Building a successful open source community: How coordination and facilitation helps projects scale and mature

Why do you need program management as part of your open source project? We asked a few of the Linux Foundation’s program managers to tell us how they each approach the task.

How does coordination and facilitation help improve my project? 

We tend to think of the primary goals of the Linux Foundation’s projects as producing open software, open hardware, open standards, or open data artifacts — the domain of participating programmers & engineers, system architects, and other technical contributors. 

However, successful projects engaging a broader ecosystem of commercial organizations, particularly when raising funds, benefit from active leadership besides pure technical contributions. Contributors often have work outside the project that often puts demands on their time. It takes real time to build and coordinate a commercial ecosystem, ensure stakeholders are engaged, recruiting and onboarding members, create a neutral governance culture (often amid competitors competing), and to keep various aspects of the ecosystem aligned such as when end users begin to participate.

Many Linux Foundation projects fundraise to provide resources for their community. This is an excellent benefit for the technical community when the business ecosystem comes together to invest and help the community obtain resources to build a thriving community and ecosystem. A typical fundraising model in our community is to offer an annual membership structure that provides a yearly fund for the project. 

The Linux Foundation’s approach to governance separates decisions about funds and business affairs from the technical project’s governance. The companies contributing money to a project’s fund can decide how those funds are spent and any related business decisions. The technical community can operate independently with open source best practices and continue to make decisions about what code to accept, how to build releases, etc. based on the technical merit of decisions in front of them and not based on what companies contributed funding.

We will always have representation from the technical community involved in the budget and business decisions to ensure funding decisions are well informed. This is how the Linux Foundation model preserves the development best practices of open source while enabling a community to benefit from the commercial ecosystem dependent on their work.

Guidance for your community

Within a technical project, there are roles for organizing how releases are built. Often some committers decide which code is accepted, and maintainers decide what to put into a release.  When scaling the project to create an ecosystem around it, there are other key roles and responsibilities that a project needs to stay on track and to continue to scale. These functions include:

    • Planning and Building.  Building a cohesive strategy is critical to the success of a project and requires investments in outcomes the core stakeholders want to see happen, and prioritize
    • Measuring KPIs. Tracking a project’s mission, goals, and objectives while moving those through the swim lanes is key to iterating on things that work and addressing things that don’t.
    • Facilitating. To be successful at facilitating, a coordinator must understand the landscape, and remain neutral. This can be difficult and is often the most challenging part of the job, NOT weighing in unless asked. 
    • Advising. Coordinators are a sounding board for these things with some expertise. To mature an organization, you must craft mechanisms for self-governance and sustainability.
    • Iterating and Reflecting. What happens along the way is that stakeholders in the community want to get things done — but when that happens without reflection, you lose sight of what and where you’re going. It’s essential to see the forest AND the trees, especially from an above-the-canopy view.

In the past, we have had a few communities with respected, neutral leaders who have provided these roles. The Xen Project is one example of a member of the community who has offered to perform this role for many years. There is a significant time investment from the community’s leadership to make it work, which is an excellent benefit for the community to have someone able and willing to spend their work time on this function. 

Many other projects are not able to find someone in the community to help. This is often where the Linux Foundation builds a support program to assist the projects we host that need help to obtain neutral coordination and facilitation professionals. We call the people who provide this support Program Manager (PM). PMs are often the first point of contact for community participants and potential members, and are usually involved in the following activities:

    • Program Managers help the governing and technical boards shape the project’s directions and goals. 
    • Program Managers will work with a project’s technical leadership to understand their technical goals. 
    • They work with the members to fill positions such as Chair and Treasurer and are involved with the voting process.
    • They ensure that both the governing and technical boards act within the agreed-upon guidelines of the project’s charter. 
    • They help onboard new members into the project community. 
    • They will engage resources from the Foundation’s Marketing, PR, Events, and Training teams to coordinate the support programs delivered for a project.  
    • Program Managers also oversee the delivery of other support programs provided by the Foundation and any services provided by vendors or contractors.
    • Program managers will pull in the Foundation’s IT service team members for a consultative discussion on the right development infrastructure, tools, and managed IT support programs based on the project community’s needs and roadmap. 
    • Program managers actively engage in community management and help the project’s leaders coordinate meetups, developer hackfests, and participation at events.

Setting strategic goals for your community

Identifying and articulating a project’s mission is essential with an open source project as it is with any business activity. Setting concrete goals enables the participants in a project to discuss and align around a single narrative that can guide their activities and inform decisions. 

Program Managers work with the project’s membership and technical leadership to define a strategy with goals, milestones, and metrics for the project. They coordinate discussions to assist the governing board in coming to a consensus on a budget that supports the technical community’s needs and aligns with the project strategy. 

For open source, very often, the goals include maximizing a project’s footprint in order to help the most people. Goals are often articulated to a fine granular level — enabling contributors to engage more easily, growing the membership from a particular sector of the ecosystem, or increase contributions from end users. 

The CHAOSS project is a community focused on defining community metrics around engagement, risks, etc. that are often helpful to project leaders in setting and establishing goals for measurably improving their ecosystem. 

Implementing a project lifecycle for your community

Open source projects often have subprojects and various efforts to innovate on new ideas that may not be ready to be included in an official release or as their independent release. We often refer to these communities as using an “umbrella” model with several coordinated sub-projects within the community. Within an umbrella community, the projects will typically follow a lifecycle. The lifecycle generally follows a path from imagination to planning to initial execution, expansion, and eventually maintenance and eventual retirement. 

Program managers often work with the technical leadership to codify this lifecycle according to milestones so that participants in the project can immediately understand where a project stands in terms of maturity and resources. CNCF, for example, has project phases that include Sandbox, Incubation, and Graduation. OpenJS Foundation has project phases that include Incubation, At-Large, Growth, Impact, and Emeritus, which map to the needs of their community.

A project lifecycle is an essential tool for a foundation to signal the maturity of multiple projects and identify for the community what the path towards a fully mature project requires. It is both a pathway and a signal, noting that projects grow and change, and what the community thinks a project should rely on to guide itself. 

In most projects, there is an entry-level, a mid-level, and a graduate level. The entry-level projects indicate a promising start for an emerging project and something to be considered. Mid Level projects show growth and development for an audience that might consider using this project, and graduated projects indicate full maturity and a project that many in the ecosystem rely upon.

“Within the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, the various project stages have been beneficial for encouraging projects to grow, not only from a development standpoint but from a community standpoint. A project looking to graduate has to demonstrate both a strong codebase and a strong community.”

Amye Scavarda Perrin, CNCF Program Manager

Linux Foundation Networking (LFN) Program Manager Trishan De Lanerolle notes how the Technical Advisory Council plays an active role in a project’s lifecycle management:

“Linux Foundation Networking project (LFN) technical leadership (Technical Advisory Council) developed and published a model that lays out criteria and checkpoints for projects in various stages of maturity, including an LFN Entry review and evaluation for new candidate projects to the LFN umbrella. The entry process provides a mechanism to amicably and fairly assess upcoming projects. In LFN, that entails asking whether a proposed project: falls within the LFN scope, provides a snapshot into the status or health of the community, and ensures the project’s documented governance is clear, complete, and easily accessible.”

Through facilitating the work of the Strategy Subcommittee, whose primary goal is to assist the Governing Board with developing and implementing Continuous Delivery Foundation (CDF) strategic planning, Program Manager Dan Lopez was able to guide CDF toward sustainable, long-lasting strategic goals. 

“The immense value of a Program Manager lies in their ability to foster a space for progress to happen. It’s not their role to necessarily make the tough decisions, but rather be the ‘glue’ of a program, ask the tough questions, and spark inspiration and critical thinking within their stakeholder group to create, in this case, sustainable goals that will create long term value for the CDF,”

Dan was able to approach strategic planning, as a neutral party who understood the landscape of the CDF, and assist the Governing Board in creating well-aligned goals that mapped to key performance indicators that can be measured and managed over time. 

The importance of open governance in your community

The Program Manager is also a vital member of the leadership team, working collaboratively to facilitate and operationalize the wants, needs, and priorities of the governing bodies. Each Linux Foundation Program Manager works with each project community to establish a transparent, open governance model for the technical community.

In open governance, a project is managed by a group of people representing the stakeholders in a project — generally project members and leaders of the project’s technical efforts. The concept of conducting a major technical effort using an open form of governance, in which all stakeholders’ needs must be addressed, and people are required to cooperate to get work done, is founded on the basic concept of democracy. It differs from closed or proprietary governance due to the transparency and coordination required to reach consensus.

Open governance provides a balance that can never be found in a proprietary, restrictive environment — the dynamics of that activity drive creativity and innovation, and significantly increase the speed of development. Program managers and community managers often guide these processes and help keep governance bodies on track with each other.

DPDK’s Program Manager Trishan de Lanerolle discusses how his project is divided into two bodies of equal responsibility:

“DPDK is one model of open governance, with co-equal governing bodies; the Governing Board has ownership and oversight, over budget, marketing, lab resources, administrative, legal, and licensing issues, and a Technical Board with ownership and oversight on technical issues including approval of new sub-projects, deprecating old sub-projects, the project’s technical roadmap, recruiting maintainers, defining the processes for contributing, testing, and managing security. The Technical Board comprises individuals from various organizations, that are not necessarily corporate members of the project, recognized for their technical contributions. The governing board comprises representatives from member organizations, who financially support the project, working hand in hand to make the project mission a reality.” 

Other projects, such as LF Energy, take a somewhat different path towards how their governance is structured. 

LF Energy represents an example of open, representative governance within a rapidly growing open source foundation. LF Energy has a board of directors, like most foundations, made up of Premier members, and includes a representative from the General members and a representative from the Technical Advisory Council (TAC), which is made up of technical project leaders. No single company has more than one representative on the board, which provides corporate as well as cultural diversity and voices from all over the industry, not just focused on one niche. 

The Linux Foundation’s neutral program management support program can help

Active program management and program management support is one of the main reasons why open source projects join an organization like the Linux Foundation. Our program management professionals provide a unique set of operational skills and capabilities that nearly all of our projects take advantage of — which is to offload operational and facilitation work from the community. 

In summary, a successful project should have community coordination and program managers that can plan and build, that can measure a project’s performance, that can act as prime facilitators and advise, and can help project stakeholders iterate and reflect to learn from their experiences in order to move a project forward.

“Managing Open source projects can be compared to nurturing a young sapling as it grows into a mature, healthy tree — or in this case, a community. Our job is to supply it with the right balance of nutrients and conditions for successful growth. Following proven governance models with strategic program management, helps increase the odds of nurturing a healthy community. Program Managers help clear the path, allowing communities to focus on the code and achieving technical goals. We are horticulturalists, toiling away in the background, and if we are doing our job correctly, you shouldn’t notice us.” 

Trishan de Lanerolle, Technical Program Manager & Community Architect, LF Networking

The Linux Foundation
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