Open Source Runs on Kindness. Entitlement Is the Underbelly



Photo by Alex Diaz on Unsplash

Each month, Intel VP and GM for Open Ecosystem Arun Gupta holds a live monthly Twitter Spaces conversation with changemakers in the open source community. Follow him on Twitter to tune into the next conversation. 

This month, Gupta talks with Jono Bacon, the founder and CEO of Community Leadership Core, where he provides training and strategies to help leaders build and sustain thriving communities. Since starting his career in open source at Linux Foundation* in 1998, Bacon has helped some of the biggest open source organizations build communities, serving in leadership roles at Ubuntu*, XPRIZE*, and GitHub*.  

The two discuss how to identify and nurture an audience, when to monetize an open source community, and why communities should talk about mental health struggles. This conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity. 

The Underbelly of Open Source

Arun Gupta: How do you think open source projects can foster a welcoming environment for newcomers, particularly ensuring their smooth integration into the community? 

Jono Bacon: There are a few layers to it. In every human societal construct, whether it’s a family, a company, or a community, there’s a power dynamic. A classic example is when somebody goes for a job, the person who sits on the other side of the table who’s hiring has all the power. When people go to an interview, they feel like they have to use the right combination of words to get the job. I’m a big believer in equalizing the power dynamics.  

All too often, when people build a community, the community manager or DevRel is seen as the person who’s driving the car, and everybody else is just going to follow their lead. If there’s a power dynamic, it’s more complicated for people to express their real feelings and input. You’ve got insecurity, all the elements of impostor syndrome, and—especially after COVID—people are still dealing with mental health issues. It takes real bravery to be vulnerable. 

Arun Gupta: A listener asked a similar question about power dynamics. He says most open source code bases are closely controlled by a small group or company founders, and it’s hard for contributors to get their ideas and proposals accepted. How do we work through this or avoid it altogether? 

Jono Bacon: I wouldn’t say this is the case for all open source communities. Many companies do a wonderful job of creating a place where people really can share their ideas and get their code into projects. The main question arises: Is the company comfortable with the idea of external contribution?

There’s also a significant responsibility on the side of community members. Some community members think that just because a project is open source means that so long as you write code, it should go in. That’s not a common viewpoint, but entitlement is the underbelly of open source. Managing it requires radical candor on both sides. Companies need to say we’re going to commit to openness, transparency, and equality in certain areas, but there are areas where we’re not going to engage. They should state where the boundaries are.  

What makes open source so beautiful, and what makes it work so well, is that there’s a fundamental layer of kindness through all of it. People are kind in writing software that they share with the world; companies are kind to invest their resources into those projects. 

Starting an Open Source Project: Find Your Audience and Deliver Value Fast

Arun Gupta: What would you recommend for companies trying to build their open source community? Should they interact on one social media platform, two platforms—where should they focus their energy? 

Jono Bacon: First, you should start thinking about the interconnection point between the product and the project right out of the gate. All too often, people are so focused on the open source project that building a product around it becomes an afterthought. Then the most important element is to ask yourself who your audience is and how you’re going to provide as much value to them in the shortest time frame possible.  

This might sound odd, but for new companies that lack funding, I don’t recommend setting up a Discord* or Slack* channel. I recommend they run a series of Zoom* meetups where you do 10 minutes of training, then some breakout sessions. And primarily engage with people via email, or GitHub, if you’re a code-centric community. Sometimes we get sidetracked by all these different tools, and there’s not enough focus on what your audience wants. 

Another thing—it’s really important to understand the cultural match. In a thriving community like the Cloud Native Computing Foundation* (CNCF), there’s a real culture of humor, of in-jokes anchored around the engineering side of things. Sometimes companies take an approach that’s too formal, like building connections through LinkedIn* or having very formal conversations. But it’s important to show up to a community event where people are doing karaoke, or grabbing lunch with someone at KubeCon*, or getting cocktails.

Community Strategy for Small Companies

Arun Gupta: What path or tools do you recommend for a small company that wants to build a community around an open source project?  

Jono Bacon: I like to identify anti-patterns—the problems that tend to happen—and then prevent them. One of these anti-patterns happens when people show up to a Discord server with all these people they don’t know and all these conversations they’re not involved in or don’t care about. They take one look and get overwhelmed and leave. That’s the reason you get Discord servers with 2,000 people in them, and no one’s talking.

We need to break the community strategy into two pieces. The first piece is driving traffic with the goal of building a sense of reciprocity in your audience, which ties to focusing on your audience and their pain points. Start throwing out lots of different solutions to those pain points—frame them as quick wins. For instance, if you can create a three-minute social media video that solves one of your audience’s problems, then that’s valuable to them, and they’re going to make an association between a solution and you and your project. When you do that five or six times, they start seeing you as someone they should listen to.  

The second piece is nurturing them. People typically go through three phases when they come into a community. They start out as casual members, where they show up every couple of weeks because they’re curious. Every week you need to be adding value, kicking off a conversation, adding content, and recognizing and rewarding people. Use a combination of events, email, and social media. No swag because people want validation—your T-shirt is less important than dropping them a note and saying we really appreciate that you’re helping out.  

After about two months they become regulars. That’s where the cultural elements form—they get the in-jokes and they start getting to know people. That’s when you can ask them to contribute by speaking at a community event, writing a blog post, or providing an endorsement to put on the website. A very small number of people will become core members—it’s usually about one in every 100. After that, you can start weaving in the technology that makes sense for you, such as forums or chat channels. This model works across any of those tools—forums, chat channels, social media platforms like Facebook* groups, even for non-tech communities. 

How to Monetize a Community for Sustainability

Arun Gupta: One of the challenges that I’ve seen, particularly if the company is small, is that they probably have VC pressure. They look at a developer funnel, see 500 people in the Slack or Discord channel, and wonder how many they can start to monetize.  

Jono Bacon: For companies with big communities around an open source project, making money comes down to having a product the market actually wants. If the product adds enough value, a subset of your community will buy it. This gets back to setting expectations. It’s important that companies set the expectation that making money is not a flaw. Companies should tell their community that they need to hire engineers to work on open source projects to make the economics work. They don’t need to hide their commercial products like they’re embarrassed about them.

Create a Community Where People Can Share Struggles

Arun Gupta: Is there anything else you’d like to share about community building? 

Jono Bacon: At least 50 percent of the challenge is not about how to execute, it’s about the psychology, confidence, and anxiety around execution. We idolize developers. But sometimes people are dealing with serious insecurity, depression, and fear. It’s important to be open about that and have conversations about it. I asked the group in my Community Leadership Core what they were struggling with, and I was really surprised. I expected them to say engagement, metrics, and building growth, but the vast majority said workload management and prioritization. As we build our communities, we should talk about how to create frameworks to help with insecurity and fear.

Get the Most from Online and In-person Events

Arun Gupta: After COVID, we’ve gone from in-person meetups to virtual to hybrid to back to in person again. What role do events play in community building?  

Jono Bacon: COVID forced us to think differently about how we engage with people in an online setting. For instance, I’m tremendously inspired by a conference called The Lobby*. The conference started with a video of David Hornik, walking down the steps whistling and singing—he wasn’t just sitting in front of a webcam. It really brought the event to life. For the group sessions, The Lobby shipped packages out to attendees’ homes, and you had to draw things on a piece of paper and hold it up to the camera to create a picture. It really broke through the screen. When you connect tools like Coda*, Notion*, and others that allow you to render data in an interactive way, you can create a really rich experience online. 

Follow Arun Gupta on Twitter for monthly Twitter Spaces live sessions with changemakers in the open source community.

About the presenter

Arun Gupta, VP and GM of the Open Ecosystem, Intel 

Arun Gupta is vice president and general manager of Open Ecosystem Initiatives at Intel Corporation. He has been an open source strategist, advocate, and practitioner for nearly two decades. He has taken companies such as Apple*, Amazon*, and Sun Microsystems* through systemic changes to embrace open source principles, contribute, and collaborate effectively.