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Interview with Dawn Foster
What matters most? Using metrics to build a better team
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When I talk about open source software the first thing I always mention is community and collaboration. I leave the talk of licenses and software development for later. Everyone understands community, everyone has heard the phrase "two heads are better than one," and everyone has worked on at least one team in their lives. This is why I wanted to get a chance to interview Dawn Foster about her OSCON talk titled Network analysis: People and open source communities.
Dawn's talk will focus on an area of community that we don't usually hear about at conferences: analytics. I know that I've heard folks say before to look at the size of a community to decide if the project is going to last, but it's not just about size—it's about effectiveness. Dawn's talk will give us some tips on how to measure effectiveness of our open source communities so we can make the argument not just for open source, but for paying community members to grow our projects.
Tell us about yourself and your background.
In my 20-year career in tech, I've done a little bit of everything. Most recently, I've been managing relatively large communities at Puppet Labs and Intel, including the Puppet, Tizen, and MeeGo communities. However, I've also done system administration, software development, market research, program management, team management, consulting, and probably a few other things I'm forgetting right now. I have a deep love of education and learning new things, so I am currently going back to school at the University of Greenwich in London to get a PhD since, apparently, an undergraduate computer science degree and MBA just weren't quite enough for me. For my PhD, I'm studying collaboration among competing companies within the Linux kernel community, and I'm enjoying having time to play with data again.
How did you first get involved in open source?
I first got involved as a user of open source software when I was a UNIX system administrator back in 1995, when using open source software mostly meant downloading tarballs from random ftp sites around the world and compiling the code yourself. Fast forward a few years to 2000 when I was at Intel, and based on my past experience with UNIX and open source, I lucked into a job where I was responsible for figuring out which Linux and open source software developer tools (compilers, IDEs, etc.) were worth spending time on to get them ready for the upcoming Itanium processor. This mostly involved looking at the community to see: if it was active, if there were regular releases, and if there were enough users. After Itanium, I continued to work on various open source initiatives at Intel before I started doing talks about open source communities as a result of this work. I managed to turn it into a full-time job as a direct result of one of these speaking gigs.
What is your favorite open source community (not necessarily open source product, although that's good too) and why?
My favorite open source community is the Puppet community. It is the friendliest, most welcoming community that I've ever been a part of. I'm not saying this because I managed this community for a few years—it was a really nice group of people before I joined. I still lurk in the developer IRC channel occasionally just to keep up with people.
How did you first come to the conclusion that we needed to keep metrics on how people in our communities are interacting? Did you see a deficit somewhere, or was it something that was being done right that you wanted to capture data on?
The reality is that as a community manager, I've had to spend a lot of time justifying why it's important to invest in the community and pay people, including me, to manage it. The easiest way to do this is with community metrics that you can use with management, executives, and sometimes the board of directors that shows the progress you are making. If you don't have good measurements on activities that are important to your company and track them over time, it can be heard to show other people the progress and importance of the community.
On the other hand, I also think it's very important to recognize the work of other people within the community. If you don't have great metrics, it's hard to figure out exactly who is contributing to your community and what impact are they having. I always use the metrics as a way to find those people who are doing great work in the community and recognize them for their efforts.
Can you give us the a sneak peek into your OSCON 2015 talk? What can you tell us to make sure we don't miss it?
Network analysis is a really interesting way to better understand the interactions between the people within your community. It goes beyond counting activities and looking at individuals to see at how various people work together within your community. The interesting bit is that it isn't something that you see often at conferences outside of academia. By taking this concept and making it relevant to our work within open source communities, this will be a good opportunity for people to see more about what network analysis can show us about our communities.
This article is part of the Speaker Interview Series for OSCON 2015. OSCON is everything open source—the full stack, with all of the languages, tools, frameworks, and best practices that you use in your work every day. OSCON 2015 will be held July 20-24 in Portland, Oregon..