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Old 05-01-2009, 09:53 AM   #1
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Interview with Joe Brockmeier - openSUSE Community Manager

This interview with openSUSE Community Manager Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a continuation of the LQ Community Manager Interview Series. I'd like to thank Joe for taking the time to answer these questions.

Joe, to get us started, can you give us a little background information about yourself?

Absolutely. I work for Novell as community manager for openSUSE. Prior to that, I spent almost 10 years working as a tech journalist and editor, either as a freelancer or on staff.

Aside from being an open source enthusiast, I'm also a music and literature geek.

How did you get involved with Linux and Open Source, and what was the path that lead to you become a community manager?

To borrow a phrase, it's been a long and winding road that brought me to my role as community manager. I stumbled on Linux in 1996 while I was in college and started playing with Linux and learning my way around Slackware and then other distros.

In 1999, I took a job with, a company (now defunct) that sold pretty much anything to do with Linux. It was a startup, and I had the chance to do a lot of disparate tasks and travel to shows and start meeting other people in the community.

From there, I fell into doing technology journalism more or less full time (with some stints consulting and working in hosting along the way) and primarily covering Linux and open source.

I really enjoyed writing about Linux and FOSS, but also wanted to be directly involved with a project or projects rather than just covering what others were doing.

What do you consider your most important role as community manager? Has this remained consistent over time?

It changes depending on what's going on at a given time. When I started with Novell, the most immediate and pressing need was to start drawing attention to the project -- openSUSE is a fantastic distro, but really lacked awareness. So spreading the word about the project was the most immediate problem that needed to be tackled.

That's not exactly "solved," but I think the general awareness of openSUSE is much greater these days. Now the project is addressing the barriers to participation and working on being more open in general. So, participating in the process of opening the project and encouraging contribution is the top priority now.

Assuming that's successful, the next issue will be scaling the project and being able to cope with larger numbers of contributors and ensuring that we can effectively work with an ever-growing contributor community.

So, the role doesn't remain entirely constant - and there are a lot of projects that shift what I'm doing at any given time.

In retrospect, I might not have chosen the title "community manager," either. It's sort of a misnomer, but I haven't heard of a title that quite fits yet.

If someone is interested in taking on a more active role in the openSUSE community, how would you recommend they get started? What do you consider openSUSE's biggest hurdle in this regard and what have you done to try to address that hurdle?

It depends on what their skills are. Developers, packagers, and testers can get started pretty easily by installing a recent Factory version (we just released milestone 1 of 11.2, which is a really good starting point) and joining the -factory list.

We're going to be holding our first Community Week in IRC May 11 through 17th. We have a schedule shaping up here:

The best way for beginning contributors to get started would be to jump onto IRC, the #opensuse-project channel on Freenode, that week and introduce themselves and ask questions. We'll get them pointed in the right direction! :-)

Our biggest hurdle has been opening up processes so that people who aren't employed by Novell can contribute on equal footing, and we've been working on opening that up quite a bit. Several of our engineers have been working on revising processes so that there's no dependency on tools that aren't available to people not employed by Novell, and creating teams that are inclusive of contributors who aren't employed by Novell.

How would you describe the openSUSE governance model and how important do you consider this to community participation?

We have a minimal governance model. The openSUSE Board handles some issues -- like membership -- but it's a lightweight model.

On one hand, I'd like to see our board become more active. But I don't see governance as a major feature or inhibitor of community participation at this point.

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?

Be open, be responsive, and be flexible.

If you have the luxury of starting a project from the ground up (instead of the situation with openSUSE - where Novell set out to open something that existed and was previously closed in the sense of working with contributors) processes should be developed from the start to accept contributor input and to be conducted in the open.

Taking a step back, I would also say to set clear goals for the interaction with the community -- what is it that you're looking for? Code contributions? Testing? Translations? A large user / consumer community?

You'll take different steps depending on whether you're trying to form user communities or developer communities.

What are the signs you think indicate that an Open Source project has become large enough to need a community manager?

It depends a lot on the nature of the project, and the company or project.

The real question, I think, is not when you need a community manager, but when do you need to start building a community strategy. And I'd say that's day one, really. The day you decide that you want to be building a community around a project (and here I'm primarily thinking of corporate-sponsored projects, since we're discussing having the resources to hire a community manager) is the day that you need to start building that strategy.

A lot of companies either wait until there's friction between the contributor community and the company and/or when there's not as much enthusiasm and contribution as they expected. Don't wait that long.

What do you consider the best metrics for evaluating how successful a community manager is?

It depends on the goals. It could be the percentage of community contribution compared to the percentage of work done by paid employees. It could be the pace of adoption, or something else entirely.

In your opinion, what it openSUSE's single biggest strength and single biggest weakness? In what ways do those impact your community?

As a project, our biggest strengths are in our tools, the deep body of technical excellence and experts that work on the project, and a really kick-ass Linux distribution.

Part of the history, though, is that SUSE started off as a consumer distribution - that is, most of the community is a user community, and it takes some work on both sides to move towards being a contributor community.

Describe the current relationship between Novell and openSUSE. Do you have a general view on how the openSUSE community views Novell?

I think that there's a wide range of opinion of Novell in the community. Some people in our community have been long-time Novell users and partners who came to Linux through Novell. Generally, they have a pretty positive view of Novell in my experience.

Other community members came in through SUSE when Novell bought the company. I'd say those community members have a wider range of opinions. Obviously, things changed a bit when Novell bought the company, and we all know how much people love change.

How do you view openSUSE's role in the overall Linux ecosystem?

I think openSUSE fits in a couple of places, and we're aspiring to be more: openSUSE is a distro of choice for professional users who want a rock-solid Linux distro with excellent management tools. It's also a great distro for users who are getting started with Linux and want the whole kit on one piece of media.

Through our build service, we're trying to provide tools of worth to the entire community that will help make packaging for Linux -- not just openSUSE, but all major Linux distros -- easier. And I think we're getting there. I see more adoption of the build service all the time, and the recent announcement from the Linux Foundation that they'd be using it with LDN is really a sign that it's crossing over from being just an internal tool.

Novell, like many companies, recently had a round of layoffs. How did this impact openSUSE the project? How about the openSUSE community?

Obviously, it wasn't a positive impact. I think it's really too early to say exactly how it has impacted the project because it's something we're still dealing with.

The initial response to the Microsoft-Novell deal was quite vehement. Two years on, do you have a feel for how the openSUSE community views the deal now?

It varies from person to person - it's hard to characterize the entire project as having a single view. I talk to a lot of contributors who frankly don't seem to care about it one way or another, some others aren't thrilled with it, but accept the deal.

What do you think is the biggest mis-perception about openSUSE?

Not sure about mis-perception, but I think that there's lingering confusion about the role of openSUSE as compared to SUSE Linux Enterprise and the relationship with Novell.

To clear that up, openSUSE is essentially the foundation of the enterprise products. Novell takes an openSUSE release (like 11.1) and uses that as the foundation for a major enterprise release (in this case, SUSE Linux Enterprise 11). This is similar to Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux, but we have a much closer relationship between openSUSE packages and SLE packages.


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