Talking Community With Ubuntu's Jono Bacon

by Ostatic Staff - Mar. 17, 2009

This week I had a unique opportunity to talk with Ubuntu's community manager, Jono Bacon. As community manager, Bacon is the Ubuntu community's connection to Canonical, responsible for encouraging and supporting growth and harmony in the community.

This is no small feat, considering the recent rapid growth and adoption rates of Linux in general -- and Ubuntu in particular. Bacon shares a bit about the subtle (and not-so-subtle) nuances of managing and maintaining a healthy community -- from planning and assessing its growth, to encouraging (and appreciating) members who participate to the best of their abilities.

OStatic: Ubuntu has seen phenomenal growth since its first release. In October, Gerry Carr said that the Ubuntu forums had about 650,000 users and that there were roughly 170 LoCo groups -- and I recall reading somewhere that number now has passed the 200 LoCo team mark. Before we touch on the reasons for community growth, what are the most effective ways you've found to manage and direct that growth? What areas of managing community growth require particularly careful handling?

Bacon: The Ubuntu community has seen huge growth in recent years, and it has required conscientious care and feeding to ensure that this growth has been catered to in a way that maintains the core values and accessibility of the project. The key here is in identifying early-on the bottlenecks and processes that can be inhibited with such growth. I find it is most effective to take a top-down approach: first look at the impact of scale on governance bodies, and then the processes and infrastructure that is connected between the governing body and the community. It is important to regularly re-assess these elements as a result to growth: often the stress on your community from even subtle growth can only be felt as a nuance, and it is healthy to perform a more formal assessment regularly. We do this at our Ubuntu Developer Summits.

OStatic: As the community grows, I'd imagine that some of its organization has to be restructured to accommodate new members and continue running smoothly. What are the challenges in restructuring a growing community, and does the size of the community necessarily make re-organization more difficult?

Bacon: Within the community manager's parlance, 'organization' is typically divided into 'governance', 'processes' and 'infrastructure'. Each of these terms effectively relates to "how are the best interests of the community managed?", "how does the community work?", and "how does the community collaborate?" respectively. Each has their own distinctive challenges involved in making change, but they all boil down to adjusting methods of participation that are familiar and second-nature to many. My role is to help improve how the cogs work in the machine work, while keeping the machine pointed in the right direction. The trick here is to have a nose for when change needs to occur and to make those changes in a way that does not compromise the ability for people to participate and to feel rewarded for that participation.

The biggest challenge that many community managers face is the feeling that "we can't change or improve on these processes and governance because that is the way it has always worked". It is our responsibility to ensure that change is always appropriate: change for the sake of change produces frustration, and a reluctance to change produces bureaucracy.

OStatic: I know of a few people who were "Linux dabblers," first time users, or those who tried it on and off over the years, who have said that they are continuing to work with Linux now because they've found the Ubuntu community particularly helpful and welcoming. Ubuntu has a code of conduct that explains what is expected from the community, from contribution to behavior. In an online setting, the behavior part seems to always be a sticking point, and communities with a large online component seem to be transient, due to conflicts between members and a general feeling that it is too hard to be heard. This seems to be less of a problem in the Ubuntu community. How does the code of conduct (and the way it is enforced) contribute to this? How do local "in-person" events (LoCo meetings, the Bug Jam) impact the interaction in the greater online community? How important is it for projects to offer "real life" and online collaborative events?

Bacon: I believe that real-life events are hugely beneficial for communities. They offer an opportunity to bring a sense of real interaction, to sit next to each other and gesture at the screen, and importantly to get together to bond as not only community members but as friends. While we have one large event for our community in each cycle (the Ubuntu Developer Summit), we also encourage many more with Release Parties, Jams and more.

The Ubuntu Code Of Conduct is an important document in our community and one that holds a powerful symbolism for respectful and responsible collaboration. While important, the Code Of Conduct is really a codification of a more fundamental concept: a healthy, positive and pro-active Ubuntu culture. The challenge is that culture is not something you can build by following steps. There is no recipe. There is no secret formula. While a positive culture is not directly created from simple, effective, open and productive governance, processes and infrastructure, it is a side-product from a general set of positive interactions.

I am a firm believer that positive culture is largely driven by positive personalities. Communities are vessels of dependent relationships: we have thought leaders for the entire project, sub-communities with their own thought leaders, people who follow those leaders and people who listen to those followers. At each step in the chain we need to encourage positive participation both in the cogs of the machine, but also in the personality and outlook of the those who drive those cogs. It has been an explicit desire of mine in the Ubuntu community to not only ensure that the machine is simple to interact with, but to encourage people to bring their positivity, excitement and enthusiasm to the machine so the community feels like a fun and inspiring environment to be part of.

OStatic: What is next for the Ubuntu community? Where would you like to see it go in the future? Are there any outreach efforts or events that you'd especially like to see pushed to the next level?

Bacon: We are only at the beginning of a long and exciting road. While I am proud of the progress we have made in the community so far, there is still much to do. Every community is like a growing organism: it reacts to stimulus and change in its environment and changes accordingly.

Looking to specifics, I am keen for us to continue improving how people participate in Ubuntu: we have plans afoot to really ease how people can help build the distribution and ease some the technical hoops we make people jump through right now. We are also focusing more on our thriving LoCo community and helping people there to celebrate their use of Ubuntu and join as a contributor. I am also keen to see us grow in our different sub-communities, across the different editions of Ubuntu (such as Ubuntu Server) and to embrace new technologies such as the cloud computing, online services and new developments in desktop interaction, usability and design.

A key component in my desire for the Ubuntu community is to respect, encourage and reward diversity in participation. We want to ensure that if you contribute to Ubuntu, your contribution is recognised and rewarded whether that is packaging, programming, documentation, translations, testing, advocacy or whatever else. In addition to respecting this diversity, I am keen to ensure that we put the ethos of Ubuntu centre-stage in everything we do: to ensure that we always maintain the core values, foundations and principles of the project. We have talked a lot about scale and growth in this interview and while there are huge complexities and oodles of details and nuances involved in handling growth, it is the founding principles and ethos of Ubuntu that help to guide our wheels onto the right runway. It is an exciting time for Ubuntu and an exciting time for Linux in general and together we can make some important and fundamental changes to Open Source and IT in general.

On behalf of all here at OStatic, I'd like to thank Jono for taking some time to share his thoughts and insights with our readers.