Community Group Hug: Techspert Loves Open Source

by Natali Vlatko - 2 Aug 2017

Zalando’s foray into open source many years ago has yielded some amazing projects and unearthed a community that is proud of its open achievements. Contributing to open source and giving back to the community is crucial, and big players like Zalando can do a lot more to cultivate sustainability in the community as a whole.

Inviting other influential aficionados to discuss all things open source was a no-brainer for the latest Zalando Techspert Panel, which saw the likes of Jan Lehnardt, VP at Apache CouchDB and co-creator of Hoodie, and Claus Matzinger, Developer Relations at Crate.io, join Zalando’s Open Source Evangelist Lauri Apple along with moderator Dr. Paul Adams, one of our newly minted Engineering Leads in Search and Personalization.

We sat down with this awesome foursome to get a taste of a panel that touched on issues of diversity, contributions outside of code, and bigger market players in the world of open source.

Zalando: What kind of support do you think is healthy and valuable for future open source development? For example, being part of a foundation, using Patreon, or dedicating money and resources to the cause?

Lauri: I think of this a bit organically, as types of work-related support that can come from anywhere: documentation edits, code review, keeping the general OSS infrastructure alive. It's a lot to ask from the general population to support all of that. Projects that are critical to companies keeping things running sometimes have one or two maintainers tops, meaning more resources need to be thrown behind those projects. So, while I know that foundations can help, it's not the only means of support that can be offered.

Claus: The types of support offered should not only be limited to money – you want to be increasing adoption. This could be anything from someone doing a podcast about an open source project, or a YouTube channel that aims at increasing adoption and spreading the word. This would help a lot of projects attract more users with a more diverse skill-set; with more users you attract a higher level of contributors. In the end, we don't know what contribution can lead to before someone jumps on board, thus adoption is key.

Lauri: Say you're able to get documentation support – that can actually help you increase users because someone on a project team can write and tell the world why they should use the project. UX and design assistance are other forms of help that can transform a project. Expanding the diversity of people that are considered open source contributors and keeping that in mind is important here.

Jan: I want to riff on what both Claus and Lauri have said; some of the projects that the world relies upon these days that are open source comes under public infrastructure, and we should start looking at funding these things. This isn't by way of Patreon, or collecting money individually, or in Foundations, but taxpayer money. The support for individuals doing open source and getting more diverse contributors involved should also count on having people that know how to deal with people: For example, a good coder may not be good at certain people problems that come up when you work with a diverse group. Having resources that allow you to handle such issues or that teach you to step away and let others deal with these matters is a valuable lesson.

Paul: I think for me the crucial thing is that communities need to have an almost business-like understanding of their needs (even though I hesitate to use the term). Money can be helpful if you've ascertained that your project’s needs are financial. Having people involved and getting people to do things that are useful for the community is more valuable 99% of the time over someone handing over cash. That is how we build sustainability.

However, there will always be elements where cold hard cash is just required, for example, when you want to organize a conference. So I think the vital thing for communities looking to have to a stable, self-sustained life is really focusing on that 99% – what are the opportunities within the community and how do we build a diverse community around those needs to ensure that it's all self-sustained? Sure, things like Kickstarter and Patreon have a positive affect, but ultimately the community as a group of people must work out what its needs are and appropriately recruit into those needs.

Jan: To add to that, this panel group spoke previously about the ideas of open source being useful for other communities as well. It would be nice if we figured out what made projects sustainable and then other communities that are not about code could use the same ideas, that way the tooling that is used amongst open source projects (that are themselves open source) can be utilized in other ways. There could be a larger societal movement there around doing things more sustainably outside of corporations or any other traditional forms of getting projects off the ground.

Zalando: Getting a bit personal now, what is something about your past open source life that you'd like to change or do differently?

Paul: EVERYTHING. My open source life began very technically and morphed into more of what the industry would call "Engineering Management", but at a community level. This includes time spent on my Ph.D, time spent as an undergraduate, and well... are there things I would do differently? Yeah. But for me the important thing is what open source enabled for me, which is this whole career path – it was my career – and I've never had a job without some kind of open source angle to it. And I think that's OK. So, when you ask a question like "Are there things you would do differently?" then the answer is yes, and it doesn't matter. Those things I did incorrectly, I learned from them, and I can transfer those learnings into my day-to-day work and into other communities where they allowed me to perform better. All of those failings I've had I'm proud of. I continue to screw things up every day and I'm proud of those as well.

Jan: This is a fascinating question. The thing that comes to mind is: What stays with you when you do open source? It’s the relationships with the people that you’ve had. So if I had known, I would focus less on being annoyed at stuff, in discussions, at technology, versus making sure that I'm good with the people I want to work with. I would also be quicker at recognizing the people that I don't want to work with.

Claus: I became involved in open source as a user mostly, and only recently started contributing. To that end, I think if I could do it again I would start contributing earlier – start early and fail a bunch of times trying to contribute and get the hang of things.

Lauri: Well, I wouldn't have thrown away the paintings that I made of RMS and Eric S. Raymond before I moved to Berlin! (laughs) I'll do it again, I'll just paint it again. It'll be better. (high five).

The second thing is that I feel in the past I was rather oblivious to this whole world; I went to law school, and I ended up doing Intellectual Property as my focus. I don’t remember us  discussing open source in class, so this world was a bit foreign to me. At around the time that I started painting RMS and Eric S., I was working with these really brilliant guys that joined Mozilla as their UI team, and I regret that I didn't dig deeper into this world. I think at the time I just didn't know how I would contribute, except with paintings (more laughter).

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Interested in what the next Zalando Techspert Panel will discuss? Keep your eyes peeled on the Zalando Tech Meetup Page or our Twitter account @ZalandoTech for all the details.

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