Open World Forum keynote panel: Challenges of open communities

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Preparing for my first open source conference

During this afternoon's final keynotes at the Open World Forum, five panelists met to discuss a few of the challenges of geographical and physical barriers open communities face.

The panel was moderated by Cedric Thomas, CEO, OW2 Consortium, who was joined by:

  • Bertrand Delacretaz, Director, Apache Software Foundation
  • Mike Milinkovich, Executive Director, Eclipse Foundation
  • Simon Phipps, Director, Open Source Initiative, Chief Strategy Officer, ForgeRock
  • Louis Suarez-Potts, Open Office Community Manager, Oracle

Here's what they had to say.

On the issue of languages

Suarez-Potts: We require English. But we also set up local communities in native languages. So people who have uncertainty or doubt can talk to each other in their native languages. But when they contribute globally, they use English.

Delacretaz: This is the external view between the open source project and the users. I'd like to speak on the internal view. I'm the only board member of Apache who isn't a native English speaker. During meetings, on the IRC backchannel, I ask the meaning of expressions I don't get. People say they can't participate because their English isn't good enough, but just jump in, and do your best. Sometimes we're too rude with newbies on a technical point of view, but I've never heard someone say, "Your English is too weak to be here."

Milinkovich: At least for Eclipse, there is a German community that discusses Eclipse in German, but that's the exception, not the rule.

Phipps: One thing that breaks that rule is Twitter. With a decent Twitter client, you can translate messages. An effective way to grow the circle of people I'm working with is to friend people for whom English is not a first language.

Suarez-Potts: On IRC, writing is much easier than talking. If you can write quickly, you can communicate using English more easily if you need to speak English. Twitter is somewhat an extension of that.

Phipps: The communication ethos of many communities is driven by a male, slightly aggressive, slightly humor-impaired mindset. There are a number of groups of people who feel alienated by that. The most obvious one in Western conferences is that there are fewer women involved. Japanese people also find it harder to engage in that confrontative, aggressive way. In India and China, this cultural style also makes people pull back from it.

Delacretaz: I think in Apache we started with a community of hackers from the US, and it can be rude on some mailing lists. Part of the solution is to just express yourself. It's not my style to be rude, so if someone is, I just tell them. After a while, some people do get it.

Suarez-Potts: To some extent, my experience has a lot less to do with what we perceive as a cultural difference. I was in India, and these developers stopped me and said, "We're just dudes." It has a lot more to do with how people understand the product they're using and the way they see themselves in the making of that product. Every locality, whether it's tiny or big, it's going to be different. Paris is different from New York. And every different place really is responsible for coming up with its own way of understanding contribution and how to make it sustainable. If they don't--if their users don't contribute--it's not sustainable, and it will go away.

Milinkovich: As you might have noticed, none of us have a perfect solution. We all struggle with it every day. We all represent communities that are as welcoming as they possibly can be. But to have an open source community, you have to have something to talk about, and that's most likely code. If you can meaningfully contribute to the code, ultimately you'll be welcomed by the community.

On how to organize face-to-face meetings

Milinkovich: I think that's one thing we do pretty well at Eclipse. We have three types of face-to-face meetings. We have two conferences, EclipseCon and EclipseSummit, and those are our two major community gatherings, one in Europe and one in the US. Then we have Eclipse Days, which are organized locally. We help raise awareness, but it's somebody in a local community who thinks they can get people out. And the last is Demo Camps, one in the spring and one in the fall. We chip in $200 for pizza and beer, which depending on the locale, is either a lot or not a lot, and it really spurs the community. We're up to about 35 around the world, including great representation in the Asian countries. Everyone is talking in their own language, and no one from the Eclipse Foundation shows up. It's a great way to foster local community.

Suarez-Potts: When we were setting up OpenOffice, the idea was for language-based communities, not regional. What I've been doing in OpenOffice is setting up multiple region communities.with low effort on the people setting them up. We give them suggestions of what to consider, and they just have to understand our basic effort. This allows people to get to know each other.

Delacretaz: In Apache, we have similar ways to organize meetings. I want to make an observation about the importance of face-to-face meetings. I like to meet someone at least once, have dinner together, and get a feel for the person. And it has never happened to me that the person was less nice than over email. They are always nicer than the impression I had over email.

Milinkovich: I think that niceness is sticky. And what I mean is the next time they flame you on an email, they'll ratchet it down a bit. "Sorry for calling you a jerk, but..."

On real-time interaction

Delacretaz: Apache is designed to not need any real-time interaction. We have a monthly board meeting on conference call, and that's the only thing.

Milinkovich: Ditto for Eclipse--we get together face-to-face just for the board. There are councils that get together on the phone. But for all the project interactions, we use Bugzilla. You want to know what's going on at Eclipse? All the interesting conversations are happening on Bugzilla. All the conversations are searchable, and it's ingrained in the Eclipse culture. That takes it out of real time, and lets people interact slowly over time and reach consensus.

Suarez-Potts: It's important to have an accountable record of any meaningful discussion so that precisely people who are not awake at 3 a.m. their time can participate later. That doesn't mean it's not going to be the case that a couple of people get together on IM and blaze through whatever comes. But something should be there that allows a trace for people to capture and follow up on what's been discussed.

Phipps: Conference callas are a toxic evil that is the result of a failure of another way to communicate. If you're having a lot, your community is failing. One way to fix it is to give everyone on the call a chance to pick the time. And there's nothing like being on a call at 3 a.m. to see what toxic evil conference calls are. Ultimately an open source community is about code. And the code talks. The code talks, IRC talks. Conference calls are what you do when everything else is failing or there's something so fluffy you don't know how to get your arms around it.

Delacretaz: Even our monthly board call is designed to be prepared in advance. It's a simple text file in Subversion with the agenda and as many answers as possible so we can have a quick meeting and go back to bed.

Phipps: If you've got work items, a schedule, a focus for activity, you probably don't need to be talking about it. You can do it on IM, or IRC, or in Bugzilla. There are ultimately times you do need a phone call or a face-to-face meeting. But too many times in too many places have I seen an ultimate failure expressed by repeated conference calls, and if you see too many of them on your calendar, you're in a failing organization.

Milinkovich: In that case, every organization I've ever been in is failing!

Questions from the audience

Q: Open source could be a good solution to develop Esperanto. Maybe the fact that you have to speak in English could stop contributors, but Esperanto could be the solution.

Delacretaz: As a nonnative English speaker, I think English or "business European English" is becoming the Esperanto of the tech world. I once did an English accent test, and the result was that my accent was "middle European business English," a language that doesn't really exist, but that we use to communicate. A broken English that we use, and it works.

Q: What software has to be developed in a unique environment? In an open source community, how is it decided what's the priority for what to build?

Milinkovich: The only way stuff gets done in an open source community is if somebody shows up and does it. Filing all the feature requests and bug reports in the world don't matter. If you want something done, either you figure out how to resource it or live with what you've got.

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Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.

1 Comment

I don't think that Open Source is a good test case for Esperanto, which is itself a failed inorganic language that nobody will ever adopt in daily use.

So Delacretaz's answer is appropriate. Tomorrow or the next decade, we might all be speaking or coding in broken Chinese.

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