July 22, 2013

OSCON Community Leadership Summit

I've just come back enthused from having spent my entire weekend working.

Of course anyone who works in open source will recognize the effect: someone gives you a chance to learn from and inform a couple of hundred like-minded individuals and there goes the weekend. Didn't even go to the PyLadies informal Saturday gathering, normally a fixed point of the weekend when I'm at home (a sadly somewhat too rare occurrence still).

OSCON is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary this year, and four years ago Jono Bacon of Canonical engineered the first Community Leadership Summit. I participated in this fifth run more fully than in previous years, and have benefited from much collective wisdom.

As is my practice at conferences I spent a lot of time in the hallway track. I acquired this habit from years of organizing PyCon, when I would frequently be waylaid on my way to some session and end up having an amazingly interesting and informative discussion, meeting new people, broadening my knowledge of Python and the open source world generally. If I could hire all the people I know in the open source world (which I couldn't, even with unlimited capital, since many of them are pursuing their own dreams) I would be able to build an unbeatable distributed information systems engineering and operations team.

A couple of interesting facts appeared as the weekend went by. First of all, perhaps fifteen to twenty-five percent of those attending had no direct connection with the open source development world. Some of these people were enthusiastic users of open source projects, and others were community managers who have started to realize that the way the open source world uses a diverse distributed open toolkit to achieve its goals could be useful to them too.

Secondly, and perhaps largely as a result of the first, the open source crowd began to realize that as the community continues to become more diverse (yay, diversity!) we have to stop talking in jargon about things like "cloning git repositories" if we don't want these brave spirits who are here to learn about the social and organizational side of open source to be completely turned off by our inability to speak plain English*.

We might also need to consult with UX teams to ensure that our current technologies can be used as the basis of a layer that makes sense to people who don't have our intimate knowledge of the technologies but are nevertheless keen to learn and use our methods. That could represent a substantial challenge.

The lightning talks were uniformly inspiring. Jono was kind enough to say he really enjoyed mine, which was called Making Small Positive Differences. The tradition at the CLS is to set the talk times to accommodate everyone who signed up. I didn't know this, so like many of the other speakers I entered the room expecting a five-minute slot.

Fortunately I was fifth on the list, so I had time to go through my slides (did I mention there was no projector? another surprise, but what the hey, this is mostly an unconference) and extract the salient points into notes for a three-minute talk in my extremely convenient (and free) O'Reilly notebook.

Some of the gems of the lightnings for me included:

  • Kevin Johnson's appeal to share our technology to the benefit of all
  • Britta (?)'s suggestion that barriers to entry weren't always a bad thing, with examples of how they could work in a community's favor (without discouraging diversity?)
  • Josh Hibbet's talk about CityCamp, which could become a nationwide (worldwide?) series of events to promote citizen participation and government transparency
  • Gribble, an IRC bot built by SourceForge to be friendly and welcoming to new IRC community members
  • Selena Deckleman's invitation to go and speak in a K-12 classroom
  • Aaron Wolf's promotion of the Snowdrift Co-op
  • A talk by someone [whose name I need to research so I can introduce him to a colleague with a keen interest in such matters] who has developed a way (if I understood correctly) to codify the law and represent legal entities engaging in contractually-bound mutual obligations.
I also attended sessions on how to attract a more diverse skill set into the open source world (something I have been banging on about for a while now in keynotes up and down), and discussions about how, when you are building teams with people who have never worked together before, it's difficult to manage projects because things can get blocked when person A doesn't even know that person B cannot proceed until A's part of the task is complete.

This last discussion raised many interesting aspects of how people working on project teams communicate, and we realized that training was one important way that people with diverse skills can learn to work together effectively and harmoniously.

All in all this was an excellent start to OSCON, and I feel more in touch with the hot-button issues of the collected open source communities as the convention proper begins (tutorials are the main activities today and tomorrow). I'm looking forward to a great week, and hope to round it off with a reprise of last year's OSCON Survivors' Breakfast. Drop me a line if you'd like an invite.

* No holier than thou here. The best I can do at short notice is:
If you just need to use project X, go to [some web page] and click the "Install" button. Then follow the instructions on that page to make sure the installation has succeeded, and the follow the [tutorial web page] or browse [web search for currently best-rated and/or most popular blog posts about Projct X]
If you are a project X user who finds it unsatisfactory in some way we would love to hear from you. Only by being keenly attentive to feedback from our dedicated users can we ensure that project X continues to become more useful to a wider range of people every time.
If you would like project X to do things it currently doesn't please let us have your ideas on [ideas@projectX.hostingsite.example.com]. We will always attempt to acknowledge input and respond to feedback.
If you would like to help project X become more capable then please ask us how you can support the open source communities who built and help to maintain it. We are always happy to welcome new project members, who can provide the one thing without which open source could not be possible: the willingness to build software to raise the tide and level the playing field [see what I just did there]. 
By creating new infrastructure open to all we hope to improve humanity's lot more effectively.  Project X is available under the [link to OSI-approved license] and its documentation is available under the [some sort of Creative Commons license] on Read The Docs.