Ubuntu's Jono Bacon Talks Open-Source Community Management

It's time for enterprises to take their participation in the open-source community even more seriously, for their own sake, says Jono Bacon, the community manager for Ubuntu. 

Jono Bacon, the community manager for Canonical's Ubuntu Linux, believes in open-source software, but even more, he believes in the ability of open-source communities to help move code forward to drive success for enterprises. By getting their developers more involved in open-source communities, Bacon believes that enterprises will reap far more than they sow by benefiting from better code that helps solve their business challenges. That’s why, he argues, more enterprises today are correctly hiring community managers to nurture and grow such efforts. Bacon was in San Francisco Oct. 8 to speak on the subject at the Liferay Symposium. There he sat down with eWEEK’s Todd R. Weiss to answer questions about the state of open- source software in 2012 and why participation in open-source communities should be taken even more seriously by enterprises. Bacon authored a book on the topic, “The Art of Community,” which was updated in a second edition this past May by O’Reilly Media, and is the founder of the Community Leadership Summit. Begun in 2009, it’s been held each year in Portland, Ore., just before the O’Reilly Open Source Conference (OSCON).

eWEEK: Open source has become a critical part of enterprise IT since the early 2000s, when IBM, Hewlett-Packard and other large vendors began making serious investments in open source for the enterprise. What do you think is the status of enterprise involvement in open-source communities in 2012?

Bacon: Probably most businesses are consumers of open source today, but they’re all not necessarily contributing back to open source, which is fine. You can divide them into two camps, [first] companies that are maintainers of open-source projects; they build their businesses around a product that is the center of their work, like Liferay. Then you have camp two, the companies that contribute code and expertise to those products to fill in the deltas where an application doesn’t meet their needs. Those companies add features to the software to improve it for their purposes.

And how is that working out for open source and its communities of developers?

The people who run open-source companies, they’re generally doing a good job. But the level of competence in companies that participate, who fill in those gaps, is variable. Right now, we have a renaissance in community management. Part of the reason it’s happening right now is because community management is being taken on as a formalized role inside companies. More companies are investing in hiring community managers in the last three or four years. The most fundamental responsibilities of community managers are to bring people together. Everybody who joins a community wants to belong. They want to stick around. So to keep people sticking around, you have to make them feel like they really belong. With a community manager, now there is someone driving the process.

So why should this issue be on the radar of enterprise IT leaders in companies that are using open software? Can’t they leave all this to someone else to worry about?

Software is not just a product. It is a living, breathing thing. It needs care and feeding. In the traditional enterprise world, before open source, that care and feeding came through the relationship between the vendor and the business. With open source, now you have the ability to influence the care and feeding of the product, so that you can use it to better serve your business needs and benefit the larger group of users as well. What you can do is invest in your staff members and in the expertise of the software community to grow it. You can use that expertise to influence the software well upstream, which can benefit your business and how it uses the software. That’s why open-source communities should be important to IT leaders.

Are you seeing these things happen?

It varies from company to company. In terms of engineer contributions, which are usually what’s involved, imagine a guy working for a company and he uses Apache to get his work done. There may be a set of needs that Apache doesn’t serve, so he contributes to that right away and makes the needed improvements. A lot of people inside companies do that, because it’s rewarding to help serve other’s needs. On the other hand, some people join communities, they just get their work done there and then they don’t contribute their changes back. One of the reasons that open source has been so successful, in my mind, is that it’s really rewarding to be a part of an open-source community and have that give and take. I’ve been involved with open source for 12 years, and every time I add a new feature into a development branch I get a kick out of it. I think that sheen doesn’t wear off.

So can companies do this on their own? Can someone just take the reins and make it happen?

People inside companies will often email me after reading my book and say that if they need a community manager, why can’t they do it themselves. They usually bring in a consultant, but the first thing I tell them is that they should just hire a manager to do this. But not everyone can do it. It takes specialized skills in dealing with people, development and more. Don’t settle for the lowest common denominator. You have to find the right person. There are a lot of people out there who think they can do it. But it’s very hard to find the right person to do it.

What should a community manager do inside a company?

They need to bring value to a company and its software development efforts, not just have a lot of social media followers. They need to provide deep visibility into the development work that is being done on behalf of the company, with lots of metrics on performance and goals. And they need to identify potential in people on your team. To me this is the most important thing any community manager should do, to help your team to be successful and really effective.

How did you get started with all this?

I’ve been working with communities for about 12 years. In 2006, I joined Canonical and became their first-ever community manager. As far as I am aware, Canonical was the first company in open source to create such a formal role. For three years before that, I was the community manager at OpenAdvantage, a government funded organization in the United Kingdom which worked to spread open-source use there.

You said that community management in the past has usually meant working with developers around the world in communities that were centered on their individual open-source projects. Now that is changing, you said. What does that mean, and why do IT managers need to care?

One big change that’s happening is that community management today doesn’t just apply to external open-source communities anymore. Nowadays, it also means making sure that the IT people inside your company are working in external communities on behalf of your company. You need to get your people involved in communities. The most common approach today is to hire a community manager to help the company work with the communities. Or you can hire a community manager to build an internal community that’s not working with the outside world, but instead is building an organization from within, who makes it clear how people can communicate and participate. If you take 10,000 people inside a company and get them involved, they’re still a community. They still want to be involved and participate. And you’ll get a lot of input.

What’s the best strategy to accomplish these things?

For companies that do work with open source, you want both. We often compartmentalize community management as something that only operates with volunteer developers from outside, but it can also involve people inside. That’s very new. People haven’t been doing that until recently. That’s more common today, especially inside financial institutions and health care, where they are dealing with privacy issues and regulatory issues.

Where then do you see community management for enterprises heading in the future?

A profession is building around community management, as people get hired and understand what they need to do. My goal is to help further the profession and help people share their experiences and their lessons. More and more companies are hiring people for this job. The profession is growing, and as with all developing professions, we’ll see more conferences, books and expertise. The professionalization of community management is happening. This is part of the reason why I describe this as the renaissance. A random collection of skills becomes a more formalized collection of skills. That’s good for open source. That’s good for communities.