one company, so no one can deprecate the features you use, require fees or API keys.

Using the walled gardens of proprietary tools for communications goes beyond shutting people out of meetings, Heald adds, it bars them from documentation, leadership, governance and, ultimately, the direction of the projects.

Communicating open leadership

Transparent governance also makes a difference: you know who is in charge of the projects and which companies have an interest in developing them, she says. There’s a Board of Directors, Technical Committee and a User Committee, representing the downstream users of the OpenStack software who can influence the direction of the project before it’s released.

Users are part of the leadership, they meet at the Forum, “which sounds very sci-fi I think, like the council of OpenStack, on planet Forum.” It’s held every six months at the Summit, and plays a  part of the Four Opens. It closes the feedback loop and improves the next release.

“In OpenStack, it’s all open, you can find out exactly who to go to, who to ask, who are the end users influencing the future path of product.” Otherwise developers only hear these questions at a conference and get some input and take it back. Tutorials aren’t developed before hand.“They make sure that when a product goes out to end users, those things are covered.”

Catch the full 35-minute talk here.