Interview Jono Bacon senior director of community for XPRIZE

The truth about the thick skin of a community manager

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I met up with Jono Bacon at LinuxCon Europe on October 16 this year where he gave a keynote and presented a full day workshop on community management.

Jono previously spent 7 years as a community manager at Canonical. Today, he is the senior director of community at XPRIZE: an organization that creates big prizes for teams to help them reach their goals. They believe that facilitating competition, and rewarding it, can change the world. And, more specifically, on their site they say:

We believe that you get what you incentivize. And that without a target, you will miss it every time. Rather than throw money at a problem, we incentivize the solution and challenge the world to solve it. An XPRIZE is a highly leveraged, incentivized prize competition that pushes the limits of what’s possible—to change the world for the better. 

Read more on community management in open source and at-large in this interview with Jono Bacon.

Hello Mr. Bacon! On the staff page of the XPRIZE website you are referred to in a more formal way. What is up with that?

[laughs] Seriously. I am not sure if me and formality are particularly friendly bed fellows. It has been interesting going to XPRIZE, because it is a very different organisation than I am used to working with. I worked as a consultant with companies, but that was mainly on technology. The thing that excites me about XPRIZE and that lead to that senior director of community role is that the mission is so inspiring to the world. It has these major challenges in the world and technology consulting, and that’s one of the things I talked about in the keynote was that exponential growth is part and parcel of how our world is evolving, and I think we could focus on that and see that pan out. We can incentivise people to solve those problems. It is incredible what is possible.

You explicitly mention that you did not leave the Ubuntu community 'due to annoyance', yet around the same time you wrote, Dealing With Disrespect. Is that totally unrelated? Tell us about the reasons for writing that small book.

What drove the creation of that book was partially inspired from my experience in the Ubuntu community. There is no doubt about that. The reason why I wrote that book is because I have seen people contribute things of value to the world, and then they get frustrated because they see this negative input and feedback, and it is awful because these are good people trying to do good things and are treated like shit.

The thing where this relates to Canonical is that I developed a thick skin. It gave me the opportunity to just be bombarded not just with some negative content, but just be bombarded with a lot of content, and I learned through trial and error and through people who I trusted that there are so many different things that go into a conversation, so many different pieces. My goal, my dream is that people who are at their wit’s end due to this kind of content and this kind of conduct, read the book and think OK this makes me feel better, it helped me gain perspective. That it will save some of these people who we have been losing from our community.

The experience of working at Canonical really helped me crack that, those takeaways. My goal is to share that with people, because most people do not get to be community manager for a large project like Ubuntu. I genuinely did not leave out of frustration or anything like that at Canonical. I always knew that at some point I would move on from Canonical. Because of the kind of position, and because of the amount of interest in Ubuntu, I was always worried that some people no matter what I said and where I went, some people would say, "Oh it is because of this or because of that." So maybe I over-egged the pudding a little bit in trying to re-assure people that this has genuinely nothing to do with Canonical. Are there things that I would like Canonical to do differently, of course! But, I think that as a rule and as a culture Canonical is a great place to work, it is a great team. I have nothing but respect for Mark (Shuttleworth) and my boss Rick (Spencer), but XPRIZE was an interesting opportunity. But yeah, the book and the job are not really related.

As a community manager myself, I can relate to the 'thick skin' you mention. I do not mind being a little more explicit every now and then, and I do not mind if people are explicit to me.

It is tough. We have seen these issues with conduct in the open source world. The example a lot of people talk about is Linus Torvalds and Sarah Sharp, right? 99% of our conversations are completely normal, completely civil, completely fine. It is that 1% of conversations that really fall into that category and it is complex, because everybody has got their own definition of what is acceptable. Like to me, I have spent my entire career having very very explicit, very directed, very frank conversations. I can get into a debate with somebody that tells me what you produced is awful, and if they tell me the reasons for it I consider that great feedback. Some people are much more sensitive towards that feedback. About the Linus and Sarah thing. I think that what Sarah wants is dignity and respect, and what Linus gives is very direct and focused feedback that can easily mean people talk past each other.

The other thing is that the open source community is generalising and often does not do a good job of picking its battles. There are some people out there that have to turn everything into a crusade, and there is a lot of fighting and arguing over, frankly, silly, stupid shit as far as I am concerned. But, then there are these things, this Linus-Sarah thing for example, which I think is important. It is not silly, it is not stupid. Sarah raises a very valuable point, but also Linus raises a valuable point in being able to first have directed conversations.

I will always remember going to the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Dallas one time, and I have been there for a week previous, and I had a series of Canonical meetings where everyone was very direct and focused on each other. And then I did not level shift to the community event, so I went into those meetings and discussions like very direct and very Canonical-ish, and a community member came up to me and said, "Are you ok, because you seem to be a bit snappy and shouty this week?" I realised that the way in which you engage with the community, and the way in which you engage with your company, is subtly different. If you do not adapt, it can be seen as pushy. I will always remember that lesson. You have got to adapt to different circumstances.

Empathy is very important. We have to step back sometimes and open up to what is going on around us.

We tend to forget that. I remember there was this one guy in the Ubuntu community. His name became associated with whining. He was constantly complaining and very dismissive and very negative about a lot of things, so it was easy for people to say, "Screw that guy." At the time, I was thinking there is a reason that he behaves this way. We may never know it, but we should have empathy. For all we know his parents might just have died, maybe he is battling an illness.

XPRIZE is more diverse in topics than the Ubuntu project and works to reach developing countries. How does that impact your work, and what have you learned in the past months working at XPRIZE?

XPRIZE has got a huge mission ahead of it, and it is a very valuable mission. XPRIZE is divided into a variety of different areas, so there are these kind of categories, there is oceans and there is space and there is education, there is health, life sciences. The thing that is interesting is the guy that founded this, Peter Diamandis, he wrote this book called Abundance, which is excellent. It is really neat, because he basically says the future is better than we think, because we have got this exponential growth in technology and we can use that to solve these problems. He said in all of the major areas in terms of access to clean drinking water, in terms of health care, in terms of sustenance, life is better than it was 500 years ago, and I like that positive outlook, that positive mission.

The thing that I learned from reading that and learning about XPRIZE is that all of these different challenges in the world are connected. Everything is connected, right? So if you want to improve literacy, you also need to see improvements in energy and you need to see improvements in transportation and all that kind of stuff. So XPRIZE, I think, solves a lot of these challenges. The thing that I did not know about this is that these prizes take like two years to develop. A lot of work goes into consultancy, market assessment, technology. These prizes last a long time. They are three to five years. That was very different than my experience at Canonical.

At Ubuntu, we ship a product every six months. If you waste a week in a release cycle, you wasted a significant amount of time. Six months in the scheme of XPRIZE is the equivalent of a week in the scheme of Ubuntu. There is a different pace, there is the same philosophy of making the world a better place, but with something like Ubuntu it is very much building a tool that empowers people, XPRIZE is about building a technology that can solve a lot of problems that are not necessarily solvable by individuals. With open source, a kid can gets a computer and puts Linux on it, installs Wordpress and builds a website to do all kinds of stuff and that person is in charge of their own destiny. With XPRIZE, it is building technology that governments and institutions will be using, and that is very very different in the way it works.

How do you manage a good relationship with your community especially with the current size? What indicators do you have to measure that?

What is really interesting with XPRIZE is that for all different purposes there really is no community yet. It is new. There is a community of supporters, people who are fans of it. What kind of surprised me when I went there is how few people have heard of XPRIZE. Well, in the technology world they have heard of it. I think that needs to change. People need to know about them, because I think their mission is incredible.

To me success is active participation. What is interesting and different about XPRIZE is the way in which people participate is not as clear as it is in open source community. In an open source community, you can be a developer, you can be this, that and the other, and all these kind of different things. And it is very clear how you can be a part of that. What we do is massage these on-ramps to be as crisp and clean as possible. With XPRIZE, people could participate in terms of contributing money, people can participate in the sense of advocacy, because not as many people can contribute to the actual technology. There are teams working on that. So, it is a very different dynamic and honestly we do not have that figured out fully. One of the risks of me going to XPRIZE was that I do not have all the answers. It might take 5 years to develop those answers. It may even not be possible, but it felt to me it was important enough of a mission to give it a whack and see what happens.

The TYPO3 community, where I am lead community manager, has seen enormous growth and adoption in the enterprise area. The pressure to accommodate these enterprises has risen in a linear fashion. What is your advise to get the volunteers lined up to support those interests? So, actually scratching the itch of others instead of your own.

One of the things I am learning, the things I love, and you experience the same thing as well, is that this whole community management thing we are a part of is a story that is evolving and we do not have all the answers. To preface this, I think there are two types of knowledge that are in the world. One is directive skills: the things we learn, the specific things you can do to achieve a particular goal. And then there is experience, and this is conclusions and patterns that you see in the chaos as you get older and as you do this more and more.

One of the patterns and conclusions from what I have been observing, is that community is not applicable to all things. It is easy for us to go out there and say that any community can be built with any organisation. I do not believe that is the case. I believe that you can build a strong and effective community, so long as the driving force, the driving mission is a line between the stakeholders and the participants. If you have an organisation that’s built on a piece of software to solve a particular problem and the organisation has this ethos, this mission, then the community shares that ethos and that mission. They may be scratching somebody else’s itch, but it is still within the same broad ballpark.

So, for example, I personally do not use Joomla, right? (an open source content management system) At all. But there have been times when I have been on the phone with people I know at Joomla. So that does not scratch my itch, but what it does do is it provides open technology to other people and users. It scratches it more broadly. So, I think the contributors, that is the hardest thing about leading a community is always reminding people of a mission. You get so focused, I think, on the bugs and the issues that we sometimes forget. You know, everybody has a crappy day at work and you think why am I doing this? And then you think, because we are building technology that is going to break down the digital divide and give access so kids across the world can learn and people can make themselves better. And then I think, that is the key: constantly reminding people. It is almost like the show, West Wing, where we have all this political intrigue and drama and then you have that scene where the president gives the motivating speech that really focuses on what is important. I think we need to have that in our communities. We need to have somebody that says: "Let’s just remember why we are doing this." I think that is so critical, because sometimes we just forget.

XPRIZE uses pretty high awards for reaching goals like landing on the moon, measuring ocean health, and more. Sometimes the financial incentive is diagonally opposed to community work, where the effort is being done from an inherent passion and on a voluntary basis. Can you elaborate on where these values collide and what you do to bring this together?

I think it is such an important question that does not really have an answer unfortunately. I think the jury is out right now. If you have a team that can be awarded 15 million dollars to create a technology, why would anybody want to play a part when they do not get the award? My theory here is that you can build a community of people who are supporting that and want to play a part in that outcome, but accept the fact that they are not doing all of the work to win the solution. I compare this to open source.

There is people in the Ubuntu community or in the TYPO3 community or elsewhere, who play a part, but don’t necessarily gain any financial reward from it. But there are people who contribute to Ubuntu who ultimately make the Ubuntu product better. And when Canonical does a deal for 5 million dollar they do not get a cut of that, but what they are doing is the fact that the technology is open, available, and accessible to everybody is the reward. So my theory here is that you have these teams that contribute towards building these open technologies. That the teams then leverage in their solutions, and that they build into a solution that ultimately wins and solves the problems.

Winning an XPRIZE is not easy. It requires a huge amount of work and in many cases a huge amount of risk like with the Google Lunar 30 million dollar XPRIZE to revisit the moon. You can’t participate as a team unless you raise money, so what you are doing is you have to raise money and if you do not win [laughs loud], what happens? I mean if you go out and raise 20 million dollars of capital to participate in the Google Lunar XPRIZE and then you do not win the 30 million dollars, you can’t repay that 20 million dollars, so what happens is that XPRIZE causes this interesting set of discussions where it legitimises the idea of building that technology, but whether that is going to work or not—honestly I do not know.

You and I are privileged, living where we live and having a deeper understanding of technology, being able to work with it and adapt it to our needs. It is easy from our perspective to say ‘we will help you’. How can we be humble enough?

It is tough because we are at times surrounded by not very humble people. I think there are a few things that are connecting here. One is humility and being humble, which is such an important part of being a human being. It is interesting for me as an English person. England is pretty much a class-based society. I was born in the North of England, which was like working-class. There was an intrinsic kind of suspicion against people with money and power. The thing that bugs me more than anything else is people who show off and who are bragging, but what was interesting was that to know humility and to be humble you need to know what it is like to not be humble.

I remember going through that period of life myself where my public persona was growing. I was going to conferences and keynoting, very involved in the Ubuntu community, doing interviews with press—all this kind of stuff. I was starting to drink my own Kool-Aid a little bit, and I felt myself becoming less humble, but what is interesting is the thing in the open source world there are so many outgoing people who are like that, that I started believing that maybe it is OK not to be humble. Maybe it is OK to just go out there and whatever, if people do not like what I am doing screw'em. I discovered that is not really the right thing to do. The people who I most respect in life, who have the greatest contributions are the most humble, quiet, careful, and conscious thinkers. It is their humility that makes them inspiring. It is not how good they can code, it is not where they work, it is not how loud they can share their opinion.

It is their humility, but I think that is something that we learn as we get older.

It is very difficult to explain that when you are younger, which makes me sound like an old fart. One of the things that makes someone a humble human being is knowing that even though you have a voice and even though you have power, there is still the understanding that there is still so much to learn and we have to listen to people that do not have a voice and do not have the power. I have been doing this now for 14 years, but every time I go to an event whether it is CLS (Community Leadership Summit), whether it is here at LinuxCon, or somewhere else—I always come away learning something that really helps me to think differently. I learn it invariably from someone who no one would know, they do not have a name in open source, they are maybe a student or whatever. It does not matter—we are people!

Software will save the world!

I believe that software can change the world, but I believe that it is bigger than that.

I think software is one piece. To me what changes the world is collaboration, and it sounds very general, but sometimes we forget we are just people and we are animals. We have very basic needs, desires, and insecurities as well. The thing that has been so incredible about open source is that it has created tools and a culture that empowers people to be bigger than themselves. When we get together as a group, we can achieve amazing things. To me the magic there, the thing that makes that clock tick is not the software, it is not the licensing, it is not the IP (intellectual property) and all that kind of stuff. It is us as people wanting to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

So, I think collaboration and community is where it is. I think that the technology, the software, is part of how we do that. In the same way that we have grown up in a world in which you can. I am a father. I have got a two-year-old kid. Just thinking about what he is going to be able to do when he is 16, compared to what I could do when I was 16... The reason why I am in software is because I could not afford to buy hardware. When Jack is 16, he is going to live in a world where from his computer he can use open source software to create incredible things and inventions, he can 3D print, or he can manufacture things and have them printed. He can fund things through crowdfunding, he can build communities, he has got so many tools at his disposal, but that will not make him successful. What will make him successful is the thirst to innovate, and the thirst to collaborate, and that to me is what will change the world!

About the author

Ben van 't Ende - ben van 't ende | Community strategist at Age of Peers, former TYPO3 Community Manager. Visit my blog at . Sharing on Twitter: @benvantende