Jono Bacon on the Value of Good Communities

We need to build good relationships across all of open source.

By James Turner
July 9, 2009

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Ubuntu has enjoyed fantastic success over the past few years, becoming one of the dominant Linux distributions, and the distribution of choice for netbooks. Jono Bacon's job is to make sure that that success continues, by keeping the huge Ubuntu developer community happy and productive. We caught up with Jono in advance of his appearance at OSCON, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, and he was more than happy to talk about the efforts underway to not only improve the Ubuntu community, but also bring together other communities, such as Gnome and KDE, to help them work better together. Jono officially works for Canonical, a company founded by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth for the promotion of Ubuntu and other free software projects.

James Turner: Let's start by talking about what is your role at Canonical these days?

Jono Bacon: Okay. So my role is the Ubuntu Community Manager at Canonical. My job is to encourage and to enable the global Ubuntu community to do good work that's productive and that they enjoy doing themselves. I have a team at Canonical; we work with many of the different aspects of the Ubuntu community across translations, development, packaging--all manner of different things--to help people to really make the most out of their contributions to Ubuntu.

Jono Bacon is the author of The Art of Community. Order it now.

The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation — Learn about the broad range of talents required to recruit, motivate, and manage community members. The book takes you through the stages of community, and covers topics ranging from software tools to conflict resolution skills. Order it now.

James Turner: And how big is that community?

Jono Bacon: It's very difficult to tell because we only have some formalized means of checking. So, for example, if somebody becomes an Ubuntu member, they register and when they're approved as an Ubuntu member, then they're added to a team. So we do have some formalized checking. As an example, we have 200 local teams all over the world. And these are local Ubuntu user groups. While we often know about the primary organizers on those teams, what we don't know about is the many, many people that attend their meetings and that join their events and things like that. But there's no doubt that we have thousands and thousands and thousands of contributors involved in Ubuntu.

James Turner: Ubuntu is becoming a dominant distribution, at least with the end-user population. A lot of problems come along with that kind of success. Can it survive its own success?

Jono Bacon: Yeah, I think so. I mean, one of the biggest challenges that communities face is with scale. And we see this all over the place, particularly in open source. So you'll see someone will decide to create a new project, and they'll write some code, and they'll put it on the internet. And people can participate. It may be quite popular and they'll have two or three people join up and they'll get involved. And so at that point, you need communications facilities and maybe a wiki, and that kind of stuff. But then many, many, many people might get involved. And they're going to contribute in different ways. So you'll have to maybe split the community into different teams and have those teams talk to each other. And Ubuntu has been like that, but on a huge scale.

The community has grown, as I said, to thousands of contributors and hundreds of teams. And with that there's going to be some scaling issues. There's going to be situations where existing facilities and processes just don't scale up to the level of what we've got. So one such example of that was when the project formed. If somebody wanted to be approved as a member, what they'd do is they'd go to our community council, which is an independent governance board. Most of the people on the community council don't even work in Canonical. Then they'd apply there. But there were so many people coming to apply for membership, because the community was so large, that these meetings were lasting hours. So we separated it into regional membership boards. The community council essentially ordained these boards to deal with that region. That helped its scale.

UbuntuVertLogo.pngPart of my role is to be conscious of the size of the community and to keep an eye out for these kinds of bottlenecks and areas in which we can improve things by adjusting how things run.

James Turner: One of the places we see Ubuntu used these days a lot is on netbooks. Has this fairly restrictive platform changed the emphasis or priorities of the community at all?

Jono Bacon: Yes and no. I mean, I wouldn't say the community has really changed so much, because much of the underlying operating system in Ubuntu is applicable to Ubuntu or Kubuntu, or to various netbook editions, and whatever else. The community hasn't really changed its focus because of netbooks. But what the community has done is augmented its knowledge and its awareness of netbooks and what's involved there. So hardware support is one element. And things like having applications run on a smaller screen, those kinds of changes. I think the community's more aware of that, and because the netbook thing has been such a phenomenon. So yeah. I'd say that the community's aware and conscious and wants to cater to Netbooks, but I wouldn't say that it's fundamentally changed because of it.

James Turner: There's a long simmering debate about whether there are too many Linux distributions dividing up the development resources and causing confusion for end-users and for manufacturers of hardware and such. There's clearly a need for a few different distributions because of sizing issues and things like that. But do you really think there's a valid reason for more than a small handful?

Jono Bacon: I think so. I mean, I think one of the most wonderful things that open source has given us is choice. And many of us remember the dim, distant, dark days of having to only use Windows or something like that. And the limitations that you had of choice. One of the things I love about open source is the fact that I've got access to hundreds of different distributions. I've got access to hundreds of different text editors. And it means everybody can be catered to.

I think it basically boils down to the same kind of phenomenon that we see in other parts of the world. So with music, you'll have many, many bands out there. And a handful of bands will become huge like U2. But then you'll have lots of very small specific bands that cater to very specialized groups. I would never want to remove those smaller bands because people take a lot of enjoyment and value their art. If we did that in the Linux world, I think we'd lose part of the value that we've got with Linux, which is that you can download an operating system that caters to a very, very specialized area, such as security or networking or running on this hardware or this pen drive, or whatever else. But I think it naturally balances out. For most general Linux users who just want Linux to run on their laptop, they have a small selection of popular choices. And obviously my hope is that they run Ubuntu. But if they don't like Ubuntu, they can go and run SuSE or Fedora, and that's cool as well.

James Turner: What are the most important priorities for the Linux development community over the next year?

Jono Bacon: Good question. I think what we need to really focus on in the development community is on working together. We had a big problem, particularly around 2000 to 2002, where the community was very, very fragmented. We had various bits of technology that weren't particularly interoperable in various ways. And particularly with the desktop, I think we need to be conscious to work together. So we've got the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit coming up--I fly out there tomorrow--in which the KDE and the Gnome community are going to come together to discuss ways to interoperate with each other. But this isn't just a software thing. We need to be working together in terms of how we grow our communities, and in terms of how we solve problems, how we share resources. And I'm just very conscious that the open source world should never be partisan.

I never want to be in a situation where I feel like I can't talk to someone because they work at Red Hat or because they're in Fedora. That's just ridiculous. At the end of the day, we're all basically on the same side. And we have different viewpoints and different attitudes, but we need to strive to find where we agree and move on from that. Some of the recent discussions and debates around where people draw the line when it comes to freedom and all that kind of stuff, that kind of debate also needs to be very conscious, I think, in finding areas in which we can agree, and then we can move forward to find ways in which we can collaborate together to solve some of these problems.

James Turner: You're going to be involved in a panel at OSCON entitled, Building Belonging. What else at OSCON has caught your eye or are you really interested in catching while you're there?

Jono Bacon: So I'm going to be there -- the first thing that I'm going to be doing is before OSCON I've organized an event in the same venue called the Community Leadership Summit. That's on the 18th and the 19th of July. It's a free event in which community leaders and those passionate about building a great community are going to be there. So I'm going to be, first of all, going there and running the event.

For OSCON, I'm going to be doing my talk there, but the thing I really value at OSCON, to be honest with you, it's not really the sessions. I go there is to meet the people. I get to catch up with a ton of people who I haven't had an opportunity to catch up with, and they're all in the same place. So I basically fill my days with meetings. As an example, the last time I went to OSCON, on one of the days, I had 12 meetings. And at the start of the day, I didn't have any. It was just I'd meet somebody and we'd get to talk about something and we'd stick a half-an-hour meeting in here and stick a half-an-hour meeting in there. And before I knew it, I was crammed full. It was really valuable. So I think it's important to say to people that listen to this that OSCON is not just about sessions; we have some awesome sessions going on there, but to me it's really about the corridor discussions as well.

James Turner: All right. Well, Jono Bacon, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. And hopefully we'll have a good OSCON together this year.

Jono Bacon: Thank you.

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