Interview with Jono Bacon - Ubuntu Community Manager
This interview with Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon is the first in the LQ Community Manager Interview Series. I'd like to thank Jono for taking the time to do this interview.
Jono, to get us started, can you give us a little background information about yourself?
Sure! I am an Englishman based on the edge of Berkeley, California and I am the Ubuntu Community Manager at Canonical. There I lead a team of three people and we work to grow, enthuse and build a strong worldwide Ubuntu community.
In addition to this, I am also putting the finishing touches on my new book: the Art Of Community (more at http://www.artofcommunityonline.org/), to be published by O'Reilly and also under a Creative Commons license. Outside of my work my other passion is music and I launched the Severed Fifth project (http://www.severedfifth.com/) recently.
How did you get involved with Linux and Open Source, and what was the path that lead to you become a community manager?
Way back in 1998 I first got involved in Linux and Free Software. I started by building a community website for the fledgling UK Linux community called Linux UK and then went on to join the KDE project, contributing in different areas and becoming the UK KDE representative. Next I founded the Infopoint project and then co-founded the LugRadio podcast and conferences. I then graduated from University, became a journalist, wrote a few books and wrote for a range of Linux, general computing and music magazines. Although my interest in the structure and best-practise of community was a hobby of mine, it became my career when I was offered a role at the UK government-funded OpenAdvantage; an organization that was designed to advocate and consult on Open Source in the West Midlands region of England. I spent two years there cutting my teeth working with a range of communities from Open Source to government to non-profits, understanding advocacy and governance, speaking at conferences and learning a range of technologies that I had traditionally never touched. Towards the end of the OpenAdvantage project (most funded in England projects last 2 - 3 years) I joined Canonical as the Ubuntu Community Manager. There I have grown the team out and build strategy, focus and initiatives for a thriving Ubuntu community. While at Canonical I also formed the Jokosher and Severed Fifth projects and most recently wrote the Art Of Community for O'Reilly.
What do you consider your most important role as community manager? Has this remained consistent over time?
I think the most important role in great community management is to listen. Communities are natural organisms that change and grow and themselves react to change and growth too. One of the problems many communities have faced, particularly when they scale up, is that the leaders lost the ability to listen to the opportunities and concerns of the wider community. I think its incredibly important that community leaders always retain the ability to listen, and to seek to listen to every facet of their community. The reason why listening is so important is that it affirms the connection and responsibility between a leader and the wider community. Without respect from the community, a leader trying to effect change would be like trying to make a cat bark.
If someone is interested in taking on a more active role in the Ubuntu community, how would you recommend they get started? What do you consider Ubuntu's biggest hurdle in this regard and what have you done to try to address that hurdle?
The first step I would recommend is to immerse themselves in the community on IRC
(https://help.ubuntu.com/community/InternetRelayChat), the Ubuntu Forums (http://www.ubuntuforums.org/) or at LoCo meetings (http://wiki.ubuntu.com/LoCoTeams). While we have extensive documentation to guide people to get involved in the area that they want to contribute, it is always recommended to talk with the general community and have them offer their help and guidance too. This almost always helps get people up and running.
How would you describe the Ubuntu governance model and how important do you consider this to community participation?
Ubuntu has a very open governance body in which anyone is welcome to join, whether you work at Canonical or not. The highest governing body in our community is the Ubuntu Community Council and it has seven seats. While there is one permanent seat with veto privileges for Mark Shuttleworth (the founder of the Ubuntu project), every other seat is open for anyone to rise to: the deciding factor being significant, sustained and quality contributions to the Ubuntu community. Importantly, the Community Council does not require you to be an employee of Canonical to join: in fact, the majority of the current Community Council members don't work at Canonical.
Aside from the Ubuntu Community Council, we have a range of other team councils such as the Forums Council, IRC Council and LoCo Council, and each of these bodies helps govern their part of the project. We also have a very open membership system in which people can formally join the project as contributors and we have three regional membership approval bodies to review these applications. The vast majority of all of these council and membership body seats are also taken by volunteers.
If you had to give advice to someone starting a new Open Source project about how to interact with their community, what would it be?
My advice would be to ensure that community is at the heart of your project. An Open Source project that is disconnected from community is like trying to make beautiful music having never heard a song. Community is the foundation that drives Open Source projects: it is the source of development and ideas, the built-in marketing and support machines, and importantly for volunteer communities, it is the crowd that is cheer-leading your contributors on through the caffeine-fuelled late nights to get that release out the door.
To put the community at the heart of your project you should put yourself in the shoes of someone who would love to help, but doesn't know how. How can they learn the different ways to get involved? What tools do they need? How can they get up and running making contributions and submitting them to the project? How do they know what to work on? Where can they get help? You should sit down, write these questions on a piece of paper and think of answers that are simple, easy to understand and easy to communicate to people. Too many new communities get a little obsessed with 'governance' and 'councils': forget about that and instead focus on getting the right tools in the hands of new contributors and helping them to use those tools to do amazing things for themselves and the wider community.
What are the signs you think indicate that an Open Source project has become large enough to need a community manager?
I think it depends on your definition of a 'community manager'. If you are talking about a full-time community manager who is spending all day, every day focusing on building, refining and growing strong community, the community really needs to be either (a) large in contributor base, or (b) complex in nature: the number of users is a less important metric. As an example, if you have a community that has many diverse types of contributor (developers, docs writers, translators, advocates etc), each type of contribution has infrastructure and process needs, and sometimes even governance requirements. These kinds of community can benefit from someone to take a wide-angle strategic look at the community and advise on ways to work better together.
What do you consider the best metrics for evaluating how successful a community manager is?
Metrics are an impossibly complex topic in the space of community management, and it is difficult to answer this question without sounding a little too fluffy and unspecific. While there are many community metrics available at a more granular level, many of which we use in the Ubuntu community (bug numbers/linkages/growth, patch workflow, sponsorship queue triage, membership, growth of different initiatives etc), it is more complex to determine the combined efforts of a community manager on his or her community.
I think the most significant metric is the health and success of the community that they serve. If a community is productive, thriving and growing, the community manager is certainly doing something right. Then at a finer grained level we can gauge success by how that community manager inspires and encourages and how he or she can think outside of the box to build growth in new and interesting ways.
In your opinion, what it Ubuntu's single biggest strength and single biggest weakness? In what ways do those impact your community?
I think out biggest strength are the people who form our community. While at a social science level a community is just a collection of people motivated by similar ambitions, the specific people who form that community can be the difference between success and failure. We have some *amazing* people in our community, across a diverse and wide-ranging set of contributions. When I say "amazing people" I am not just referring to productivity though, but also general outlook and culture. There is a very positive, family-like atmosphere and culture in the Ubuntu world, and it is the personality and perspectives of our contributors that drives that. It is this positive and fresh perspective combined with a range of skills and technical ability that has helped Ubuntu to carve out its reputation. Waking up every day to work with such an inspiring group of people firmly puts them in the "single biggest strength" category for me.
As for a weakness, I am probably not the best person to comment as I am in the thick of our community. I think one area we can improve on though is how we can grow and optimise our user community. While there is some excellent work going on in the Ubuntu Forums in this area, I feel like we could do more with our consumer user community.
Describe the current relationship between Canonical and Ubuntu. Do you have a general view on how the Ubuntu community views Canonical?
Without wishing to sound like a buzz-word craving imbecile, "symbiotic" really is the best way to describe it. Canonical has a strong nose for community baked in at every part of the organization, and this is largely from a top-down prioritisation of community from the early days: the founding fathers of Ubuntu all came in with a comprehensive Open Source background. In addition to this, Mark is closely involved with the community. He spends every day working with community members and involves himself in community meetings and discussions. To be frank, when I joined Canonical I was half-expecting some difficult times when it came to some community issues: that is often the nature of the beast software companies. Now two and a half years in, I have been impressed with just how cognizant of community the company has been, and part of my role is certainly to always ensure that as the company scales that we retain our appreciation and involvement of community and its values.
As for how the community view Canonical, I get the impression that the picture is generally positive. Of course, there will always be critics, and every company has them, but on a whole the community seem content with Canonical's involvement in the community. When we do get criticism, I do my best to siphon out the evidence from the bluster, and use this as a foundation to make improvements.
How would you describe the current situation between the Debian community and the Ubuntu community?
I think we are in pretty good shape. I mentally divide our relationship into Social and Technical areas. With the latter I feel we are always making improvements. We have regular communication with different parts of the Debian community, including the Debian Project Leader, and we are working on a range of projects around patch tagging guidelines, bug workflow, technical participation at DebConf and more. On the social front I feel we are in reasonably good shape, but I would love us to have a closer relationship with Debian. Of course, many Ubuntu developers are also Debian developers, so there is always a closeness of interaction, but I would love us to draw that connection even closer. Debian is such an important part of the Ubuntu culture and the wider Free Software culture and I would love us all to participate and celebrate more together.
How do you view Ubuntu's role in the overall Linux ecosystem?
I believe that today Ubuntu plays a critical role in the Linux ecosystem, primarily in that Ubuntu is bring legions of new users and contributors over to the Open Source family. We have seen massive growth in the user community in recent years, and the continued growth of Ubuntu on netbooks is continuing to expose Linux to new users via Ubuntu. I feel that Ubuntu has been the much needed on-ramp to bring many who are totally unfamiliar with Linux into our world.
In addition to these, I feel Ubuntu has developed a series of methodologies and approaches that have been valuable in Open Source. When I first got involved in Linux, installing my first distro (Slackware 98) took two-weeks, my brother's expert guidance and a soldering iron (really). It was insanely complex, insanely technical and I loved every moment of it. But times have changed for parts of our community. The thing I love about Linux is that everyone can indulge at *their* level of technology. For some this is ultra-low level, hardcore technical tinkering, for some this is point-and-click. I feel Ubuntu has helped to create an ethos around simplicity, ease of use and having things just work. This was forged back in 2004: I remember that as a Debian fan at the time, I wanted to feel the strong technical foundation of Debian but to have some decisions made for me around ease of use, integration, application choice and consistency. I think early choices such as going with a 2.6 kernel, shipping Project Utopia, picking single applications for a task and consistent GUI choices helped drive this ethos forward.
Ubuntu has at times been accused of not participating enough upstream - what's your response to that?
Firstly, we need to ensure we are clear on the source of the criticism: instead of Ubuntu as a project being accused of lack of upstream contributions, it has typically been Canonical as a company. This criticism has basically boiled down to "you don't pay enough staff to write upstream software". There has even been some conspiracy theories around Canonical company policy forbidding staff to make upstream contributions. This is untrue. Our staff can, and do, make upstream contributions where it makes sense for their work. This has included projects such as Linux, GNOME, udev, D-Bus, X.org, and many more.
This then moves us onto the topic of whether Canonical pay enough staff to work on upstream projects. Unfortunately, when many ask this question the only considered contribution is "code". Firstly, I would argue the fact that Canonical has significant number of staff members to work on Ubuntu in the areas of code, packaging, testing, documentation, design and more is an excellent contribution in the first place - Ubuntu is its project, with its own governance body, and Canonical is a primary sponsor there. Canonical also sponsors significant upstream development of Bazaar, Upstart, new desktop experience work in Ubuntu, and when Launchpad is Open Sourced later this year, the majority of our Launchpad developers will become upstream developers. I think that given the fact that Canonical is still a young company, the proportion of its workforce who are and will be working on upstream projects is a good contribution.
Canonical has taken some heat from the greater Open Source community about bits such as Landscape and Launchpad not being Open Source. What's your take on that?
In the interests of full disclosure, there is not much I can really say here: I am not involved in the Launchpad or Landscape teams, and I wouldn't want to speak on their behalf.
You're writing a book about the science of community management, due out soon. Tell us a little more.
Some time ago Andy Oram from O'Reilly approached me about working on a book for O'Reilly about community management. This was based upon some discussions I had with him providing some advice for community education projects. We talked about a book project, and I put together a proposed Table Of Contents for a book that I felt would provide a solid guide to building strong community. I am currently putting the finishing touches on the project and it is called the Art Of Community. It will be published and available in book stores in Summer 2009 and also available online under a free Creative Commons license.
The book covers a wide range of topics about building strong community, including community strategy, governance, building buzz, conflict resolution, measuring community, organizing events, writing well, building infrastructure and more. I have always been a firm believer that great communities share and exercise best practise through stories, examples and tales of community. As such, I have packed the Art Of Community full of stories, examples and anecdotes that explain and illustrate the content. To do this I researched and gathered oodles of input and stories from a wide range of different people, projects and initiatives and merged it into the book. Importantly, this is not just a book designed for Open Source communities: it is very applicable to any form of community.
Interestingly, as part of the project I have been building a community around the book. I set up a website to track the progress of the book at http://www.artofcommunityonline.org/ which has been getting a regular stream of traffic and also set up a Facebook group (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Art-of...ty/58251029357) and Twitter and (http://www.twitter.com/jonobacon) and identi.ca (http://identi.ca/jonobacon) feeds where I discus the development of the book and its community. I am really looking forward to the release of the book, and I am excited about the opportunity it provides for
1. I loved the content of the article.
2. However I am too much of a newbie in Linux to appreciate correctly the article's value.
3. Just wait, in 6 months from now I'll be on the command level. I am going to buy myself a linux 'combo package' from cbt nuggets to put myself on talking level and I'll get back to Ubuntu and Canonical.
CU guys. JP
Oh, I just loved the article! I wished the United Nations, and, for that matter, our own USA government would take a lesson from it.
I really liked the interview as well! It was very informative about Ubuntu as a whole. The Ubuntu community tries its absolute best to ensure that everything is up-to-date. And the extras.ubuntu.com repository in 10.10 will allow developers to iron out the bugs in their applications for Ubuntu even after 10.10 is released, and the new repository will continue to exist to ensure that bugs get ironed out.
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