If you’ve ever been to an open source event, you’ve probably heard a community member marvel at how much of today’s innovation is spurred by open source technology. But to expert community builder Jono Bacon, the open source community has only tapped into a third of its full potential. “That’s what keeps me passionate—there’s so much more we can be doing to build communities. As a collective, we’re nowhere near as organized as we should be.”
On this episode of Open at Intel podcast, host Katherine Druckman catches up with Bacon at All Things Open* for a free-ranging conversation about the importance of welcoming newcomers to open source, the benefits of bridging the gap between sales and dev teams, and finding your unique role in the open source community.
Listen to the full episode here. This conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Katherine Druckman: Can you tell us a little about how you got here?
Jono Bacon: I got into open source when I was 18. My brother had come home to live with us for a couple of weeks. I was moaning about Windows*, and he asked me why I was using a “Mickey Mouse operating system.” He told me I should be using this thing called Linux* instead, and he installed Slackware* on my computer. This was back in 1998 when Linux was still pretty young. I bought a book called Slackware Linux Unleashed, and the first chapter of the book talked about how people from all over the world come together to build software. I was absolutely mesmerized. That’s how I got into Linux.
I got active in the UK Linux community, which wasn’t big at the time. I became a journalist when I left university, writing for computer magazines. Around 2002, I joined OpenAdvantage*, which was a government-funded organization in the UK that encourages businesses to move from proprietary systems to open source systems. That threw me into the deep end of consulting. I went on to join Canonical* to work with the Ubuntu* community, then XPRIZE* and GitHub*, and then I started consulting full time.
I consulted up until the end of last year when I stopped because I saw a flaw in the consulting model. I realized that consultants don’t create value, clients do. If a consultant recommends a strategy and a client can’t map it into their world and effect change, the client is buying meaningless words. Most companies struggle to apply strategies. So I launched an accelerator called the Community Leadership Core* earlier this year so that I can be in the thick of implementing strategy with my clients.
Katherine Druckman: What’s your dream for the accelerator?
Jono Bacon: I started in January and by March I reached 10 member companies. My goal is to get to 30 by the end of this year and 100 by the end of next year. I’m going through rapid iteration cycles to improve operational elements of how people track their goals and how we trigger my coaching. For example, if someone’s working on something and they get blocked, they mark it in their product, and it triggers a red flag so I can proactively reach out. I want it to be where I can just appear at the right time. I want that to be dialed in the by end of next year.
Learning From Successes and Failures
Katherine Druckman: Can you share some of the greatest success stories you’ve seen or been involved in?
Jono Bacon: I think GitLab* is particularly interesting because it truly embraced a digital-centric model. In fact, during the keynotes this morning, Mårten Mickos from HackerOne* said he doesn’t refer to people as remote workers but likes to think of everyone as digitally connected. When you say “remote worker,” it separates people into a different category. I love that GitLab forged the path for that kind of thinking. I also like lesser-known stories like Blender*, the 3D modeling system. It was a proprietary system that Ton Roosendaal built, and he basically bought it from the shareholders and open sourced it to create a huge movement around 3D.
But for me, what I really love are the personal stories. When I was working in the KDE* project on this ill-fated tool called Kafka*, I worked with a guy who wrote a big chunk of the underlying rendering engine. I asked to schedule a call around 10 p.m. his time so we could talk through some of the architectural stuff. He said his mum wouldn’t let him stay up that late; it turns out he was around 12 years old. I had no idea. If open source didn’t exist, that wouldn’t have been possible. He’s gone on to have a successful career.
Katherine Druckman: What are some of the failures you’ve seen that we can learn from?
Jono Bacon: I can think of outright failures, but I like to focus on areas where we should be pushing harder. I’ve been building communities for 22 years, and I feel like we’re only doing 30 percent of what we could be doing. That’s what keeps me passionate—there’s so much more we can be doing to build communities. As a collective, we’re nowhere near as organized as we should be. We should be doing more bridging, marketing, and community building together. We should be pushing the envelope more; I just think there’s more potential in all of us. And beyond that, I think sometimes in open source, we’re a little too inward looking.
For example, I talked to this person at GitHub years ago. He was about to launch a new product and asked for feedback. While we were talking, he said he believed everybody knew what a pull request is. I told him he was living inside a box if he thought that was the case. A massive chunk of the world has no idea how this kind of workflow operates or how to use GitHub. I’m not a huge fan of being too in-jokey or assuming too much.
Katherine Druckman: When you’re in the middle of something, it’s so easy to lose sight of what it’s like to be a complete beginner or to assume that everyone knows a project as intimately as someone who works on it every day. Software has become incredibly complex. Nobody knows how everything works anymore.
Jono Bacon: At this event, I want to make the point to people who are new at this: You have a lot to offer. If you’re new to open source or you’ve never been to an event like All Things Open, you see people who seem to know everyone and have all these in-jokes, and you may feel like, “What have I got to offer?” Looking through a different lens is massive.
The Value of Non-Code Contributions
Katherine Druckman: Which communities do a good job valuing non-code contributions, and how are they doing it?
Jono Bacon: Blender is a great example because people write documentation and do translations, and there's a lot of educational content. I’d also say opensource.com* a couple years ago, when it was the Red Hat* team, they had amazing contributions, and barely any of them were code contributions. There’s been some amazing work in HashiCorp* when it comes to non-code contributions. And definitely the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF)* and Kubernetes* world overall.
Katherine Druckman: What are some of your takeaways? I think people who do these contributions can sometimes feel a bit marginalized and unvalued.
Jono Bacon: It reminds me of when I first got involved in open source. Everybody aspired to be a programmer. A lot of people see developers as a species of people who naturally take to code, and therefore that world isn’t available to everyone. Most developers I know don’t see it that way at all. When I joined Canonical, each person there was one of the most respected open source engineers in the world. I was a bit insecure about that, but everyone was like, “What? No, we’ve got plenty of people to write code. We need people to run the community, do documentation, and create translations. That’s what we really need.” So if you’re feeling like doing docs doesn’t really level up, just remember developers really respect that work. Most developers don’t get energy from documentation or running events, they get energy from building software. That’s why open source is so magical because we all bring our own energy.
The Promise of AI
Katherine Druckman: How do you think AI will change the way we approach developing in open source communities?
Jono Bacon: The way I look at it is that, on the whole, AI is going to be amazing. We’re only at 30 percent of our community-building potential, and AI can take the busywork out of how we build open source communities. For example, building communities requires a lot of content to pull people in and nurture them. Creating content takes a lot of time. I’d rather someone spend 45 minutes engaging with the community than 45 minutes writing a blog post. Or you, for instance—Katherine—you’ve got a set of skills that your colleagues don’t have, and those skills are the skills you should be bringing to the table because they’re uniquely you. AI will help us automate or speed up the busywork so people can spend more time using their unique skills.
The second area that excites me about AI is finally being able to pour through data, such as feeding a CSV of Slack* data into ChatGPT* and generating insights. Tools like Common Room* and Orbit* are great at grokking the data, but what we really need to do is figure out the outcomes from the data. Right now, that’s capped by experience and exposure to training. If somebody identifies a particular discussion in Slack that’s generating a lot of interest, experience and training can help us hypothesize why that’s the case, run a series of tests, evaluate the data, and continue to develop material based on what we see. But now if you’ve got a large language model (LLM), it can tell us what to do. Human beings are bad at going through data; we can’t just look at data and derive an evaluation from it.
Integrating Sales and DevRel Teams
Katherine Druckman: What are you excited about right now in open source?
Jono Bacon: As my career moves from a consulting model to an accelerator model with a repeatable process, I’m diving under the surface of how companies build great communities, and I want to unpack the taboos. For example, many people in DevRel roles are reluctant to get involved in sales. Sales has a bad taste, and people are fearful of being asked to sell. I think we’ve got to get out of that mind space. If you refuse to have anything to do with selling, your job is going to go away because ultimately everything always comes back to revenue.
Things shouldn’t be as black and white as people being either a DevRel person or a salesperson. We need to integrate the two and spend more time bringing our wisdom together. A DevRel-influenced salesperson creates a better sales process, and a sales-influenced DevRel person helps people solve problems in different ways. Along with the explosion of people building software, we should identify patterns and create frameworks to guide the patterns forward and get away from our biases. There’s a lot of bias when it comes to people refusing to collaborate and spend time with other people, and I want to move the needle on that.
About the Author
Katherine Druckman, Open Source Evangelist, Intel
Katherine Druckman, an Intel open source evangelist, hosts the podcasts Open at Intel, Reality 2.0, and FLOSS Weekly. A security and privacy advocate, software engineer, and former digital director of Linux Journal, she’s a longtime champion of open source and open standards.