The Importance of Open Source Communities

Have you ever wanted to sit down with community leaders from the open source community, and chat with them about what they look for when growing ambassador groups and managing participation in open source projects?

That’s exactly what happened earlier this year at Open Source Summit NA in Los Angeles, where I was very fortunate to moderate a panel with Ashley McNamara, Jason Hibbets, Jenny Burcio, and Mary Thengvall. The topic was “Building and Maintaining Open Source Communities”. It was a deep-dive into why communities are important, who should be a part of them, and how to achieve the community’s goals. We specifically discussed our experiences from the communities we work closely with; the Go community (Ashley), the Opensource.com community (Jason), the Docker Community (Jenny), the Sparkpost community (Mary), and the {code} Community (me).

As community managers and leaders, we’ve found there are a few things we all do when it comes to working for and with the community. We look at others for ideas to see what we can do better, we share our knowledge, we engage with a global audience, and we try to make the world a better place both inside and outside the workplace.

My top 3 takeaways from the panel are:

Diversity equals strength

How can an open source community integrate a diverse set of participants including people with different levels of experience, interests, and demographics?

The importance of openness and diversity has been proven time and time again and great examples are evident in all the communities we engage with.

At the core of Docker is the Docker Community. I’m not just talking about the code contributors, I’m also talking about the IRL community that is constantly expanding worldwide. They have over 300 meetup groups with a total of over 200,000 members in 81 countries, which is amazing feat! Within this Docker Community there are thousands of non-code contributors who share knowledge, organize events, and make sure there’s a physical place where people can engage and collaborate. One of the most vocal groups within the Docker Community are the Docker Captains, managed by Jenny Burcio. The Docker Captains are Docker ambassadors from all over the world who share Docker knowledge and are heavy involved with container-related projects. They host workshops, write blog posts, and create incredible things with the Docker platform such as play-with-docker.com and OpenFaaS. They are an incredibly innovative and diverse group that leads the Docker Community forward.

Ashley McNamara got involved in the Go community after a friend of hers, Steve Francia, asked her to help him teach a Go workshop. Her fresh perspective on Go and her persistence to make sure everyone understands how it works led to her getting even more involved with the community. One of her most famous contributions to the Go community are her amazing Gophers that you find everywhere nowadays, from conference banners to cakes, mugs and tshirts. You can even get your own avatar by heading over to gopherize.me! To learn more from Ashley on her Journey To Go and some very insightful tips on how to get started within the Go community, watch her session from DockerCon EU 2017.

For me as a community manager for the {code} Community, it’s important that everyone understands its purpose. The {code} Community was built to be open to everyone; make sure developers worldwide can share knowledge, provide easy access to information, and enable collaboration on projects. It started in June 2015 and has since grown to include over 4,900 members worldwide, which is amazing! Within the {code} Community there are developers, marketers, recruiters, graphical artists, project managers, and much more. The community members are a wide range of individuals from all corners of the world, all interested in participating in the open source community.

Within the {code} Community we also run two programs focused on driving innovation and collaboration forward, the DevHigh5 program and the {code} Catalyst program.

The DevHigh5 program makes it easier for users, partners, and employees of all backgrounds to open source and promote their projects with simplified processes to remove the usual hurdles when it comes to open sourcing projects. Through the DevHigh5 program we have shepherded more than 100 open source projects to date, a number we are very proud of and have the community to thank for.

We created the {code} Catalyst program to help promote the work of great open source minds across the world and organizational boundaries with an ecosystem of those who lead and advance emerging technologies. The members are passionate open source aficionados, bloggers, professional speakers, book authors, community leaders, and developers. With global collaboration and promotion as the focus of the {code} Catalyst program, individuals who may seem like competitors based on their respective organization affiliation are now part of the same community, all pushing for the same goal: bringing the best out of the open source community.

Everyone can contribute

How can non-developers such as tech writers or end users contribute to projects and their communities?

By establishing routines to make sure everyone feels welcome in a community, you foster communication and collaboration. When organizing large groups of people it’s crucial to have a team that can help community members, both new and old, to find the right information on how to best participate.

Mary Thengvall has an interesting take on the Developer Advocate community at Sparkpost, where they acknowledge and reward different types of contributions using a points system. Their internal “Developer Avocados” gain points for certains things they do within the community such as code contributions, helping out in Slack, writing a blog post, booth duty, and more. The data to back up the points system is pulled from multiple different sources and then calculated using special formulas, to reward all the hard work the team puts into making the Sparkpost community an amazing place to be. By rewarding a wide range of contributions it’s made clear that it’s not just code that counts, but the help and support by many different people with different expertise.

As a community manager for Opensource.com, one of Jason Hibbets’ goals is to get everyone’s open source story published. You might say that you don’t have a great story, or that you’re not a good writer, but everyone has a story and the Opensource.com team is there to help you get that story out. By telling your story you can grow your network, raise the profile of a project, contribute back to the open source community, and they offer free professional editorial services! Jason outlines everything very well in this video. I have had the pleasure to collaborate as an author for parts of two Open Organization books (Guide to IT Culture Change and Workbook) that Opensource.com coordinated, and can vouch for their skill and effort put into making stories great so you should definitely reach out to them to get your story out.

The future of open source communities

What will future open source communities look like?

Working within the open source space there’s always that “new thing” that someone else is doing. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary, but progress is constantly being made due to incredibly innovative people and ideas. In this way we keep learning, trying, sometimes failing miserably, and trying again until we’re satisfied with the result.

This leads to constant innovation not only in the code and projects, but also in ways that we communicate and organize ourselves. IRC and mailing lists were the dominant forms of communication for open source projects until just recently where platforms such as Slack, Gitter, and RocketChat have quickly taken over. GitHub has become the dominant place as the main platform for open source projects with great tools for collaboration. Open source-focused conferences are now just as big or even larger than traditional proprietary-focused trade shows. This trend shows no signs of stopping.

Final thoughts

It’s imperative to listen to your community members, ask for feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and make changes accordingly. We will most likely see new tools and ways to communicate in the near future, and it’s important that we listen to our community when that happens. If you don’t, your community might stagnate and not survive for long.

Open source communities are larger and more vocal than ever before. The number of people involved as members with diverse expertise from around the world grows every day, constantly communicating and collaborating with each other, and it’s a fascinating place to be in right now. Hope to see you there!