I love books about technology. My idea of a relaxing weekend is—legitimately—settling in with my copy of DocBook: The Definitive Guide (TDG to those of us who us who've read the whole series). I love learning to understand and integrate technology, and so those are the books I read.
But when I heard that Jono Bacon, former community manager of Ubuntu Linux, had written a book about understanding and integrating people, I was intrigued enough to purchase the book for myself. This past weekend, I sat down with the book and read it from cover to cover. I'll admit I still don't understand people, but for the cover price of the book, I do have a few years' worth of new insight.
From tech to people
For me, Jono Bacon is as much a part of Linux as
lsblk. He was part of the Linux landscape when I switched to the OS and was a constant feature of every technical conference I attended. Jono Bacon's credentials are a little humbling, and, to the outsider, may even seem intimidating. He understands technology and somehow also has the charisma to bring people together. But for that very reason, I often thought he was part of a different world—he cared about the people element, and that wasn't really what I was looking to specialize in.
However, the more I learned about technology, open source, and collaboration, the more I came to realize that technology, like so much in life, was actually just a weird human excuse to make connections with one another. Technology (along with everything else) is, as Jono's book title reveals, powered by people.
Reading the book
People Powered is 11 chapters and a few hundred pages, but it's an easy read. I've had the pleasure of meeting Jono at tech events, and he writes in the same way he talks—he's familiar, friendly, and smart in a way that makes you feel smart yourself.
The book surprises you in the way it finds fresh common ground with you in each chapter. If he's not casually mentioning LEGOs or video games, then he's name-dropping filmmakers and TV shows. It's disarming, keeping you on your toes, so you forget you're actually learning very advanced sociological concepts.
More importantly, it illustrates success. It shows you what positive and constructive communities can achieve, and it doesn't fall back on what are, for me at least, the obvious tech-centric examples (Ubuntu, Blender, Fedora, and so on).
However, the book isn't a case study. There are steps to follow, milestones to hit, and procedures to implement. It makes the process almost seem like a science, and for a few chapters, you might catch yourself thinking that building a community is as easy as mixing the right ingredients in the right amounts and baking at a specific temperature.
My suspicion is that the opposite may be true: building and fostering a community is not easy, and lacking certain ingredients can prevent it from happening, but it also doesn't happen automatically just because all the right ingredients are there. Every community is unique, as Jono points out in his book. If you're building or caring for a community, you have to put in the time to learn about what the people in that community want and need. You have to become one of them.
Building communities is hard, and if anyone knows that, it's Jono Bacon. And the one thing he's proven, and highlights in his book, is that if you want to build a great community, you can follow all the steps and check off all the list items, but ultimately, you have to care about the people.
Join the book club
Speaking of community, just after I'd finished the book, I was contacted by Monica Ayhens-Madon, who alerted me about a book club dedicated to People Powered. Group learning is fun, and so, to provide a place for other People Powered readers to trade ideas, ask questions, and challenge assumptions, both Jono Bacon and the book club organizers invite you to join in on a community discussion.
Information on the book club, including sign-up instructions, can be found on Jono's website. The book is available as a hard copy and as an eBook. Members of underrepresented and untapped groups can get a free copy through Discourse.