How to think globally and act globally

Global group communication and culture tips

Global group communication and culture tips
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If open source needed a new slogan it whould be: Think Globally, Act Globally.

Probably with a semicolon instead of a comma, but what slogan uses a semicolon? A semicolon is slogan poison. Just like thinking locally is open source poison. The thing is, when you create a tool you need and decide to throw a Creative Commons license on it to allow others to add to it or make fun of your lousy source code, you can't be thinking locally. You know that it will now reach anywhere and everywhere. And, if you didn't realize that, then you're probably on a different Internet than me.

I'm going to talk about my experiences working on open source projects with members located around the world, in different timezones with different cultural rules and expectations.

How to commuinicate with a global group

The Internet was built a long time ago so that criminals could steal stuff from really far away. And the rest of us could share critical information and catch make-believe cartoon animals. However, the whole basis of it was open source. To use and improve. Anyone. Anywhere. Which is how I got started in it.

Back in January 2001, I released the first open source methodology ever. We had to make a new open source license for it because a methodology is a trade secret, thus copyleft couldn't cover it. So we made an open trade secret called, creatively enough, the Open Methodology License. Then, we named our methodology project the Open Source Security Methodology Manual (OSSTMM)... we weren't exactly a fountain of flowing cleverness back then.

I happened to be be moving around from New York to Heidelberg to Barcelona in those days, so it was apparent to me that we would have some language and cultural hurdles to face as we built awareness and community around this new methodology. I flew around Europe and North America to present and explain the OSSTMM. We explained our work in English, and I found locals who helped me with other languages.

When we created a non-profit organization, ISECOM, to support OSSTMM development, we grew as a mix of people from every continent not mostly covered by a glacier. We learned to deal with language issues by defaulting to written English since many tech people around the world can read English even if they can't speak it. There were a lot of auto-translation emails going back and forth in the mailing list which were pretty difficult to understand. It wasn't like today where translation is so good you can't even tell I wrote this whole article in Brooklyn English and ran it through a translation app so yous can read it. People were good about working with translations and trying to understand each other.

When we had over a hundred people working on the project, communication became an organizational nightmare. We tried many things so that managing communications was not eating into productivity: If I'm managing emails then I'm not researching. So we had to learn how.

Our communication moved from mailing lists to IRC to web forums and then back to something like mailing lists and IRC, which is pretty much what Slack is. Yes, we recently moved to Slack, and it's made international communication a breeze. But you don't need to choose it because I did; there are many chat variations, even open source ones, like Mattermost. What's important to know is that timezones make calls difficult and you need a dynamic way for people to chat. That chat needs to be a record of decisions that you can archive easily. There's a good chance that some of your people are still asleep while others are just heading off to bed while you're just having your morning coffee, so what you write now may not be read for a dozen hours or so.

Navigating different cultures

In 2003, we developed the first cybersecurity and cybersafety training for teenagers called Hacker Highschool. Keep in mind this was years before the 'selfie' or teenagers facing WiFi withdrawal while visiting their weird relatives in the mountains. We had people all over the world working on it and despite having solved the language issues, we had two new issues.

The first problem was that while most Internet techs had no problem reading English, their teen kids weren't so good at reading English stuff about complicated cybersecurity issues.

The second problem was that we wrote it for the teenage mind. The American teenage mind. Which created a bit of a culture issue for the rest of the world. Since we used a lot of narrative to teach, you know, stories, because that's how teens learn, our stories weren't as interesting or funny to non-American teens. And in a few cases they were outright illegal. So we learned like how VPNs are illegal in some Middle East countries. Or how taking a photo of a police officer or police car is illegal in Spain. And even kind of risky in the USA depending on where you live, but not illegal.

We were innocent enough (as innocent as hacking-a-police-car story might be). You see, Hacker Highschool uses stories where sometimes bad things happen to teach empathy, but it's no substitute for good parenting. Which is how we actually solved problems one and two. Parents.

Parents and similar groups team up

Since most of the people who took an interest in Hacker Highschool were parents looking to teach their kids cybersafety, they would translate it for their kids. We connected them with other parents doing so in the same language and let them share the task. In some cases where you have a lot of strong regional dialects, like Spanish, we defaulted to one main version and let them work it out.

The other things parents were able to do was adjust the stories to be more appealing culturally to their kids, and to remove anything that might be illegal. In one case, for the Korean translations they added additional warnings at the beginning for readers to adhere to Korean law.

The Bad People Project

We learned so much about different cultures after launching Hacker Highschool that we began a new project, the Bad People Project, to study the various ideas groups have about what is "bad." From our learnings, we wanted to then create better safety training lessons for children.

Our way in would be to understand what kids consider to be "bad," which likely comes from stories, television, video games, and any real life exposure to violence and crime. We started by asking parents to ask their kids, ranging from ages 4 to 12, to draw "a bad person" without giving any additional details or explaination.

The idea was to post this all online so we could all learn from it. But that didn't work out. Some of the kids drew pictures so graphic and violent that we couldn't show them to other kids. So the project slowed down and we didn't promote it further.

In conclusion

Projects that involve people from around the world, which almost all do in some way today, it's important to:

  • work and think globally
  • default to one language
  • let locals fix cultural and legal issues in your project

About the author

Pete Herzog - I am an avid Maker, Hacker, and Researcher. I teach my kids to hack, pick locks, look things up, and question authority. I'm also the co-founder of ISECOM (www.isecom.org) and as Managing Director am directly involved in all ISECOM projects. In 2000, I created the OSSTMM (www.osstmm.org) for security testing and analysis. I am still the lead developer of the OSSTMM but have also lead the...