Unpicking the community leader

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Today is Community Manager Appreciation Day. Now, I have to admit, I don't usually partake in the day all that much. The skeptic in me thinks doing so could be a little self-indulgent and the optimist thinks that we should appreciate great community leaders every day, not merely one day a year. Regardless, in respect of the occasion, I want to delve a little into why I think this work is so important, particularly in the way it empowers people from all walks of life.

In 2006 I joined Canonical as the Ubuntu Community Manager. A few months into my new role I got an email from a kid based in Africa. He shared with me that he loved Ubuntu and the traditional African philosophy of Ubuntu, which translated to "humanity towards others," and this made his interest in the nascent Linux operating system particularly meaningful.

He shared with me that he would spend his entire week doing chores around his village to earn as much money as he could. Then, on a weekend, he would walk a few hours to his local town where he would spend all that money on around an hour's worth of Internet access. He would then dedicate that hour to contributing to the Ubuntu community and then walk back home.

Now, I have no idea whether my work played any contributing factor to this kid's participation, but when he shared this story with me it was one of the most important moments in my life. This experience demonstrated both practically and emotionally what the purpose of my job was, to help ensure that kid's hour in the Ubuntu community was productive, rewarding, and fun. This is one of the reasons why I have devoted my career to exploring and understanding every detail of how communities work. I want to see more stories like this one popping up around the world.

When you peel back the layers on that story you get to the heart of why so many people are willing to devote so much time, energy, expense, and personal sacrifice to join communities to move the needle on something they care about. Well-structured, productive, and healthy communities bring out the best in people. They teach us how to be better at we do, how to solve problems, and how to build rewarding and lasting friendships. Sometimes joining a community can be a little like dancing with a swan; it can be jarring and surprising, but when we get the moves down, it can be a beautiful and rewarding, if unusual experience. Well, so I imagine... I have never actually danced with a swan before.

Not only are communities good for people, but they are good for business too. The Internet has made technology inherently social, which when combined with the growth in data, the increased availability of technology and platforms, and the growth of open source, means that community is no longer something that is a "nice to have," it is a "has to have." Companies are seeing a tremendous value when investing in communities; they get happier users and customers who stick around longer. This is where I focus my work, and seeing this increased focus on community across different industries is phenomenal.

I have often described community leadership as understanding the connective tissue that sits between people and technology, and this fibrous material is complicated and challenging to pick apart. It requires that we layer tangible systems and platforms on top of the intangible irrationality of human beings. The practitioner of this work, the venerable community leader, plays numerous roles: leaders, managers, negotiators, press officers, and therapists to name just a few. It can be physically and mentally exhausting, but ultimately rewarding, because done well, you see remarkable things happen and remarkable people empowered.

Regardless of which part of the open source landscape you have your boots submerged in, take a few moments to drop those community leaders a quick email and say thanks. Everyone needs a little appreciation, right?

For community leaders and managers reading this, don't forget to put the May 6-7, 2017 in your calendar for the Community Leadership Summit in Austin, Texas, USA. The rest of you are welcome too. It is entirely free, and a load of fun.

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Jono Bacon is a leading community manager, speaker, author, and podcaster. He is the founder of Jono Bacon Consulting which provides community strategy/execution, developer workflow, and other services. He also previously served as director of community at GitHub, Canonical, XPRIZE, OpenAdvantage, and consulted and advised a range of organizations.

1 Comment

Thank you for this :) It makes me feel like going into this field will be highly rewarding, thought provoking, and personally enriching for me regardless of the path I take - be it academic, or industrial.

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