Community Is...

[This was originally posted on my work blog 'OnCollabNet']

I just returned from a two week conference trip in support of - the first week in Utah was uneventful, but the second week for the DISA partner conference in Nashville, TN at the historic Gaylord Opryland Hotel... well, let's just say it was something I don't think any of us involved will ever forget. For those that may not have been following the news, Nashville got 18 inches of rain in just two days (an all-time record) and those of us in town for the conference were evacuated from the hotel to a local high school due to severe flooding.

Nashville-Flood.jpgMobile Photo May 7, 2010 7 35 12 PM.jpg

Though I was one of the folks living through this, I'd like to highlight some of the things I saw and experienced that, to me, showcase the true meaning and spirit of community. We deal in my world with community in a somewhat abstract sense, because we are talking about online interactions. However, I'm here to tell you, I saw some amazing, simple, and just plain selfless acts from folks living through the Tennessee flood situation that epitomize the best aspects of community.

For me, the following things I witnessed last week complete the sentence 'Community is...':

  • A pre-teen choral group standing at the front of a ballroom at the Gaylord Opryland to entertain 1500 people waiting to hear where we would be staged next during a flood watch

  • Gaylord Hotel employees rushing to bring food, snacks, and even board games to the assembled crowd of people in the aforementioned ballroom

  •'s own SPAWAR team members introducing themselves to complete strangers and sitting down to a game of charades while waiting out the flood

  • community manager Aaron Lippold and his friend finding a blanket for, and giving Aaron's coat to a mother at the evacuation shelter so that her very young son would have a comfortable place to sleep

  • Tennesseans showing up unannounced at our shelter with peanut butter & bread for 500 people, apologizing for not having enough, going back to the store for more, and also bringing pizzas, pillows and blankets later, despite their own homes being in danger

  • People living near our evacuation shelter offering complete strangers with small children living rooms/spare bedrooms, etc. in order to not have them sleep on the cold floor of a high school cafeteria

  • team members securing suitcases and other equipment from our operations team's rooms after they were forced to fly out early and leave their gear

  • Employees at the DoubleTree hotel in downtown Nashville finding rooms for some of us from the team, and being incredibly supportive & understanding whenever we needed anything

  • Gaylord hotel staff (security and bellmen, some of whom will be laid off for up to 6 months while the hotel cleans up and rebuilds) carrying suitcases all the way out to cars when we were able to finally retrieve our belongings

  • A cab driver who only charged us for part of our trip from the shelter to the DoubleTree hotel downtown (after the hotel we were going to go to was closed)

Now, some might argue that some of these individuals were 'just doing their jobs,' but I'd posit that what we were seeing was some of the finest examples of what it truly means to be a community. These people all put the well being of others above their own needs.

So, what does this all have to do with technical or development communities? I'd say everything - though you probably won't ever have to give your technical community members food and shelter in a storm, you can and should 'do the right thing' when one of them needs guidance, assistance, or someone to pick up the slack in a difficult time. If you are a community manager/shepherd/guide, your job should be not only to encourage this kind of behavior, but also to lead by example in this regard. Keep your hand on the pulse of the community - is there someone who is dealing with a difficult technical task/interpersonal conflict with another team member, or other thorny situation? If so, offer up whatever help you can give, even if that is just an ear to listen to them vent.

The issues that we deal with in technical communities are rarely, if ever, life and death, but I think we can all learn something from the disaster in Tennessee, not the least of which is that having the 'volunteer spirit,' like the people of that fine state, helps us in all aspects of our lives - both personal and professional.


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