Home Business IT Open Source Getting the masses on-side: openSUSE's community manager speaks

Getting the masses on-side: openSUSE's community manager speaks

There are community managers for Linux distributions who spend their whole time spinning this or that and trying to influence opinion without dealing with the reality.

There are others in similar roles who spend all their time contradicting people on mailing lists and discussion forums and flinging mud at anybody who says the smallest thing negative about their distribution.

And then there is Jos Poortvliet, the community manager for openSUSE.

Poortvliet is refreshingly different, someone who brings intelligence and good sense to the role, someone who knows how to communicate in an effective way.

He uses little spin in his messages, reflecting something that is prevalent at the top of SUSE Linux, the company that set up the community distribution back in 2005. But then he has a good product to push and evangelise about.

Poortvliet has been in the role since August 2010; he has done a good deal of study in technology, psychology and marketing and worked both in the public and private sectors.

At 32, he is slowly formalising his role and expanding his methods of operation as he sets about making openSUSE better known to the world at large and a better distribution for users.

He took time off after the recent release of openSUSE 12.3 to discuss his role with iTWire.

iTWire: Is there a manual that says what you have to achieve as community manager or do you draw up your own list of objectives and proceed with the job?

Jos Poortvliet: This is something which has changed in the last 6 months or so. I used to be rather independent but I'm part of the openSUSE Team now so things got more structured.

But before I joined the team, my job could probably be summarized as "make openSUSE successful". That sounds like a blank check, and in some ways, it was. I did set my own goals, a little to ambitious at times of course, but not in a vacuum. I worked with various brilliant people in and around SUSE and openSUSE, and what I did was largely directed by their input.

How much back and forth do you have with the people who run the enterprise side of SUSE?

SUSE has always had a rather strong 'hands-off' approach with openSUSE, in part due to a strained relationship the community has had with Novell. With SUSE being an independent business unit, this has improved, and I believe there are more opportunities to work together for SUSE and openSUSE. Our current team does have stronger management involvement so we'll have to see how this will evolve.

In the past, the openSUSE team (then still called 'boosters') and myself put ourselves forward as 'just another participant' in the openSUSE community. We did look for synergy, of course. In the openSUSE marketing department I've worked on improving collaboration with SUSE marketing to for example visit events jointly with openSUSE community members (like we did last year at LinuxCon Brazil and LinuxCon in Spain for example). But at least I never received requests like "get this technology in openSUSE, we need it for SLE". So there was no push from the enterprise side. I actually hope we'll see more active participation of SUSE in the technical area, I think it would benefit both SUSE and openSUSE.

What are some of the approaches you take to improve public participation in openSUSE?

By making it easy, helping people and empowering them.

We, both the former boosters, myself and the current openSUSE team, work on making it easy to get involved: lowering the barrier. Thanks to technology like the Open Build Service, we've reached that to a great extent. There is always room for improvement, but you do get diminishing returns at some point...

So, we help people directly. We try to get the word out, tell people what we have and how they can get involved. Writing articles and tutorials, giving talks, workshops or doing direct coaching. There is never enough of that of course.

And when people get involved, they deserve control. So I've made it a goal to try and get things delegated to the community. The Travel Support Program, where two community members manage a budget to support community members in travelling to events to participate and/or represent openSUSE is an example of that. Another is trying to move the openSUSE Conference management to the community. Last year we moved from SUSE Headquarters in Nuremberg to Prague, where we have a smaller office and more community involvement. This year, the event takes place in Thessaloniki, Greece, and the company has no people 'on the ground' at all. We're purely in a supportive role now and I'm very proud of that.

How do you deal with the obnoxious elements?

Officially, it is the board who has to deal with people going to far. The board, and many others in the community, have always been rather reluctant to act, but as we've learned, that just mean you punish the innocent and they go way, instead of the problem. I had to learn here too - initially, and that's very much how I am as a person, I tried to find ways out of a conflict. Tried to talk to everyone, paper over the issues, solve things every time they came up, get everyone in a room and talk it out. Sometimes that works. But at some point, you've got to draw the line and we've had to take less pleasant actions. Partially in response to that (and other things going on in the wider Free Software community) I proposed a "code of conduct" for the openSUSE Conference, which got accepted. Having some clear boundaries helps quite a bit with these things when it gets real ugly.

Do you look at competing projects to try and find new ways of tackling your job?

Sure. I talk to people from other projects - be it Fedora and other distributions, or KDE, GNOME. Only two weeks ago I spoke to some members of the FSFE about how they handle sending promotional materials around. It's a challenge a lot of Free Software communities face, we're so global it's just hard to get "cool stuff" to people locally. On these things it would just be stupid not to try and learn from each other.

It is my observation that FOSS projects are generally low-key when it comes to soliciting publicity. Do you agree? If so, why?

Yeah, hey, we're hackers, not marketing people. I might do quite a bit of promotion and marketing but even then, I'm not a professional marketeer. I tend to build teams, go out and talk to people. Not work with a professional media company, analyze social media statistics, stuff like that. To really get somewhere, we DO have to learn these things, of course. Part of the trick there is to sometimes rely on professionals; another part is to get your act together more, work in a structured way and have marketing as part of that. The last openSUSE release was an example of that: by following a well-defined plan, you get things properly done.

This seeming reluctance to tell the world at large about its achievements results in FOSS being considered something of a poor cousin to proprietary software. Once again, would you agree? And, if so, how does one correct this?

It's an interesting question. Our world is dominated by big brands. These brands are almost entirely detached from the actual reality behind them. I mean, if the actual PEOPLE, the company behind Coca Cola would swap brands with Pepsi, you think things would change? Of course not, it's just a drink.

So, to really compete with the big brands, we'd have to do the same: get media companies in action, let them "build brands". It would be a bit of a lie and I'm not sure if we're willing to expend the money on that, and if we are, if our community would feel comfortable with it.

I think that letting the companies in our ecosystem do the "real" marketing might be the right thing to do. Let SUSE do 'brand building', openSUSE will benefit from that. So will KDE, GNOME, Apache and the other projects which get their software to people thanks to that. Same with the other companies around Free Software projects.

That doesn't mean we can't learn and improve. We can still do marketing and do it better than we are doing it today. Just not actually compete with the big boys, I don't think we really want that. And yeah, we'll have to be willing to throw a bit more money at it.

The role of community manager is often interpreted as being one that puts a positive spin on the project. Is this a correct perception or is it much more than this?

Hmmm, isn't that a marketing thing? I've been called 'the master of spin' before ;-)

I see the role of community manager as something like customer relationship management, or any other type of non-people management. I have certain skills and knowledge related to community. Some of those are indeed about representing, communicating, marketing. And there's spin there - making sure we let people see things from a certain side. So, it is a part of it.

But it's not the whole picture - there's governance, conflict handling, strategy, team building, motivating and other sides to the community management side.

FOSS projects engage much less with the mainstream media than the proprietary software industry. Due to this, the level of publicity and mindshare is much less. Why do you think this is so?

Money and the way of thinking. We don't have an experienced media company maintaining relationships with the press, calling them the week before a new release, things like that. The fact that you got the mail about our release, that took quite a bit of work to make that happen. It is extremely hard to do with only volunteers, it's already hard if you have people in the mix who can work on these things full-time...

But it is also a mindset. How important is it to you, is it an afterthought or part of the process? We've come a long way from doing releases by publishing the binaries and having the technical release manager write a quick mail to the mailing list but we're not completely at the point where we can be.

How do you define success as a community manager?

Fun. Really, openSUSE has this tagline of "have a lot of fun!" and I don't think it is a silly or stupid thing.

Everyone has different motives in Free Software. Some are deeply philosophical. I always quote "In a world where speech depends on software, free speech depends on free software" from the Dutch KDE site, supposedly from Donald B. Martin. That is a big motivation for me, doing the Right Thing™.

Others get involved because they geek out on all the cool stuff we do in FOSS - the innovation, the breaking of boundaries, taking time to make things "just perfect". Or because there's so much to learn from incredibly smart people. Or you do it for the credits, the respect of your peers. But there is one underlying thing that binds us all: we LIKE doing it. Just like I strongly doubt anyone goes to Africa to build schools for children while absolutely HATING every aspect of it, nobody does free software without enjoying it. Enjoying the challenge (technical or otherwise), enjoying the absolutely brilliant company (the conferences are awesome), enjoying doing something worthwhile and good.

So yeah, if my community is having fun while doing something awesome, I feel good. And as long as SUSE benefits from it so it can keep supporting the project, I can keep being successful ;-).


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.