What does an adult look like in an open source community?

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It's time to begin making plans for the Community Leadership Summit in Portland this summer, just before OSCON. Last year I gave a lightning talk called "What's an adult look like in your community?" It was prompted by a then recent discussion with a 20-year-old who uttered the age-old question: "Why won't anyone treat me like an adult?"

We all have the facile answer, but the more interesting question when you're at the summit is, "What is an adult in the context of a community?" Red Hat founder Bob Young once said that a community is nothing more than a group of people with something in common, and he's right. There's nothing special about the community aspect of an open source project. We are a social species.

Photo by Chi King

Communities can be as simple as a person having a campfire and someone else joining them. If you're a commerce-minded campfire owner, it's about what other people need to trade to sit beside it. If you're a government-minded campfire owner, it's about when you need to implement a firewood tax so that you can maintain the fire. And social structures manifest in very straightforward ways. Every village has its idiot. Every playground has its bully.

Photo by Stephen R. Walli

Within a primal social structure, there are phases:

Phase 1: The community looks after you. You are a brand new arrival. You need help. You don't know your way. You don't understand the cultural norms, the history, the tools, and patterns that allow the community to survive and thrive. You need help and guidance, and strong communities have a process to transmit their culture to new members.

Photo by Christina Rutz

Phase 2: Then comes the stage when you demonstrate you can look after yourself. This is an important stage. You are an active member of the tribe. You participate. You understand the societal norms. You don't need a lot of guidance, too much can feel a bit stifling. Looked at from the outside, you wear the clan colors with pride and are willing to stand up for the clan.

Photo by Kamyar Adl

Phase 3: This is the key stage. You demonstrate to the community that you can look after the community. You don't merely talk the talk anymore. You don't simply know what needs to be done. You do it, and you work with the rest of the adults in the community to further the community. It's about understanding that the community's needs come first, and acting on that knowledge. In technology communities, it means you no longer hang out in the community because it's the cool place to be and you like it, but you want to maintain your ability to contribute to and grow the community. You're an adult in the community.

Photo by Roman Boed

The interesting thing about being an adult in the community is that your age, gender, and other beliefs don't matter. It's a demonstration of ability and of putting the community first, time and again. It's being the person that steps in to teach and encourage the new folks in community.

Photo by Jim Holmes

Phase 4: You're no longer "just an adult." You're now trusted and looked to for opinions on how the community should grow. You're a community elder. You embody the history. You keep the history. You work together with other adults and elders to guide and make the community stronger. And to a certain extent, the community once again looks after you, just as it did in the first phase.

Photo by Meena Kadri

Our modern society is defined by complex overlapping communities. We no longer sit in a single clan or village—we participate in many communities. As individuals we need to decide in which communities we will invest our precious time and energy. That in turn decides in which communities you'll become an adult and be considered an adult by your peers. It works no other way. So what defines an adult in your community?

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

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I am a technical executive, a founder, a consultant, a writer, an international business person, a systems developer, a software construction geek, and a standards diplomat. I love to build teams and products that make customers ecstatic. I have worked in the IT industry since 1980 as both customer and vendor.



Excellent article on individual AND organizational maturity. Importantly -- and I think you intended this ;-) -- these phases also provide a framework for the projects/community as well.

An open source community needs to foster opportunities for it's members to discover, grow, take on responsibilities, etc. for both the contributors and project to mature. Indeed, to continue the analogy, a project might end up with a bunch of spoiled brats (immature individuals) if the adults never let the children explore, try & fail, etc.

With two teens of my own, I might add one more "phase" or at least extend Phase 2's description to include something analogous to the rebellious teen. Again this is a healthy phase, as it lets folks question traditional norms, challenge dogma, etc.


Thanks, Patrick. Too many folks seem to think the discussion that happens in code needs no support. If I publish it, then "community happens." Too many companies seem to think this too. Publishing software under an open source license is fine. Building a community takes hard work. I'm not sure the adults are always mature enough to appreciate the status quo challenge of Phase 2 you rightly describe -- that's a very nice addition! Thank you. stephe

In reply to by massonpj

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