Book review: People Powered

Jono Bacon knows something about communities. He wrote the book on it, in fact. And now he has written another book. People Powered is a guide for how companies can create and curate communities.

I often see companies try to start what they call “communities”. In reality, they are ways for the company to get free labor that provide no real benefit to the the participants. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A community that doesn’t benefit the sponsoring company is not likely to continue receiving sponsorship. But if there’s no benefit to the community members, the community will not thrive. Only when everyone involved gets value from the community will the community be vibrant.

A community mission is different than your business vision, but tightly wound around it.

All too often, books like this prescribe the One True Way™. Bacon does not do that. He fills the book with many things the reader should do, but he also makes it clear that there are many right ways to run a community, just as there are many wrong ways.

People Powered is a starting point, not an answer. As I was reading it, I thought “this is a good set of recipes”. Further on, Bacon used the same metaphor. Curse you, Jono! But it’s an apt metaphor. The book presents advice and knowledge based on Bacon’s 20 years of community management. But each community has specific needs, so the reader is encouraged to selectively apply the most relevant parts. And in the tradition of open source, plans should be iterative and evolve to meet the changing needs of communities. Like any good cook, the recipe provides a starting point; the cook makes adjustments to taste.

If I could sum up People Powered in two words, I would pick “be intentional.” Given two more words, I’d add “be selective.” People are often tempted to do all the things, to be all things to all people. And while that may be in the future of a community, getting started requires a more specific focus on what will (and more importantly, what won’t) be done.

People Powered is full of practical advice (including a lot of calls-to-action to find resources on jonobacon.com). But it also contains more philosophical views. Bacon is not a psychologist, but he has made a study of psychology and sociology over the years. This informs the theoretical explanations behind his practical steps. It also guides the conceptual models for communities that he lays out over the course of the book. And to prove that it’s a Jono Bacon book, it includes a few references to behavioral economics and several to Iron Maiden.

I really enjoyed this book. Some of it was obvious to me, given my community leadership experience (admittedly, I’m not the target audience), but I still got a lot of value from it. Chapter 9 (Cyberspace and Meatspace: Better Together) particularly spoke to me in light of some conversations I’ve had at work recently. People Powered is an excellent book for anyone who is currently leading or planning to lead a community as part of a corporate effort.

People Powered (affiliate link) is published by HarperCollins Leadership and was released yesterday.

Disclosures: 1. I received a pre-release digital review copy of People Powered. I received no other consideration for this post (unless you purchased it from the affiliate link above). 2. Jono Bacon is a personal friend, but I would tell him if his book was awful.

New to Fedora: z

Earlier this month, I attended Chris Waldon’s session “Terminal Velocity: Work faster in your shell” at All Things Open. He covered several interesting tools, one of which is a project called z. z is a smarter version of the cd command. It keeps track of what directories you change to and uses a combination of the frequency and recency (“frecency”) to make an educated guess about where you wanted to go.

I find this really appealing because I often forget where in the file system I put a directory. And z is written as a shell script, so it’s easy to package and use.

z is now packaged and submitted to rawhide, with updates pending for F31 and F30.

Decentralization is more appealing in theory than in reality

One of the appeals of open standards is that they allow market forces to work. Consumers can choose the tool or service that best meets their specific needs and if someone is a bad actor, the consumer can flee. Centralized proprietary services, in contrast, tie you to a specific provider. Consumers have no choice if they want/need to use the service.

It’s not as great as it sounds

This is true in theory, but reality is more complicated. Centralization allows for lower friction. Counterintuitively, centralization can allow for greater advancement. As Moxie Marlinspike wrote in a Whisper Labs blog post, open standards got the Internet “to the late 90s.” Decentralization is (in part) why email isn’t end-to-end encrypted by default. Centralization is (again, in part) why Slack has largely supplanted IRC and XMPP.

Particularly for services with a directory component (social networks for sure, but also tools like GitHub), centralization makes a lot of sense. It lowers the friction of finding those you care about. It also makes moderation easier.

Of course, those benefits can also be disadvantages. Easier moderation also means easier censorship. But not everyone is capable of or willing to run their own infrastructure. Or to find the “right” service among twenty nearly-identical offerings. The free market requires an informed consumer, and most consumers lack the knowledge necessary to make an informed choice.

Decentralization in open source

Centralized services versus federated (or isolated) services is a common discussion topic in open source. Jason Baker recently wrote a comment on a blog post that read in part:

I use Slack and GitHub and Google * and many other services because they’re simply easier – both for me, and for (most) of the people I’m collaborating with. The cost of being easier for most people I collaborate with is that I’m also probably excluding someone. Is that okay? I’m not sure. I go back and forth on that question a lot. In general, though, I try to be flexible to accommodate the people I’m actually working with, as opposed to solving the hypothetical/academic/moral question.

Centralization to some degree is inevitable. Whether build on open standards or not, most projects would rather work on their project than run their infrastructure. And GitHub (like Sourceforge before it), has enabled many small projects to flourish because they don’t need to spend time on infrastructure. Imagine if every project needed to run it’s own issue tracker, code repository, etc. The barrier to entry would be too high.

Striking a balance

GitHub provides an instructive example. It uses an open, decentralized technology (git) and layers centralized services on top. Users can get the best of both worlds in this sense. Open purists may not find this acceptable, but I think a pragmatic view is more appropriate. If allowing some proprietary services enables a larger and more robust open software ecosystem, isn’t that worthwhile?

Is it really open source if…?

I see this question asked (or stated as an accusation) with some regularity: “is it really open source if ___?” Fill in the blank with whatever. For example:

This conversation started with a criticism of GitHub restricting Iranian users in order to comply with US law. Like true Scotsmen, we all have a notion in our heads of what open source means, and the picture doesn’t always align from person to person.

Part of the problem is that there are two separate parts: the output and the input. The output is the legal part. The part that deals with licensing. That’s easy to deal with. Software is open source if it is presented under a license that meets the Open Source Initiative’s definition. Easy.

The hard part is that open source also has a cultural component to it. This is the input. There’s a community involved in the project. That’s often what people think of when they consider “open source”, but it also has no real definition. So we argue about it. A lot.

Is it really open source if you don’t allow it to be used by Iranians? No. That violates number 5 in the Open Source Definition. Is it really open source if you don’t allow Iranians to be in your community? Yes. Does that make it right? Well, that’s the real question we should be asking.

Does open source benefit independent developers?

Patrick’s heresy is not an unreasonable statement. My current employer grew to a $34 billion market value using, creating, and supporting open source software. But there are plenty of stories of open source developers working on key projects that are barely able to sustain themselves.

Benefits of use

It’s clear that independent software developers benefit from using open source software. If nothing else, the programming languages themselves are immensely beneficial. Much of the tooling, frameworks, and libraries used for developing applications these days are available for free under open source licenses. The economic barrier to entry would be much higher if everything had to be paid for.

Benefits of development

This is where the answer becomes more qualified. Contributing to open source projects can open the door to being hired at one of the businesses that make good money. But that’s not attractive to everyone. And an “everything should be free” mindset can make it hard to earn money.

It comes down to what you want to get out of it. If you’re doing it to make money, then it might not be beneficial, unless it’s a boost to your resume. But for some people, contributing to open source projects is a hobby they enjoy. I got started out of a sense of giving back to the community that provided me with a free operating system. The fact that it eventually became a paying job is a nice benefit.

Harm of not contributing

The flip side of the question is “does not contributing to open source harm indie developers?” The answer is “yes” far too often. A lot of development positions explicitly or implicitly expect your GitHub profile to be a key part of your resume. But not everyone has the privilege to be able to contribute to open source projects in their spare time. Hopefully that understanding spreads more broadly through the industry.

If you want a diverse community, you have to stand up for marginalized members

On Monday, The Perl Conference’s Standards of Conduct Committee published an incident report. In a talk at the conference, a speaker deadnamed and misgendered a member of the community. As a result, they took down the YouTube video of that talk.

The speaker in question happens to be a keynote speaker at PerlCon. The PerlCon organizers wrote a pretty awful post (that they have since edited) that essentially dismissed the concerns of the transgender members of the Perl community. They went on to mock the pain that deadnaming causes.

I did not think to save their post in the Wayback Machine before they edited it down to a brief and meaningless statement. “We are preparing a great conference and do not want to break the festival and trash our year-long hard work we did for preparing the confernece, the program and the entertainment program.”

What they don’t say is “we value the marginalized members of our community.” And they make that very clear. Editing out the insulting part of their post does not ,mean much, as VM Brasseur pointed out.

If you value an inclusive community, you have to stand up for the marginalized members when they are excluded. If you don’t, you make it very clear that you’re only giving lip service to the idea. As it is, the PerlCon organizers don’t even apologize. They’re more concerned about the bad publicity than the bad effect on the community.

Naming your language interpreters and ecosystem

Last week, Fedora contributors proposed to change the meaning of “python” from “python2” to “python3” starting with Fedora 31. This makes sense in the context of Python 2’s upcoming demise. But some feedback on the mailing list, including mine, wonders why we’re perpetuating it.

Should there also be no “pip”, no “pytest”, no “pylint”, … command? I would say “yes”. Admittedly, it’s avoiding future pain in exchange for some current pain. But we’re already dealing with a disruption, so why enable the same issues when it’s time for Python 4?

This is bigger than Python, though. If you’re following semantic versioning, I argue that you should name your interpreters and any ecosystem executables with the major version name. Unless you’re promising to always maintain backward compatibility (or to just stop working on the project), you’re eventually setting your users up for pain.

What about non-programming languages? This is probably good advice for anything with a client-server model (e.g. databases). Or anything else where the command is separated from other components of the ecosystem. You could extend this to any executable or script that may be called by another. That’s not wrong, but there’s probably a reasonable line to draw somewhere.

Wherever you draw the line, doing it from the beginning makes life easier when the new, incompatible version comes out.

What kind of documentation are you writing?

Hopefully the answer isn’t “none”! Let’s assume you’re writing documentation because you’re a wonderful person. Is it a comprehensive discussion of all the features in your software? Good…sort of.

There’s a place for in-depth, comprehensive reference documentation. And that place is often “over there in the corner collecting dust until someone really needs it.” By and large, people are going to need smaller, more task-focused docs. It’s a difference between reference guides and user guides. Or as I like to think of it: “what could I do?” versus “what should I do?” These are not the same documents.

“What could I do?” docs should be chock-full of facts that are easy to discover when you know what you’re looking for. They don’t have opinions, they just list facts. You go to them for an answer to a very specific question that has a correct answer.

“What should I do?” docs should be opinionated. “So you want to do X? The best way to do that is Y, Z.” They’re focused on accomplishing some use case that the reader can probably describe in human language, but might not know how to do technically.

A great example of “What should I do?” docs is the tldr project. Unlike man pages, which are generally reference docs, tldr-pages focus on use cases.

When I was more active in the HTCondor project, I often dreamed (sometimes literally) of writing a book about administering HTCondor pools. The developers had a great reference manual, but it often lacked the more opinionated “here’s what you should do and why.” It’s something we should all consider when we write documentation.

Don’t give gatekeepers a foothold

Gatekeepers are a problem in communities. They decide — often arbitrarily — who can and cannot be members of a community. Are you a true Scotsman? A gatekeeper will tell you. And if there’s something they don’t like about you, or they’re feeling particularly ornery, they’ll keep you away from the community.

Gatekeeping is a problem in open source communities. More experienced (or just louder) contributors set a bar that new contributors cannot meet. This is bad for folks who want to contribute to the project, and it’s bad for the project’s sustainability.

A recent Opensource.com article asked “What is a Linux user?“. In the initial version, it left open the possibility that if you’ve only used a Linux desktop that doesn’t require a ton of tinkering, then you’re not a real Linux user. Fortunately, the comments called this out quickly. And the author, to his credit, did not hold this view. He quickly updated the article.

The revised article does a much better job of closing the door on gatekeeping, but I would rather it have never run at all. By engaging in debate on the question, you give it validity. It’s best to deal with gatekeeping by not even acknowledging that the question is valid.

Community-contributed versus community-led projects

Chris Siebenmann recently wrote a post about Golang where he said: “Go is Google’s language, not the community’s.” The community makes contributions — sometimes important ones — but does not set the direction. We frequently use “community project” to mean two separate ideas: a corporate-lead project that accept community input and a project (that may have corporate backing) lead by the community.

Neither one is particularly better or worse, so long as we’re honest about kind of project we’re running. Community-contributed projects are likely to drive away some contributors, who don’t feel like they have an ownership stake in the project. Chris mentions that Go’s governance has this effect on him. And that’s okay if you’re making that decision on your project intentionally.

Some community-contributed projects would probably welcome being community-led, or at least somewhere closer to that. But technical or governance barriers may inadvertently make it too difficult for would-be contributors to ramp up. This is one area where I don’t think GitHub’s position as the dominant code hosting platform gets enough credit. By having a single account and consistent interface across many unrelated projects, it becomes much easier for someone to progress from being a bug filer to making small contributions to becoming (if the project allows it) a key contributor.