The Fight to be Flexible

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I’m sitting at the airport. This quite a common place to find me. As an open source advocate I travel a lot. Most of the time my flights are on time and my connections are easy. This is not one of those times.

Flight Delay

I found out my initial flight leg from RDU to IAD (Washington Dulles) was delayed and then 20 minutes later delayed again; and again. Eventually it was delayed 3 more times. And as expected with that many delays, I missed the connection from IAD to GRU (Sao Paulo, Brazil). Majorly frustrating. As I make the arrangements to rebook the flight for the following day it strikes me how applicable this situation is to life, and also to open source.

We all have plans for our lives. We have an agenda, things we want to see accomplished and goals we want to achieve. In an open source community we set our sights on accomplishing lofty things. Many of them having some form of “change the world” buried in them. We put down a mission and a vision statement we want to accomplish and then we start to organize ourselves to accomplish those goals.

Open Source Opportunities

Open source projects have several obstacles to overcome in this scenario though. Chiefly, we rely on the time, interests and energies of volunteers to accomplish these lofty goals and ultimately accomplish our mission and fulfill our vision. If our volunteers fail to have the time or interest then the project also fails. This is where the power of flexibility becomes so critically important.

It is foolish to believe a mission statement or a vision cannot change. It’s also foolish to believe every deadline will be met perfectly. When an open source community relies on volunteers and contributors one of the greatest battles is the battle to remain flexible, to be willing to make changes to deadlines, to goals, and even to a project’s mission.

Why must a community be flexible?

As I’ve already mentioned when a community relies on the goodwill and generous donations of time and talent from contributors there must be an inherent amount of understanding and ability to change as a result. Secondly, and possibly even more importantly, The world changes. Software changes, companies and organizations change. An open source community grows over time and as it grows it evolves. It establishes a culture and becomes more refined (dare I say focused) as it grows. At least this should be the case because the community listens to its members. Not only does it listen to its members to help it establish culture but it also listens to the world. A strong community pays attention to the changes happening around it and is flexible in adopting change (when it’s for the good of the community).

Are communities quick to be flexible?

No, and that’s why I say it’s a fight to be flexible. Sometimes individuals in the community are change-averse. They prefer the status quo over the ‘unknowns’ involved in changing. A well-rounded community is made up of a variety of individuals. These differences should be celebrated and embraced. These differences should also be kept in mind. Just as there are those ‘strong and steady’ types there are also the ‘non-comformist’ type, this is the person who loves change, any change, and even wants change just because it’s change. There’s dangers in both these types as well as the many other types (trust me, there are many many personalities which make up a good open source community). The point is to be flexible. Be talking and communicating with each other within your community. When communication happens (and listening happens) then the true power of open source communities can be found. Because I believe this is where open source stands head and shoulders over others.

Open Source Wins

Open source projects should stop looking at flexibility as something that must be fought but rather one of it’s greatest strengths. The ability to change direction based on the community is a powerful one. Most large corporations are unable to implement the types of flexibility and take advantage of a changing culture in the same way an open source community can. The passion found in volunteers cannot be bought, cannot be forced in a closed source corporation. It’s inherent in the genetic makeup of open source. Take advantage of the benefit of being open source. Take advantage of the flexibility and use it to be an incredible community.

Remember, we’re all in this together.

The Quiet Community

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That awkward silence which fills a room when there is a lull in the conversation, or that moment when you realize you’re the only one talking, or the time when you respond to a chat message and there’s no reply. These are all common occurrences in life. But when is a quiet community a bad thing?

Too Much Talk

There is of course a time when talking is not enough. I’ve see firsthand those moments when everyone is talking and no one is listening. Sometimes a community is so busy debating with themselves over minor details that they forget to actually do something. Too much talk can be a bad thing.

Too much talk means a community is not focusing their time on doing things and making progress. This will kill a project, any project. In open source communities and especially open source communities, where the community is in charge of decision making, the discussions and debates over every minor decision can quickly lead to stagnation.

I think we can all agree too much talk can at times be a bad thing. So what about a quiet community? Is a quiet community equally bad for a project? Yes. A quiet community can be potentially a bad thing. Here’s 3 potential problems in a quiet community.

Silence is deadly

If a community is too quiet it will die. Outsiders judge a project’s viability and life by its communication channels, the chatter which takes place. Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone to a Github repository and viewed the last commit timestamp, followed closely by a glance at the open issues. You’re trying to judge the health of the project by its communications. Or if you check twitter to see the last messages posted with a specific hashtag or @ tweet.

Silence in a community is not golden when it comes to a community which makes group decisions and relies on the involvement of volunteers (open source) to accomplish things.

No man is an island

Secondly, if a community is quiet then volunteers will begin to feel as though they are “alone” in the project. This is incredibly discouraging. Everyone knows the feeling of writing something and waiting for the response. In real life you look for the facial expressions, the reactions of those you’re talking to. You use these verbal and non-verbal cues as encouragement for continuing or as a warning sign that you should sit down and shut up. Now take that same feeling and apply it to an online community. You post a message on a forum, on a social media channel, in an online chat, or on a mailing list. In this environment there is no opportunity to read non-verbal (or even verbal) cues. You rely on the responses.

If a community is silent then you have nothing to motivate you to continue and you will sit down and shut up. You’ll leave the community and find a new community where the participation is higher. As humans we need this interaction.

Apathy is quiet

This last point is a hard one to pin down. I’m not claiming that apathy is always silent, nor am I claiming the reverse, that a quiet community is apathetic. But often when there is apathy the result is a lack of input. If you find yourself not really caring or believing in something you can walk away, you can leave. But that involves effort. Sometimes you don’t feel like making that effort. You’re ok with doing nothing because you’re not interested, you don’t care. You’re apathetic.

If a community doesn’t care then it will not make decisions. It will not do anything. Which means something else will happen. It will stagnate. It will die.

Three potential concerns in an overly quiet community. As with everything in life, a balance is necessary. Open source communities should keep an eye on communications. If they see any of these three concerns becoming too prevalent then it’s time to do some soul-searching. Seek out the reason for the quietness. Has the community lost its drive? Its focus? Its vision? It’s possible a change is in order. Its possible action needs to be taken to help stimulate conversation. Perhaps its merely a lull, a welcome moment of calm in an otherwise noisy and thriving ecosystem. Excellent, make the most of it. Enjoy the stillness. But stay alert and be ready to make changes if needed.