Ubuntu's Jono Bacon: Managing an Open Source Community

Ubuntu’s community manager offers a free downloadable book about managing an open source software project.


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Posted December 15, 2009

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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For the past three years, Jono Bacon has worked as community manager for Ubuntu, one of the largest and most diverse projects in open source software. Consequently, when he recently published his thoughts on building and managing communities, people listen. More unusually, as I found out in a recent interview, when people like me critique his book, he listens, too, with a view to improving the second edition.

"To me, this is the first part of the story," Bacon says. "The first part's going to have holes in it where it doesn't quite fit the needs of most people, but the second edition will be the part that's really interesting."

Published by O'Reilly Books, The Art of Community available as a print and online book, as well as a free download. It is a mixture of anecdotes and practical advice based mainly on Bacon's experience with Ubuntu. Its topic is community -- specifically, distributed communities in which people interact primarily through Internet technologies such as IRC and mailing lists. Its chapters range from creating and growing such communities to how to govern them and what to look for when hiring a community manager.

The book has received enthusiastic endorsements from other FOSS leaders, and 18 five-starred reviews out of 22 on Amazon.

In many ways, the book deserves this praise. Bacon is an experienced journalist, and few people can match his practical expertise on the topic. All the same, just as you might expect, the book can be criticized on several points, in particular for the lack of context in its general approach and its lack of history.

What is unusual -- and, to a reviewer, mildly disconcerting -- is Bacon's apparent willingness to consider potentially negative comments as feedback. In fact, I could almost feel ashamed for finding faults, except that Bacon's responses and general agreement to my comments suggest that the book is not just valuable in itself, but even more so for the conversations it starts.

A singular perspective

The first thing you are like to notice when reading The Art of Community is that it is a highly personal book. That is a strength, in that Bacon's expertise is both obvious and rare. Yet it is also be a weakness, because the book's credibility is dependent largely on the writer alone.

As Bacon himself says, "One of the caveats of the book is definitely that this is my idea of how I think [community] should work. There's a very strong personal bias."

One problem with this single viewpoint is that, no matter how expert the writer is -- and Bacon's suitability for being the writer of this work is never in any doubt -- is that readers tend to judge a book partly by its citations. Even though The Art of Community, is non-academic work, many of its readers are university educated, and may judge its credibility by its sources.

Admittedly, providing those citations would not be easy, because Bacon's work is in many ways a pioneering effort. "One of the things that was really hard about writing it," he says, "was that there's not a huge amount of content out there about it. There's people who have written books about very general communities, but they talk about it from a largely social science perspective, and there wasn't a huge amount of practical content."

All the same, Bacon does mention some management theory and techniques as relevant, so finding relevant citations should not be that hard.

If nothing else, Bacon might cite community leaders from projects other than Ubuntu. However, when communities other than Ubuntu's are mentioned, such as KDE, Google, and the Linux kernel, they are mentioned from an outsider's viewpoint, with little description of how they are organized internally.

The result is that, although Bacon comments to me that "The thing about community is, there's definitely more than one way to skin a cat," little of this variety is described in the book. Yet, if you are interested in the subject at all, hearing a diversity of opinions would only improve the handling of the topic.

This omission is especially important in the discussion of conflict. As a member of Ubuntu, whose members agree to a code of conduct about how they should interact with each other, Bacon views conflict as something to avoid, or to be resolved as soon as possible. "In my mind, having a more hostile community is less than stellar," he tells me.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, free download

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