Herding cats, influencing people, building communities

There have been a lot of good talks at linux.conf.au so far that I’ve attended (and the one’s that I’ve missed due to scheduling difficulty, I’ve already started watching some videos of). There are lots of good reports about it on Planet Linux Australia even, but one of the most useful talks in my opinion was Jono Bacon’s talk on Herding Cats and Influencing People (watch the video when its uploaded), his thoughts on running a Community.

He talked about McDonalds, and how they package things, that are consumable by all (his point was that projects generally might even need bite size tasks, not get new contributors chucked into the deep end). Which got me thinking, a little more. McDonalds are in the real estate business, and they’re one of the major players in the fast food industry. I’ve always believed that there are too many Linux distributors in the market, and market fragmentation is bad (after all, its widely believed that there is only one Windows logo, and everyone recognizes that just fine).

But maybe, Linux distributions, and open source databases, web servers, mail servers, and so on, are like fast food joints. There’s never going to be one dominant winner, but all of which take significant market share, in serving up food. Take one of my favorite streets in Melbourne for example, Swanston St – there are about 3 McDonalds in the vicinity, one KFC, one Burger King, about 3 Starbucks, a smattering of Gloria Jeans, all of which are chains. They all compete with one another, some win over others (being open for 24-hours, maybe), but they’ve all been there for ages, and in the case of McDonalds and Starbucks are clearly expanding.

Comments from Zak Greant, I believe, were most interesting too. He said, that corporate America generally has a misconception of what Community really is. Besides, what does the community at large get out of being in the community created? They’ve got to be stake-holders, not just something thats good for business or investors. So involving them in decisions for the future, are mandatory. He also mentioned that one mistake is hiring away all your community, and busy-ing them up with other company related work – a balance is clearly required.

And the age-old-adage of how you define the wheat from the chaff. I like the anecdote in where a noise-maker that did all the traditional mistakes of being an armchair pundit, was just actually lost, waiting for a task to do. I think thats something we can all learn from, as dealing with large communities is never an easy task.

Building one, is also never an easy task. Rigid rules, are a no-no (that creates a bureaucracy not a community). Realizing that its important to get past the mailing list discussions and actually just doing something (this is how Seth decided to build mock, then extend it to plague, in Fedora for example), anything even, will probably make a difference. People get attracted to things moving, not things being discussed. Jay Pipes got afoot to start Doxygen-izing of MySQL – something that was talked about on mailing lists for far too long.

Also thinking about different tasks – translations, coding, documentation, evangelism, and so on. They all have different people, working in different ways – some like to work in a group, some like to do it all alone. Identifying this in itself is an important task.

I like the “water cooler” concept that Canonical seem to push. In a totally virtual company, the water cooler will be IRC, or mailing lists. In a company where there’s an office, developers might tend to talk about something new at the water cooler, and never actually let the community know about it. Here’s something we at MySQL can also learn, as we have a WorkLog that still isn’t public (yet).

Action. Action. Action. I think thats what we need to take away for 2007. And how do we herd a community successfully? I’ll be sure to tell you when I have the answer.