Open Source community building: a guide to getting it right

Community development in open source software is not just for geeks in sandals nor for niche Linux companies any more. It’s mainstream and it’s here to stay.

The recent analysis of companies contributing code to the Linux kernel shows that large companies including Novell, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Texas Instruments are getting serious about engaging in community development. Organisations such as the LiMo Foundation are encouraging their members to work with community projects “upstream”, that is, with the community rather than in isolation,  to avoid missing out on millions of dollars worth of “unleveraged potential” (PDF link).

A diverse developer community is critically important to the long term viability of free and open source projects. And yet companies often have difficulty growing communities around their projects, or have trouble influencing the direction of the maintainers of community projects like the Linux kernel or GNOME. Sun Microsystems and AOL are prominent examples of companies which went full speed into community development, but were challenged (to say the least) in cultivating a mutually beneficial relationship with community developers. There are many more examples – but often we never even hear about companies who tentatively engage in community development, and retreat with their tail between their legs, writing off substantial investments in community development. Xara, for example, released part of their flagship software Xara Xtreme for Linux as open source in 2005, before silently dropping all investment in the community project in late 2006.

What can go wrong? What are the most common, and the most deadly errors which companies make in their community engagement strategies? And how can you avoid them? Avoiding these does not guarantee success, but failing to avoid them may be sufficient to guarantee failure.

Where to begin? Continue reading…

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