Thursday, November 1, 2012

Does Your Community Shine in Bad Times?


I've built several communities and been a part of many others during the course of my career, including some that have nothing to do with software and technology.

Unfortunately, two communities I've been a part of have recently suffered devastating losses.  Not long ago, I wrote about my friend Greg Junell, and what he meant to a community of college kids who've now grown up and gone on to do many amazing things.  Just this past Saturday, my Cal Fire community lost an amazing member in the line of duty, Chief Rob Van Wormer.  He was the head of the fire prevention battalion at the Cal Fire Santa Clara Unit, which includes the group I volunteer with - the Volunteers in Prevention (VIPs).  The chief was a vocal and strong supporter of our volunteer team, and the many functions we perform for the department, including emergency radio communications, fire lookout staffing, public education programs, and media center operations (fielding calls during a major fire).

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My Badge Shrouded for Chief Van Wormer's Passing

He was a man we all respected and admired (and truth be told, feared just a little bit, in a good way). I'm sure the chief would never have characterized himself as a community catalyst - fire departments are paramilitary organizations by necessity - you have firefighters (privates), engineers (lieutenants), captains, and various levels of chiefs working in a command & control fashion.  Chief Van Wormer ascended these ranks through 24 years serving the citizens of California, and I know that he was very proud of his department and his entire unit.

However, his leadership style, while firm, provided for flexibility, and that allowed a community to form within his unit - one that I'm extremely proud to be a part of. The interesting thing about the fire service however is that there is a bond (some call it brotherhood, but I think community is a more all-encompassing term) that binds not just individual units and departments together, but brings together everyone involved in the fire service.  The sad part is, most people don't get to see that put on display until there is a tragedy such as Chief Van Wormer's passing.

The amount of support that Cal Fire has received, and the incredible way our department has come together to help the Van Wormer family through this, is the highest form of community engagement I've ever seen.  While this is no surprise to those of us who've been a part of this community, it should serve as an inspiration for community managers in other disciplines as well.

While you may not ever have to go through something like our community is going through now, it never hurts to consider how your community reacts in bad times.  It's easy to show strength when things are going well, but it takes a special kind of community to pull together when the chips are down and showcase its caring, understanding and strength.

As for me, I'll be attending Chief Van Wormer's memorial this Saturday, in a hockey arena - because that's how large and supportive our community is.  Despite how much this hurts all of us who've lost a friend, colleague, and leader, I know we'll all be much stronger from the collective support of our fellow community members.

Rest in peace Chief Rob Van Wormer - we've got the next watch.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

In Memorium - Greg Junell


"You never forget your first _____"

This phrase, with the blank filled in, is often used while looking back fondly at something you experienced that still touches your soul - and so, it's true of me today as I reflect on the loss of an amazing person - Greg Junell.  Who, you might be asking, is Greg Junell?

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Greg Junell - 2011

Greg was and still is the heart and soul of my very first experience with community.  We didn't call it 'community' back then, but looking back on it now, the slo.punks was the first community I can remember being welcomed into with no reservations.  When you are a teenager away from home for the first time, experiencing college at a very competitive school like Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, life can be scary, awkward, and downright difficult.  Though 'The Punks' (think Cyberpunk, not punk rock) didn't have formal leadership per se, Greg was the closest thing they had to a community shepherd.

Even now, I think back to meeting him for the first time - big tall Greg, red beard sprouting out in every direction, but with a smile and a heart that just oozed out of every one of his pores.  Greg was one of the few people I've ever met in my life who always seemed happy to see an old friend, or make a new one.  Part computer guru, philosopher, pirate radio DJ, and big kid, he could engage in manic silliness one minute, and then dive deep into his psyche to argue philosophy with you the next.

Greg didn't always agree with everyone (I know he and I had vastly different political views for example), but he truly was the model that I think we need more of in our society today - reasoned discourse.  I never came away from a conversation with Greg angry or upset about our differences.  I frequently came away enlightened or challenged to look at my life and views in a unique way.

I think the best testament I've heard about Greg though is one shared by several of my classmates at Cal Poly through the years - even those of us who had not had as much direct contact with him as we used to are feeling his passing in a very raw and emotional way.  His impact on our lives is something I know we are all grateful for.  He spent the most recent years of his much too short life helping inspire the next generation as a teacher - I can only imagine the awesome times those kids who got to learn from him had! :)

I'll always carry the experience of my first community with me going forward, and I have Greg to thank for that.  Rest easy my friend, you've earned it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Finding Your Community Magic


'Festival Magic'

I've heard this phrase for the past 8 years while serving with an amazing group of 4000 volunteers who put on the Gilroy Garlic Festival - lauded by most as the premier food and entertainment festival on the West Coast.  While the saying started out as a bit of a joke to explain how things get done, the reality is those two words are the bedrock of an annual event that has been taking place for almost 35 years.

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The history of the festival is long and storied - this video gives a great overview.  However, the elements behind the concept of 'Festival Magic' are applicable to communities of all types, whether it's open source software development, social media communities, or affinity groups.  This 'magic' isn't really all that magical - it breaks down to the following main ideas:

Empower Everyone to Lead

Gilroy Garlic Festival volunteers are expected to lead (and follow) at all levels of the organization.  Even the most junior volunteers are given some form of responsibility and ownership of their designated tasks, and they are always encouraged to share ideas on how to make things better.

Additionally, in the words of Hugh Davis, Garlic Festival president for 2012, 'no job is too small for a volunteer to take on.'  It's worth noting that he said this while responding to a patron who was both grateful and shocked to see him helping pour cups of free water for festival guests waiting in line to board buses back to the parking lot.

Empowering your volunteers and community members to lead in their own way gives them a sense of pride and ownership in your community.  The Garlic Festival learned this lesson early on, and it's baked into the DNA of the organization.  When people are interviewed about why they volunteer for the festival year after year, the two main themes that come out are pride in the event and a sense of ownership/family.  In short, none of the volunteers wants to be the one who lets the festival (or each other) down.

Nurture the Next Generation

The Garlic Festival's founders had amazing foresight (and the experience of seeing another similar festival fail in leadership development) and decreed that no person would ever serve more than one consecutive year as the festival president.  Additionally, there are defined terms for board members, advisory committee members and committee chairpersons.  These limits are not meant to discourage volunteerism at all - in fact, it's quite the opposite.  Encouraging volunteers to find and mentor new leadership talent builds an organization that not only continually strengthens its ranks, but also brings a new influx of ideas and passions to the table.

A strong community is not afraid of leadership change - finding a way to embrace and encourage turnover keeps things fresh and vibrant.  In our case, a future Garlic Festival president may well emerge from the volunteer pool of teenagers at this year's event!

Make it Fun!

You can probably file this one under the 'yeah, tell us something we don't know' category.  However, it is always easier said than done.  In the case of the Garlic Festival, we accomplish this primarily by focusing on making the event fun for the patrons.  When they are having fun, it's infectious - our volunteers can't help but feel the atmosphere of fun when they see festival guests enjoying themselves.  Does this mean that there isn't serious business going on with our festival volunteers?  No, but purposely making the work fun makes the time go faster and encourages people to volunteer and contribute year after year.

The next time you are evaluating your community, think about the fun factor, and what you can do to improve it.  Sometimes this can be as simple as letting a team develop their own identity in the form of t-shirts, slogans, or nicknames.  Remember, fun doesn't necessarily have to cost a lot, but enabling people to make their tasks fun goes a long way toward encouraging continued community involvement.

The Bottom Line

Building up this kind of community is not easy or quick - the festival has had its share of bumps along the way.  However, by continuing to focus on bringing in new ideas and talented people, the strength and bonds between the volunteer community have continued to grow.  At the end of the day, the most powerful thing you can work toward building in your own community is a pride of ownership that guides your members long after you have stepped away from leadership.

My hope is that you'll take some of these fundamentals of our 'Festival Magic' and sprinkle them liberally within your community to help it thrive and grow.  Who knows, one day you might be as lucky as we'll be next year in Gilroy to celebrate 35 years of community, food, fun and fellowship! :)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Confessions of an Open Source Community Pragmatist


I just recently wrote a post talking about job titles, which got me thinking of how I would classify my current career role.  That, combined with other discussions which have been happening inside the walls of my employer, made me realize that the best way to describe myself would be as an Open Source Community Pragmatist.

I can see the heads shaking, the puzzled looks, and even the sighs from some of my colleagues who are a bit more on the idealistic side when it comes to these topics.  Let me assure you, I have total respect for those folks who make everything they do in life about the ideology - it's just not the path I've chosen for my career, and here's why:

The vast majority of the day-to-day work of society & business happens between the ideological extremes:
  • Conservatives vs. liberals
  • Proprietary vs. open source software
  • Emacs vs. vi (a little inside joke for my technology readers)
Does this mean that we don't need the extremes?  No, I think they need to exist to define the boundaries, and in many cases, to push better ways of doing things to the center of the spectrum.  The reality though, and those of you at the extremes may chafe at this, is that most people are closer to the center than to either extreme, and their primary goal in life is to get their jobs done, stave off starvation, and pay their mortgage on time. That is the cold hard reality of life, and these people are the ones who make the trends happen via purchasing decisions based on how easy it is for them to utilize things like technology as a tool to get their jobs done, stave off starvation, and pay their mortgage on time. :)

People of this ilk are very much in the 'easiest tool that gets the job done', vs. 'absolute best tool for the job' mindset.  These are the people that choose Windows and Macintosh computers instead of putting in the time to get Linux properly installed and working on their laptop.  Has Linux made great strides on the ease of installation and desktop use?  Yes, but still not enough to displace the ease of use (or perception thereof) of Microsoft or Apple products.  However, there are opportunities to mix these two camps, and this is where the pragmatism label comes in.

I'm very proud to work at Red Hat because of what they stand for in the Open Source world (disclaimer - these opinions are not necessarily reflective of those of Red Hat, our mascot Shadowman, or anyone else who might or might not be wearing red fedoras today).  However, because of my role in consulting, and my frequent travel and personal usage habits, I chose a Macbook Air as my primary computing platform.  Cue the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the ideological camp. :)

However, the Open Source Community Pragmatist in me justifies it easily by running virtualized instances of Fedora 16 (Red Hat-sponsored community distribution of Linux) as well as Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6.2 (our enterprise version of Linux).  Oh, and also, with the exception of iCal, pretty much all of my day-to-day productivity application needs on Mac OS X are met by open source tools (Thunderbird, Firefox, Adium, LibreOffice, etc.).

Do I use proprietary tools on this machine - yes, as customer needs dictate (primarily MS Office).
 The main argument I get from the ideological side is that I'm doing a disservice to my company by not using the products we sell.  First of all, I've already noted that I do use the products, and also, I believe that pragmatism wins many more hearts and minds with a customer than blind devotion to an ideology.  Are Red Hat's products great choices in the enterprise/data center?  Absolutely, and I champion their value in that arena all day long.  Are they the best choice for end-user workstations?  In some limited cases, yes, but by and large, customers are better served using their existing infrastructure and supplementing it with open source productivity apps (as I showcase on my machine).

Obviously, we all have our passions and particular opinions about why we do the things we do.  I guess my point in writing this post was to simply highlight that the motivations for why we do things are different for each individual (and business), and while we may not necessarily agree with someone else's viewpoints, we cannot function as a society or community unless we learn to respect the need for those viewpoints to exist.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Community Manager or Community Sherpa?

What's in a title?

While a lot of us community types don't get caught up in what you call us (we prefer to be catalysts in getting the job done), the fact remains that those outside of our sphere sometimes fixate a bit too much on the word 'manager' in our typical title.  In point of fact, some of the most successful community people I've run across are closer to a community 'sherpa' than they are to a community 'manager.'  What is the difference, you might ask, and does this mean that they don't perform typical 'management' tasks?

The answer to the second part of that question is no - in fact, they can and do step in to get their hands dirty on tactical tasks (moderating forums, building content, refereeing competing interests) all the time.  However, building an effective community requires someone who is also fairly strategic (the 'sherpa').  This strategy comes to the forefront in areas such as charting the community direction, or determining how the community may need to interface with a sponsoring organization. Does this mean that every community person starts out in the sherpa category?  Speaking from my own experience, I'd have to say the answer is no to that question as well. While there may be natural born community sherpas, I think that the far more usual path is that community managers are groomed to become sherpas.

Let me bring in an analogy from my primary career path (before I started drifting into community work). In computer science, there are computer programmers and software engineers (and at higher levels, software architects).  No one in the computer field expects individuals to come directly out of college as software engineers (despite what their starting job title may be).  Computer programmers are very adept at taking very specific specifications and building something that meets those specifications.  However, they do not have enough experience to consider how what they're building fits into the larger picture.  Software engineers, on the other hand, are a mix of tactical ability (writing code) as well as understanding the ramifications of what they're building.  This allows them to interface with other engineers and systems architects to help provide strategic leadership to software development efforts.  In general, programmers work in conjunction with software engineers until they reach an experience level where they can become software engineers as well.

At this point, readers are probably asking this question: 'Are you saying I have to hire two people to work on building/running my community?'  Interestingly, Vanessa DiMauro does argue for a separation of manager and strategy functions in this blog post. While I can see her point, I think that most organizations would probably be better off hiring what I'm calling a 'community sherpa,' and then, as their community grows and becomes successful, bringing in a 'community manager' to be groomed by the current sherpa.  If this sounds like an apprenticeship, that's exactly right - learning how to deliver an effective mix of community tactics and strategy takes time and experience.  Community people may have a natural affinity for the overall role, but they need to learn how to effectively apply strategy and tactics in equal measure.

Also, remember that you never know where you might find a community person hiding in another career.  A lot of times, they can be in a slightly tangential career path, but their aptitude and desire make them ideal candidates to take on community roles (and they could be ready to step in as sherpas with just a little coaching).  In my case, I found that while I enjoyed technology (I still do), I had a set of strategic skills acquired through having to interface with different software engineering groups (Quality Assurance, Configuration Management, etc.) that set me on the path to doing community consulting.  However, even those skills required refining by working with others who had more community experience than I did.

So, now it's your turn to sound off - are you a community manager or a community sherpa?  Do you agree with the distinctions I've drawn?  Either way, I'd love to hear your opinion.  Thanks for reading!