Ubuntu has rapidly established itself as the leading GNU/Linux distribution on the desktop, not least through its work with Dell. Less well-known is the fact that Canonical, the company sponsoring Ubuntu – and trying to create a viable business around it – is based in London. One of the key members of staff working there is Jono Bacon, Canonical's Ubuntu Community Manager.
Bacon has been active in the open source community for many years, and is probably best known for LugRadio, “a fortnightly British [Internet] radio show that takes a relaxed, humorous look at Linux and open source.” Here, he talks about how the Ubuntu community functions, his role in that process, and what lies ahead for Canonical and Ubuntu.
GM: Could you say a little about how the Ubuntu community works, for example: how it's run, and how development gets apportioned between the community and Canonical's own coders? More generally, how do the Ubuntu community and Canonical work together to decide the overall direction of the project?
JB: The Ubuntu community is a very open, fun, good-natured and inclusive community. The beginning of a development period for a new release involves the discussion of proposed features at an Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS); an event in which anyone can submit items to discuss, and the key items are discussed and functional specifications are drafted. Each UDS has a large number of community members sponsored by Canonical to attend, as well as our entire Canonical development team - the event is also open to the general public. After this the work is assigned to different contributors and Canonical employees, and it is built. This process is open, and Canonical developers all work as part of this process, as well as working in public on the general Ubuntu mailing lists, IRC channels etc.
GM: What exactly does your job entail – what are you trying to do, who do you work with, how do you work with them, and what do you do concretely (I won't say in a typical day, since I presume you never have one)?
JB: A lot of people are confused about what exactly a Community Manager does, and it varies between different Community Managers - some are more PR than actual community management. I believe my role is real community management; working with the community to help it work as effectively as possible.
My basic goal is to make Ubuntu *the* example of free software community *done right*. I want people to look at Ubuntu and feel we get the balance right with regards to the many issues involved such as transparency, openness, meritocracy, technology, the balance between the community and a sponsor such as Canonical etc. I am basically here to look at the community as a big jigsaw puzzle and help to make different parts of it make sense, work better together and help people to have the facilities, resources and confidence to get things done. Inside Canonical I have two people who work for me; Daniel Holbach who works on developer relations, and Jorge Castro who works with upstream projects to help them work as best as possible with Ubuntu. I also work extensively with the wider community and its huge range of teams and all departments in Canonical.
Some examples of the kind of things I do is produce governance structures to help run different parts of the community, reduce bottlenecks, help advocacy and user groups to spread the word about Ubuntu, deal with events and event planning, speak at conferences and meet different sub-communities and upstreams, help construct and build new sub-communities, resolve conflict, liaise with the business team and vendors about community, deal with concerns, produce new processes to smooth out bumps in the community etc.
GM: You were active in the free software world for many years; what has surprised you most since joining Canonical – what's most different when you're on the inside rather than on the outside? What have you learned about communities and the way they work? What are the key elements for creating and sustaining a healthy community?
JB: Questions like this are always tough, because people assume that when you join a vendor that you instantly spit out a party line. I have always wanted to resist this, and this can be seen in LugRadio, and my previous workplace was a vendor-neutral funded Open Source advocacy organisation; I consider myself very much an advocate, and I am conscious to maintain this integrity in all aspects of my work.
Canonical is a fascinating and inspiring place to work at. It is brimming with smart people, enthusiasm and ideas, and its distributed nature means that we have a plethora of culture, much as we have in the free software community. One of the reasons I wanted to join Canonical when I was thinking of leaving OpenAdvantage, was because of their approach to community with Ubuntu. I felt Ubuntu and Canonical took a 'purer' approach to free software than other commercially backed distributions, with its open development processes and open governance structures (like the Community Council).
Saying this though, companies are companies, and I was expecting some resistance from parts of Canonical, and expecting to have to fight for the community in different scenarios. This has not been the case however, and I have been stunned at just how fundamental the community is in all departments of Canonical; I am consulted on a wide range of issues, and from the people on the ground, right up to Mark at the top, community is a critical consideration. This has made Canonical a pleasurable place to work, gives me confidence in the strategic intentions of the company, and gives me the opportunity to focus on building, growing and fostering the Ubuntu community without fighting petty internal battles. From what I can gather, Canonical is a relative exception to the norm here, and I am pleased that the community is so intrinsic in the company's culture.
In addition to this, I have been stunned at how fast we are growing, and importantly, the quality of the talent that has come on board has remained high.
Oh, and the new coffee machine at the office in London is rather nice. :)
GM: As Ubuntu becomes better known, and more widely installed by both end users and businesses, so presumably the demands on it change; have you noticed corresponding changes in the Ubuntu community?
JB: Scalability of community is a *huge* issue (no pun intended!). Invariably when a community grows massively, its processes and structures can wane. I am pleased with how modular and flexible our structures have been - we have chunks of governance that have helped ensure the quality remains high in Ubuntu as more and more contributors, and increasingly diverse contributors, come aboard.
The thing to remember is the speed of the growth of Ubuntu - it went from a nobody distro with a cheeky grin to arguably the most prominent desktop Linux distribution in about two years - this kind of growth is stunning, and the project continues to grow hugely.
I always like to regularly sit back and look at the wider community picture to not only identify areas where we need to refine and improve, but to also highlight opportunities and patterns. This has really helped in upscaling parts of the community, while also still retaining that essential "keep it fun" ingredient that we should never lose in any project where volunteers are a large demographic.
GM: Do you foresee the need for any major changes to the way Canonical interacts with the Ubuntu community in the future, especially as Ubuntu is deployed more widely in a business context? Do you think we will ever see a kind of Red Hat/Fedora split in Ubuntu?
JB: I think Canonical will always need to think carefully about where we draw the line with regards to commercial opportunities and the community, but I am confident we can get that balance right. Canonical is an organisation that is committed to the ideals of free software, and believes we can generate revenue from services based around Ubuntu – I believe this too, and I think it will always be important to ensure Canonical respects the values behind Ubuntu while exploring commercial opportunities as part of the business. I think a Red Hat/Fedora split is unlikely as Ubuntu is so fundamental to the operation of Canonical.
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