Balancing transparency as an open source community manager

Openness and transparency are required for an open community, although the degree to which one can be fully transparent varies from one company to another.
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Person in a field of dandelions

Several weeks ago, my friend and colleague Kashyap Chamarthy posted an essay titled "What makes an effective open-source 'community gardener?'" By community gardener, he means what most of us traditionally call a community manager. I like his choice of terminology, though, as I've written before about how difficult it is even to define what a community manager does, let alone the right thing to call it.

The "gardener" metaphor is good because a community needs nurturing, weeding, watering, light, and so on. However, the implication that it can become overgrown with weeds without a gardener isn't particularly charitable to the community members. Community organizers, liaisons, and leaders all suffer from different problems, too, because the community does a lot of these functions on its own.

Names are hard.

Openness and secrets

Kashyap says in his article, "Don't let your insider advantage seep through into your public communication." Full-time community managers often have access to information before the upstream public community. It's just part of their position inside a sponsoring company. This situation is especially true if a particular company leads, controls, or overwhelmingly dominates projects. This is increasingly the case with large open source projects these days. Often, one is prohibited from sharing insider information with the upstream community for one reason or another, which can be an enormous source of stress.

Imagine being told by a community manager, I know a thing that would make your life easier or, at least, help you to plan your future better, but I'm not allowed to tell you for reasons that I'm probably also not able or allowed to explain to you.

This is simply the nature of working for a company. Some things are secret.

As a (hopefully!) trusted member of the community, it's a difficult balance to strike and frequently gives the community the impression (perhaps justified) that I know something you don't, and am intentionally withholding that information. That is even more problematic once the information is finally revealed, along with the fact that I've known for some time.

On the flip side, if a message is made public too early before it is "polished," you end up with situations where you don't have all of the answers to the questions you know will be asked. These situations could make you look unprofessional, unprepared, and dismissive of the community's concerns.

This is further complicated by the community saying that you should have just had the entire conversation in public to start with, which certainly has merit. But, again, companies have secrets because they have shareholders, intellectual property, lawyers, trade secrets, etc. And there will always be things that are not spoken of "outside."

One of the Red Hat mantras is upstream first, which speaks not only of where to put code (developed in the upstream community first) but where to have conversations (on the public mailing list, forum, chat, etc.). The tension between wanting to do this (and the benefits that derive from that) and the need to keep things embargoed (for reasons of insider trading, security embargoes, and trade secrets) is a constant presence in all companies that deal with open source.

There are many ways to manage, there are fewer ways to garden

A community gardener helps projects and people who have come together for a common purpose flourish. The actions that purpose demands on a day-to-day basis vary depending upon what a community needs. Openness and transparency are required for an open community, although the degree to which one can be fully transparent varies from one company to another. That tension will always be there. Being aware of that tension, and carefully considering it in your external communications, is essential. There are no easy glib answers to what you can and should say, but, rather, always be aware that it's a choice, and make that choice mindfully. No matter what, be open and honest that you cannot communicate everything, and look to cultivate a trusting community with an atmosphere of honesty. Trust that your community accepts that you cannot answer some questions or divulge all the information you have, and you will form healthy and vibrant relationships.

Rich Bowen
Rich is an Open Source Advocate at AWS. He's a director, member, and VP Conferences, at The Apache Software Foundation.

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