Open source events and business strategy


Having clear business goals around open source events and using them to prioritise sponsorship is essential. Red Hat’s Leslie Hawthorn and Couchbase’s Laura Czajkowski discuss their positive and negative experiences and offer seven key lessons in this talk from DevXCon San Francisco 2018.


Leslie: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for coming today. So as Matthew is gracious enough to mention, I am at Red Hat, the open source and standards team which is Red Hat’s fancy way of saying open source programs office. In the past, I’ve been the head of developer relations at a couple of different startups and I originally got my start doing community engagement work at Google in their open source programs office once a long time ago.

Laura: My name is Laura Czajkowski. I am the senior community developer manager at Couchbase. In my past lives, I have been involved in different open source projects, getting involved from university running our computer society to getting more involved in the open source different communities and working in Canonical and Launchpad. And my job at Couchbase then is to look after the events strategy, our messaging for our developer community, working on our meetup groups, and running our experts and champions and community writers programs.

Leslie: Excellent. And as Matthew has already mentioned, Laura and I are collaborating on Leslie-Laura live and we’re actually live today instead of pretending to be live and typing at you. So this is our collaboration to just participate in the dev rel conversation, helping to answer questions from people who may be new or just to share our thoughts and experience. So we aren’t pressuring ourselves to post too much or to be super active on social media just because we have day jobs. So if you don’t hear from us right away, it’s not that we don’t love you but please do follow along and hopefully, we’ll share things that are valuable to you or potentially if you’d like to write about something that is valuable to you, we’d also like to share it.

Ubuntu: our effective user case story

So, without further ado, so when Laura and I were preparing this presentation, we thought long and hard about how we could give folks in the audience a use case driven example of an incredibly effective community outreach strategy in just 20 minutes. And it turns out, we have both had personal experience, in Laura’s case much deeper than mine, with this particular project, the Ubuntu project.

Laura: So as I mentioned, I got involved in the open source community in college. I was helping to run a computer society but I hadn’t really fully experienced an open source community. So when I moved to Dublin, I knew absolutely nobody, it’s a bit daunting and I worked for a small software testing house. And it was quite boring and I stumbled along to a Linux user group and they told me about LUGS or LoCo teams. And at that point in time, I got exposed to the Ubuntu community and I thought it was actually fascinating really that there was a way for me to be welcome and part of something bigger, to be exposed to a different culture, to meet new people worldwide that weren’t just in Ireland and it was a fantastic way.

And from that point in time, it just really catapulted me to get involved in Ubuntu from being an Ubuntu member to the Ubuntu membership board, LoCo teams, and eventually, the community council. And I’ve been very fortunate in that time to basically meet some fantastic people, some of whom are even here today, that I would never have had the experience of meeting before in my life outside of the open source community. So I think Ubuntu did a great job of showcasing how you can get involved in a community and many other communities out there have learned an awful lot from how they’ve done it.

Leslie: Yeah, my first involvement with the Ubuntu project was back in 2006 when I was part of the team hosting the first Ubuntu developers summit to be held in the United States. Actually, as a result of that, I was voted an Ubuntu community member which was pretty groovy. And I also started using Linux full time because I felt like it was something that was accessible to me because these folks were insisting that you know, in fact, Ubuntu was Linux for human beings. So I run Fedora and rel now and I have some feelings about how community outreach has happened in the Ubuntu community. Following on from our use case tour, but we will have a support group for that and we meet at the drinks station downstairs during the break. But here we go, let’s talk about Canonical strategy with Ubuntu. First, does anyone recognize this image? Oh, my goodness. Yes, ma’am.

Audience member: Portland Airport carpet.

Leslie: The Portland Airport carpet. Thank you. I love it. So for reasons that are unknown to me but as a Portland…a former Portlander who’s so deeply nostalgic, people love to take pictures with the Portland Airport carpet. So that’s why this image is…are for our explanation of the Canonical strategy, carpet bomb the world. Which may be a little not PC but definitely covers the point. Any folks here from marketing? Okay, so I bet all of you are thinking pray and spray right now. That’s okay. This is not quite pray and spray that we’re talking about. It’s something a little bit different but again, we’ll cover that later.

Creating worldwide awareness

Laura: So Ubuntu was released back in 2004. And of course, most people at that stage didn’t really know about it. So in order to spread the word, Canonical actually hired some very well known, very well connected and respected Linux community members to tell the story of this distribution worldwide at Linux user groups. From those major cities like New York, Boston, Sydney, even over to smaller little user groups like the likes of Wolverhampton and, you know, it got its name out there in a phenomenal way that it actually hadn’t seen other communities do. So they were very smart. They hired key people who got in front of audiences worldwide to educate them and get really excited about it. And they did a job that many of us actually still continue to use those methods because of such a great job they did.

Leslie: Yeah. And suddenly from ’02, the project was everywhere along with its tagline “Linux for human beings.” So if you’re taking a look at this Google Trends graph, we can see we go from zero to hero pretty darn quickly. And again, this is all because of some very intense upfront strategic work done by Canonical to understand not just the potential users for their product but also like overall the strategic marketplace. So this inflection point is when we’re first starting to see that companies are building up billion-dollar businesses with a B built upon the LAMP stack. So here Canonical is coming out and putting in front of a group of people who traditionally the Linux user group seemed to have been incredibly vibrant several years earlier with things like you know, return your Microsoft license, etc. Those days are behind us now.

But at one point, that had been kind of the flashpoint, focal point, for the Linux user group community and after a while, they didn’t, you know, they were still meeting, they were still talking tech. They weren’t as invigorated as and as excited. So along comes Canonical and drops boom, brand new shiny distro, Ubuntu, into the Linux user group community all over the place with a strong call to action that you should just join the community and get more people involved using Linux, which had a great deal of appeal to the audience that they were reaching out to.

New tools reaching new people

Laura: Yeah, so they did that a lot by the way by actually targeting home users. If you’re able to admin it at home for your family, your friends, because we’ve all been in that position where we’ve been asked to fix the computer for your parent, for your family, for your relative, you arrive to somebody’s house for Sunday dinner and you get told, “Could you fix my computer?” So many people then started to install Ubuntu on their family, friends’ laptops because they started to experience it. And actually, it was a great way of actually spreading the word because if you think about it, what we often do at home is we try things out at the weekend and you go back into your workplace at work and you start talking about things that you’ve just learned and played with.

And that’s the same way that you talk about any new project or potential tool that you’re gonna use in the workplace nowadays. You play with it at the weekend, you go back in, you talk about it at the lunch break and potentially look at using this for your next project. And that’s a great way of actually advocating the use of a new project, a new tool. And for those of us that are just looking to get something excited, I mean, it was a great way to actually you know, encourage children to use these tools because you were able to like give a brand new laptop to a kid with a refresh of Ubuntu, expose them to new tools and technologies. And, you know, you saw people like getting excited with the likes of Minecraft, you know, so it rejuvenated a lot of new people in getting excited about things.

Leslie: And again, in this same environment, you know, we’re seeing a great deal of interest in the LAMP stack and an appeal to folks in Linux which, you know, obviously is the L in LAMP stack at a time when suddenly there’s a huge demand for professional talent in this area, jobs for Linux. At the same time, as we see this growth curve for Linux for human beings suddenly shot up if you take a look at the Linux Foundation jobs report. And then came the Cloud and we all know what happened there. So it’s worth noting that again, talking about like having a holistic strategic vision for community outreach, Canonical is also targeting a group of very vocal passionate advocates in the Linux user group community at a time when not only are their skills becoming more highly valued as developers but as new technologies that will be built out on top of that Linux Distro Foundation are suddenly becoming available.

Building community engagement

So you know, if you are at home, as Laura mentioned, in your lab trying something out, chances are that you’re trying out this shiny new Cloud hotness on your shiny new Distro hotness which leads to all kinds of benefits for the company behind the distribution, right? People who are contributing documentation tutorials, doing translation work, who are putting on community events to get more people using the software are effectively contributing to your corporate bottom line because all of these wonderful new technologies are being deployed on top of their distribution. And where are all of the how-tos, guides, things to get people up to speed on these brand new technologies? They’re reliant upon someone using your Linux distribution because otherwise this tutorial or help is not useful to them.

Laura: Yeah. And so by doing deep engagement with the community and incentivizing a clear narrative, they found that very, very compelling. Getting Linux into the hands of the human beings, that was really their tagline and that’s what they actually went out to achieve and succeed. Canonical saw large contributions in the form of documentation, tutorials, translations, key ways that people could get involved. So if you weren’t a developer, and many people aren’t always developers but do want a way to get involved, they found that there were people out there who had different skill sets that was putting it to use. The same way could be seen about any project right now, right? So not everybody is a developer. Some people have a soft skill set, maybe it’s software testing, maybe it’s documentation, maybe it’s actually helping them get involved in running events. And it’s a way they provided for people to get involved and Ubuntu was very successful in this way. And I might think particularly about OpenStack. They’ve been very successful pulling on many of the ways in which Ubuntu did it. And I think they’ve also followed on being very successful.

Leslie: Yeah, I think it was the first reference operating system for OpenStack.

Seven lessons we have learned

Laura: Yeah. So what did we learn today? There’s actually quite a lot of lessons to be learned but we’re gonna distill it down to seven key takeaways for this talk.

Leslie: There were a whole bunch of different forces at play that allowed this particular strategy to be so incredibly successful, right? So there were people aspects, right, a group of people who are excited, passionate, and maybe a little bit bored, who will be very happy to take your shiny new distribution for a test drive. We had an increasing influence of that technology in the market, as well as that, being the foundational technology for yet another offering as we’re seeing a paradigm shift away from, you know, typical data center operations to Cloud computing. And we’re also seeing the forces of being able to harness a community of folks worldwide by getting them to be excited about a single story, which is about software freedom and spreading the love of Linux. So, by actually being able to tap into having an effective strategy that understood that talking to people about Cloud technologies was deeply important, meeting developers where they were at strategic events was important, they were able to achieve huge mindshare in a matter of, I don’t know, like what? We went from zero to everyone’s using it in two years.

Laura: So in order to do this, they actually had a clear call to action and a clear contributor pathway. So this is quite key actually. Many projects don’t actually do this very well. So what they did was they made it…they created a roadmap, a way for you to get involved. It was at the Ubuntu Developers Summit. You were given action items, you were made to feel part of something. And by making a contributor or a developer part of something, they will actually get more involved, they’ll want to take part in it. They’ll also want to give up their free time and to take part in something great because they’re feeling that they can actually make a change, make a difference. And Ubuntu did this very well. So even if it was simply join and contribute on the LoCo team, on the IRC mailing list, there was tons of places where they could get involved and they were made feel welcome and that’s kinda key. If you don’t make people feel welcome, they’re not likely to stay around. So clear pathway and being made to feel welcome, I think are one of the key takeaways.

Leslie: Anyone know the inside joke for this? And if you’re mouthy, you’re not allowed to answer. Okay, excellent, I will tell the inside joke. So the inside joke, when many people were trying to analyze why Ubuntu was so successful as a project and why Canonical as a company had so much success in getting Ubuntu into the hands of so many Linux users, people often argued that it was solely or largely because the founder of Canonical, Mark Shuttleworth, had done so well in the acquisition of his prior startup that he had just deep pockets, so deep in fact that he even sent himself to space. So, you know, when you’re company founder is an astronaut, apparently all things are possible. So I promised you that we would come back to pray and spray. Here we are. Mega budgets are super awesome. They don’t exist. Let’s be honest with ourselves.

And I think this is a particularly important thing to remember for folks who are operating in an environment where you have VC-backing. It’s very early in your company’s history. You need to understand how you can effectively target your market, you know, with a minimum viable product and yet you need to be able to do that cost-effectively because you may have a wonderful budget now but if you’re not able to quickly provide return on investment, you’ll find those budgets shrinking and yourself looking at the job board downstairs which may or may not be good for you.

Spend wide and shallow

Laura: Which brings us on to this, spend wide and shallow. I’ve never really heard about this expression until Leslie and myself started thinking about this conversation. So what it actually means is you can’t spend massive amounts of budgets everywhere. Not everybody has an unlimited budget. You need to spend it wisely and that comes back down to thinking about your company goals and objectives. So what Ubuntu did, in this case, was they decided to hit lots and lots of large user groups, the Linux user groups everywhere. There’s an awful lot that you can do with like a-round-the-world ticket. You could piggyback on friends’ couches, you could be very strategic in the way you wanna get in front of people. So you bring that back in today’s conversations is that if you wanted to target key cities, perhaps it’s New York, perhaps it’s Boston, perhaps it’s Munich or Paris, going to those cities and picking on user groups and trying to arrange it in advance and getting in front of two or three user groups in one week is far much more better for you and beneficial than flying to one city, once a week, for six weeks straight.

You’re not gonna have any life. You’re not gonna have any type of downtime and it’s not good for you and it’s very, very expensive. So think about where you’re going to spend that money, invest wisely because you will have to show return. And that’s what all of us end up having to do is showing where we’re spending our budgets at the end of the day. So you need to think about your strategic goals and objectives. So planning out your budget six months out in advance and planning out your strategy of your travel and your engagement makes things an awful lot better for you, for your team, and for your organization.

Leslie: Excellent. So I’m going to tell a story here. So another thing that was key was that the folks who were promoting Ubuntu were meeting people where they were. Right, so again, Linux users groups worldwide, small cities, big cities, whatever, this guy named Jeff Wall literally like went around the world and somehow managed to hit everybody in one go. I still don’t know how he did it. And the key here was there was already an audience, they were receptive to the message, that was great. In contrast, I have worked at companies before who were convinced that the key to building a center of gravity with the developer community was to create a website that would compete with because did not give us sufficient data for our sales force, so clearly, we should make our own. That didn’t happen and I was really happy about it. So again, use existing structures.

Another example of a project that I think has done this really well is Ansible. I have to put this in because I love Robyn Bergeron and she is the Ansible on Twitter. Again, the Ansible project grew quickly and then again there was a company formed. And in order to get the word out about Ansible, folks weren’t just going to Ansible meetups. They were very happy to go to DevOps meetups, monitoring meetups, attend conferences like DevOps Days, Monitorama, to meet people where they were and to very specifically not preach to the choir. So again, use your existing structures, and don’t think that you have to like land and expand and make your own meetup and like have your own user conference in the first 15 minutes of your company. Like start small, spend carefully, meet people where they are. You can build your center of gravity over time and bring people to you when the time is right.

Start small and gather momentum

Laura: So your first developer relation hire is critical. And what that means is what Ubuntu did at the time was they hired a key person, key people that were well-known and respected in the community. So by doing that, they gathered a lot of momentum based on that fact. And what we look at nowadays is by hiring the right person, the right team, sets your team up for success. And what I have seen in the last year or so is people going out and hiring 6, 10, 12 people, all in one go and not really having a strategic plan in place and that kinda backfires. Ten months down the line, 12 months down the line, the company is going, “What is this team doing? It’s costing us money. They’re flying everywhere. Let’s just crash and burn, let’s kill this team off,” and that’s not really the answer.

So hiring a person or team of people small to start off with is far better than hiring a team of 10 or massive amounts of people and not really having a plan about it. It doesn’t really work. So critical for me, I think is the first key takeaway of hiring somebody that’s actually able to guide and direct your team’s direction.

Leslie: Yeah, and grow you effectively. So now we do want to issue an official warning. This is not a call to go out and find the super coolest ninja rock star, unicorn, poop emoji…

Laura: Champion.

Leslie: Yeah, champion, whatever buzzword is important today. Like we’re not suggesting that the most important thing is to try to find the person with the largest social following, etc. What we’re suggesting is find someone who has the community’s respect and who understands their values and can relate to them with common ground. So one of the reasons why Jeff Wall was so successful in this campaign for Canonical was because he was known as the dude who would wake you up in the morning at in the dorms by screaming, “Good morning, freedom lovers.” Now obviously, this is someone who appealed very well to a project that had its roots in Debian and to a bunch of folks who were excited about using Linux because they were excited about the idea of using free as in freedom software.

Sync regularly and always feed back

Laura: So you know, just to use my personal experience at Couchbase, what we’ve been doing is trying to actually align ourselves with different teams and that means syncing with the company leaders to understand what they want to learn from the community and for us to actually feed it back into them what we need to learn from them. So what’s been really successful for me and for our team is, you know, to sync with the sales team, maybe it’s monthly or bi-monthly, to understand if they’ve met any customers, how they would like to champion Couchbase. So I won Couchbase experts in communities. I’m always looking to meet new people to champion our work, to go out and speak at conferences. Or perhaps they’re online in the forums and they’re doing a lot of answers themselves rather than relying on the engineering team. So by providing that back to the organizations and the team internally in Couchbase, they get to learn who our community are.

Feeding that back into from the events that we’re at, the feedback that we’re getting on the booths or on the forums itself, feeding that back into product and engineering means we actually have a direct line actually fixing things or improving the experience for everybody, not just us but for our community as well. I think the hardest thing for us as community managers and developer advocates is not only the external advocacy that we have to do, but a lot of the work that we actually should be doing is internal advocacy. Because a lot of the time people don’t know what we’re doing and you can file all the reports and send all the newsletters internally, people still don’t seem to know what we’re doing and they can’t seem to always justify it or understand it. So I think syncing regularly makes a big difference and explaining it over and over again in ways that they can understand and share and absorb makes things a lot smoother for everybody and also safeguards your team, let’s be honest, because then they know what you’re doing.

Leslie: And so last but not least and obviously this is important feedback in any case but again, if you’re in a new product area, if you’re in an area where you’re trying to create a market, etc., the most important thing you can do if you’re casting a wide net to try and understand what steps to understand customer use cases, etc., you need to iterate quickly and thoughtfully. And it’s very hard to do both of those things at the same time because thoughtfulness does not lend itself well to thinking quickly. So be able to change your strategy quickly at the beginning to make sure that you’re doing something that’s actually effective in reaching the developer audience you wanna reach, but also don’t do it in such a way where later you’re going to find that your…you have messaging conflicts because potentially you’ve put out a message to developers that doesn’t resonate with your future product direction. And you should know that because of your regular syncs with your management about where the company is going.

So that is all the time we have and as there is no end state, you can start by asking us questions during the break. We would be happy to see you there and we hope you’ve enjoyed our presentation. Thank you very much for coming.

Laura: Thank you very much.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.