commentary, mba

“Every evangelist of yesteryear is now a Community Manager ….”

This post first appeared on Medium. It is reprinted here with permission. 

OH: “Every evangelist of yesteryear is now a Community Manager … at least on their biz card.”

This statement best captures a question that comes up regularly in the open source community world when you have corporations involved. Does your community manager report to engineering or marketing? It captures a number of assumptions quite nicely.

First, the concept of a “community manager” does imply a certain amount of corporate structure regardless of whether it’s for profit or some form of non-profit. If the open source licensed project is in the wild then it probably doesn’t have the size and adoption to require people with such titles. Such well-run project communities are self-organizing. As they grow and there are more things to do than vet code and commit, they accommodate new roles. They may even form council-like sub-organizations (e.g. documentation). But for the most part, the work is in-the-small, and it’s organic. The structure of well run “pre-corporate” projects is in process discipline around such work as contributions, issue tracking, and build management.

When projects grow and evolve to the point that companies want to get involved, using the project software in their products and services, then the project “property” needs to be protected differently. The software project already has a copyright (because it’s the law) and is covered by an open source license (because that social contract enables the collaboration), but trademarks and provenance can quickly become important. Companies have different risk profiles. A solution to such corporate concerns can be to wrap a non-profit structure around the project. This can mean the project chooses to join an existing foundation like the Apache Software Foundation or the Eclipse Foundation, or it could form its own foundation (e.g. the Gnome Foundation). In return for the perceived added overhead to the original community, it enables company employees to more actively contribute. (The code base for Apache httpd project doubled in the first few months after the ASF formed.)

A community manager implies more administrative structure and discipline around people coordination for growth, than the necessary software construction discipline that the early project required for growth. But a foundation often brings the sort of administrative structure for events and communications such that folks in the project (or projects) still don’t have a title of “community manager.”

Community managers are a corporate thing. And I believe they start showing up when either a project becomes a company (e.g. Apache Mesos into Mesosphere), a company wants to create a project or turn a product into a project (e.g. Hewlett Packard Enterprise with OpenSwitch), or a company wants to create a distribution of a project (e.g. Canonical with Ubuntu, Red Hat with Fedora, Cloudera with Apache Hadoop). And this is implied in the original statement about “biz cards” and questions of marketing versus engineering.

Software companies have long understood developer networks. MSDN, the Oracle Developer Network, and the IBM Developer Network have been around for decades. They are broadcast communities carrying marketing messages to the faithful. They were run by Developer Evangelists and Developer Advocates. MVP programs were created to identify and support non-employees acting in an evangelism role. These networks are product marketing programs. They tightly control access to product engineers, who allowed to appear at conferences and encouraged to write blog posts. These networks are the antithesis of the conversation that is a high functioning open source community.

I believe companies with long histories building developer networks (or employees that have such experience at new companies) make the mistake of thinking open source “community managers” belong in product marketing. They are probably using the wrong metrics to measure and understand (and hopefully support) their communities. They are falling into the classic trap of confusing community with customer, and project with product.

Liberally-licensed, collaboratively-developed software projects, (i.e. open source) is an engineering economic imperative. Because of that reality, I believe the community management/enablement role belongs in engineering. If a company is enlightened enough to have a product management team that is engineering focused (not marketing focused), then the community manager fits into that team as well.

This is a working theory for me, consistent with the successes and failures I’ve observed over the past 25 year. I would love folks feedback, sharing their experiences or expanding upon my observations.

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