September 4, 2011

Conflict of Interest

Wow, I can't believe how quickly DjangoCon has sneaked up on me. Thought everything was under control, but here I am printing delegate badges early on Sunday morning. Truth to tell, it's a labor of love, and reminds me fondly of the first days of PyCon when a team of volunteers including me as chairman pretty much established the way PyCons would be, setting a determined trend away from full commercial conferences and using more of the ethos of the sci-fi community conferences. We also got an amazing amount of help from the Perl community, who had established the Yet Another Perl Conference (YAPC) format some time before. This initiative was very much aligned with the EuroPython effort, begun almost a year before, which was also a community-run conference. The EuroPython organizers also attended and gave valuable advice.

In one way DjangoCon is the answer to a question I have been thinking quite hard about for quite a long time (viz how to provide sufficient value to open source communities to ensure commercial viability). My relationship (and that of my companies) with the Django Software Foundation is in essence a business one, though I believe that my long experience in open source communities allows me to better predict and cater for the demand for conferences for such audiences, and means that I know more of the people involved.

Unlike PyCon, therefore, DjangoCon is a product of my commercial existence rather than of voluntary service. The rights to the name are owned by the DSF and our Open Bastion subsidiary runs the conference (with the capable assistance of Nancy Asche's team) on the Foundation's behalf, passing back some of the profit. This makes it a somewhat different event for me, as I have to take overall responsibility for everything from the quality of the lunches to the adequacy of the network because people have paid money for the conference. Fortunately most people's expectations are reasonable. I sometimes jokingly tell people that 70% of it is adequate network bandwidth and sufficient supplies of caffeine (as always the devil is in the details).

For PyCon, of course, Jesse Noller (chairman for the next two years) is doing pretty much the same thing for the PSF, as a volunteer. Knowing Jesse's workaholic tendencies I have no doubt he will do an excellent job, but I fear for his sanity all the same (mine doesn't matter, I've been batty for donkey's years). He puts a ferocious energy into his efforts and makes amazing progress, and I know that PyCon will continue to develop and mature under his guidance.

As the conferences side of the business develops there is the likelihood of a conflict of interest. If my companies were to run Python conferences then it could be argued that these might tend to reduce the PSF's PyCon income, which could easily be construed as an abuse of my position as PSF chair. This being the case I am inclined to consider conferences about non-Python topics, but this might turn out to be cutting my nose off to spite my face. It's hard to think of ways to serve the Python community while also making a living from it.

If you have any ideas about how the two might be ethically combined I'd be interested to hear them.


Alex Clark said...

I think transparency is how you eliminate conflict of interest. Decide ahead of time what money will go to which stake holders (i.e. your company vs. the PSF) and publicize the details. I would worry more about a COI pertaining to your company being "selected" to host PyCon. But you can probably get around that by having the PSF solicit for proposals, and then winning (presumably by being the cheapest/best :-))

Unknown said...

I'd say there's two main things to consider:
- you'll have trouble helping out professionally with PyCon US itself as long as you're the PSF chair. You *might* be able to swing something from an in-kind sponsorship point of view, but it's probably safer to just steer clear entirely.
- for other Python conferences, where the PSF isn't as closely involved financially or from a decision making point of view, I'd say you're probably OK. However, it would probably be a good idea to recuse yourself from any board votes regarding PSF sponsorship of conferences where you're involved professionally (since that *wouldn't* look good from a CoI point of view).

The other aspect would be a disclosure one - while you obviously can't do it on Twitter, when blogging about Python conferences, I'd suggest making it clear when you have a financial interest vs making note of them while wearing your 'Python community member' hat.

Pomke said...

Resolving a conflict of interest is usually a matter of firstly declaring it as a conflict (which you are doing right here) and then abstaining from voting on touchy conflict of interest issues (such as selecting your own company to perform paid work for PSF)

I don't think anyone begrudges you making some income from python on the side and I don't think that a new python related con is going to detract from the massive success which is pycon.

One solution may be to donate a % of your con earnings to the PSF if that would assuage your
conscience but no one would expect that of you.

- Pomke

Jesse said...

Steve; This is a hard problem - on one hand, I feel that there should be no reason why you can not, as your business entity, hold Python conferences. In fact, I would encourage it, as I think that conferences like the ones you may run/host/produce and those like pycodeconf fill a niche that PyCon does not.

In fact, stepping in and helping produce smaller regional conferences could really help those conferences "grow up" - some get into the running-a-con business without realizing how taxing, how expensive and how troublesome it can be. Having someone as a resource to help produce these conferences - even at a fee, or a profit, would probably be good thing.

That said - on the other hand - I don't envy your position. You're chairman of the board, and we both know that you carry the weight of that role with you by name association, and so any such effort that you might undergo would have an implicit association with that role. People find it very hard to disambiguate "Steve, working man and conference running guy" with "Steve, chairman of the board". So if you run a Python conference, then yes - it could very well mean that people would see it as the chairman, running a business that directly runs counter to the financial interests of the PSF.

Therein lies the rub - right now, PyCon is a huge financial interest to the the PSF. In fact, I would plainly state it is the *largest* financial interest to the foundation. The board's interest has to be focused on the health of that interest. That means it could be hard with you as chairman promoting "competing" conferences that your business underwrites. In a way - there is "no vote" on the board level that does affect/effect PyCon or the funds brought in by it to the foundation.

But - and here's a big but - that doesn't mean foundation members can't run conferences that "compete" against it - in fact they should be *encouraged* to do so, for those conferences can fill niches that PyCon, given it's size and audience can not. Heck, I'm happy for every conference that pops up - it means it's one more flower to help fertilize and grow in the community, and the growth of the community is the goal.

In essence, I don't see how you can do what you want in the board role you have. I want you to run python conferences - I don't want you to cut off your nose to spite your face, and I ultimately think that these smaller more focused conferences are of more value to the foundation and community than you - Steve - as chairman. If you were just a board member - I'd say "disclose it and move on" - it's no different than me being part of a closed source software shop built on Python, or others using their Python skills for their livelihood.

But promoting conferences, getting sponsors, advertising "against PyCon" and then voting on the PyCon budget, knowing behind-the-curtain contracts, etc - that's a tough line to walk, and I don't think simple disclosure would cover you.

Steve said...

@Alex, @Pomke: My position as Board Chairman would possibly give me access to internal details of competing conferences, for example. How likely is it that my competitors woud want to share information with a Board that I lead? So the Foundation might suffer that way too.

@Nick: there's been no suggestion that PyCon will require my professional assistance. and I seriously doubt that the PSF will be letting go of its management any time soon. But it's not just a matter of votes, and I am unwilling to subject the PSF to any kind of "Chinese Wall" just to isolate me from competitive information.

@Jesse: I suspect you are right. I certainly haven't found any ethically satisfactory way to combine the two roles.