5 Tips to Build a Strong Open Source Community

Building a Strong Open Source Community

Community management advice from 2014 Open Source Rookies project managers

Linus Torvalds, the longstanding project coordinator of the Linux kernel, is known for his blunt and no-nonsense communication style. He is frequently criticized for being too harsh and emotionally abusive to other contributors. Most recently, he came under fire for comments about niceness and diversity in the open source community. However misinterpreted those comments were, one statement echoed sentiments held by Black Duck’s 2014 Open Source Rookies. Linus stated that “one of the most important parts of open source is that people are allowed to do what they are good at.” As a project manager, managing that diversity of character, skills, and communication style is challenging and time consuming. Properly leveraging the people resource in open source communities leads to well-supported and innovative open source projects.

As open source software infiltrates enterprises and proprietary software, companies are beginning to look at more than just the technical features of open source projects. The recent attention given to security vulnerabilities like Heartbleed and Poodle, have brought security risk to the forefront of investors and architects. A project with a thriving open source community is less risky for enterprises than a solution with low community involvement. Linus’ law states that “given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.” Our 2014 Open Source Rookies know that the quality of eyes is equally as important as the quantity. Fostering the right open source community is a recipe for success. Here are five tips we learned from the Rookies.

How to build a strong open source community:

1. Develop a clear mission for the future.

As project manager, it is your responsibility to hold the concept for the future. Others will have ideas about what direction the project should take. Those ideas are important to listen to because they may provide inspiration and new insight into the design and technology of your project. A successful community has one vision for the future, one mission statement that is communicated by the manager and agreed upon by the community. Maciej Delmanowski, project manager of DebOps, a 2014 Rookie of the Year, knew that he wanted to create a configuration management system for an entire data infrastructure. Wanting to do everything right from the start, Maciej approached the project in stages. Stage one was adding Ansible roles to bootstrap a system; stage two was building out the scope by adding more roles; stage three was setting up a network to support the project. Since this process was well communicated, it was easier for contributors to implement DebOps in their own working environments and, in turn, contribute back to the project. .

2. Develop a plan to succeed in your mission.

Once you know where you want the project to go, figure out how you get there. What do you need from the open source community? Contributors will come to a project with a specific set of skills and specific thoughts on how they can contribute. Their opinions will not always mesh with the manager’s vision for the project. Matching the specific skills of contributors with the needs of the project is a recipe for a successful open source endeavor. Coming to the table knowing what you need out of the negotiations is crucial for a positive outcome. Contribution guidelines provide a great opportunity to communicate this path. As such, they must be thoughtfully considered and communicated effectively to the community. 2014 Open Source Rookie Storj found that fostering a supportive community is essential to their project’s success. Storj is a decentralized peer-to-peer cloud storage network which gives large credit to their community for their success. Project managers actively foster a collaborative community, encouraging members to take an active role in the decision making process.

3. Behind every complaint is a person.

Becoming an internet troll is an easy process because the internet provides a cloak of anonymity. It is very easy to respond to a block of text on a webpage and disregard the person behind the keyboard. Project managers must take the high road and remember that behind every complaint, critique, and pull request is a human being. Strong project managers lead their communities by example and interact with contributors no differently than if they were sitting next to each other. 2014 Open Source Rookie, Terraform is a tool for building, changing, and combining infrastructure safely and efficiently. Project founder Michael Hashimoto believes the key to building this community is simple: “Be nice, remember that behind every comment, issue, PR, complaint, etc. is a real human being. And most human beings aren't actively malicious, so be nice, even if they're frustrated.”

4. Be open to different types of contributions.

While knowing exactly what you need to move your project forward is crucial, it must not limit you when communicating with contributors. Open source contributions can come in many forms – it is not limited to writing code. Smartbear gives a comprehensive overview of different ways to contribute to open source, without being a programmer. Finding bugs, testing releases, working with documentation, writing blog posts, and web design are just some of the different forms of open source contributions. As a project manager, you must be open to these forms of contribution and you must figure out how these contributions can benefit your project. This may mean a different type of outreach to solicit these types of contributions. Developers are readily found on source forges. 2014 Open Source Rookie Cockroach DB uses GitHub as an advertising tool and makes sure to keep the Read Me section updated and interesting. The project managers also attend different conferences and networking events to seek out contributors.

5. Communication and gratitude

Documentation is crucial for project managers looking to increase the size and strength of their community. Regularly updated documentation can act as a great advertising tool. The Read Me and Contributing sections offer project managers opportunities to communicate their vision for the project and outline the path towards the future. 2014 Open Source Rookie OpenBazaar does a great job of outlining their project on GitHub. They use their Github page to communicate the mission statement of their project, project features, goals, design aesthetics, and license information. A project manager should seek to make it as easy as possible for the right contributors to find out information about their project. The right contributors and community can make or break a project. Smart project managers actively seek out these communities using thoughtful communication. Even smarter project managers know that giving back is just as important. Offering support, guidance, and gratitude fosters a knowledgeable and supportive open source community.

Stay tuned to learn about this year's Open Source Rookies.

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