The Unquantifiable Heart & Soul of Community

(Big, Heart & Soul Scene. Courtesy of: 20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration — https://www.theringer.com/movies/2018/6/4/17423236/big-piano-tom-hanks-30th-anniversary)

In my many years of trying to share the experience & insight I’ve gained in community building — I have a “manifesto” that I share to help inspire folks to get started. This manifesto largely consists of pillars, that I have witnessed to be the backbone of great community building, and these are:

  1. Common Purpose
  2. Open Exchange
  3. Meritocracy
  4. Participation
  5. All-In Approach

I’ve done many talks on this, and will touch briefly on these (but they are not the essence of this post — I’ll work on putting this manifesto in writing too).

Recently, though, someone said one of the kindest and most meaningful things to meyou’re the heart & soul of the tech community in IL’, and I suddenly felt seen, and at the same time, had an 💡 epiphany.

I often talk about these pillars, and other concepts in community such as ‘chop wood & carry water’ that I tout all the time, but it never occurred to me that something so basic heart, soul — that is virtually unquantifiable, can be such a critical piece in a community’s success.

And after I started to think about it, I realized there are entire companies and frameworks built around this concept, namely Orbit.Love and their (very well thought out) Orbit model. This is a tool that tries to quantify the “love” people have in a community, largely based on their level of engagement. I’ve had other entrepreneurial friends looking to see if they can “crack the code” to measuring good community or developer relations work, and wanted me to join them in these initiatives. I’ve read some really great posts on making DevRel and community more measurable and quantifiable, and heard this great talk by Amir Shevat first-hand.

But then I realized that love is just so hard to actually measure.

When I think about the communities that I enjoyed running and being a part of — it just dawned on me that was the critical piece — the communities had a heart & soul. This, to me, maps to all the pillars of community — from the joint purpose through the passion to give it your all to succeed. And on the flip side, the communities that I enjoyed less — this is THE EXACT THING that was missing for me. All the boxes were ticked and they were done in a methodical and scientific way, but the love was missing.

I’m going to try and analyze what this heart and soul consists of, and how we can ensure our communities always have this critical driver for success.

Why I Will Always Consider DevOpsDays and OpenStack Home (AKA Reverse Engineering Love)

If I had to categorize love into pillars — these would probably be them:

  1. Trust
  2. Empowerment
  3. Recognition

I have another talk that I give, about ‘how the pillars of community map to the pillars of high performing organizations’. If you look very closely at these three pillars — they’re very much in tune with the backbone of intrinsic motivators — purpose, autonomy, mastery.

Let’s dive in a little bit more, with concrete examples, of why some communities managed to cultivate this better than others.

The Science of Community Love

Building Trust

A friend of mine, an excellent platform engineer, once taught me that trust == consistency over time, and this rang incredibly true to me. (Side note: if you want to learn about managing Kafka at scale — watch this talk of his — where this is taken from). However, this is mostly from a trust BUILDING perspective (and I’ll get to this, because it’s equally binding in community, almost like a social contract).

But what causes people to FEEL TRUSTED?

Patrick Debois, the heart and soul behind the global DevOpsDays community, taught me through the concepts in the Thin Book on Trust, that trust breaks down into four distinctions:

  1. Competence
  2. Reliability
  3. Sincerity
  4. Caring

❤ Heart — the DevOpsDays Tel Aviv Case Study

In 2013, a small team of local volunteers (Uri Cohen, Nati Shalom, Ran Tavory, Avishai Ish-Shalom, and myself) saw the traction around DevOps, and decided to hold the first local “DevOpsCon” in Tel Aviv, and we made a lot of noise around it on social media. Immediately following the event, Patrick reached out to us, and invited us to join the “DevOpsDays” global community. And it didn’t stop there. He did everything in his capacity to make sure we succeeded. When ramping up our first event the team helped us get started and launch the website on the shared community site (which also helped us get in front of relevant sponsors and speakers), and even connected us to leading folks in the community, who flew out on their own dime to join our very first DevOpsDays Tel Aviv.

This behavior maps to all of these distinctions — the competence & reliability in helping us quickly ramp up, and sincerely caring about the success of our local community — by acting like we’re in it together. On top of this, putting resources — time and people — on this to help our little community in the levant succeed, both sincerity and reliability were demonstrated.

At our first DevopsDays John Willis, Lindsey Holmwood, and Stephen Nelson-Smith — all came out to support us and give us the “street cred” to keep on going on our own, and build the “trust” with the community that this is a great community to be a part of. John Willis even joined us the next year (and brought his son along who did an ignite), and Stephen came back for a five-year reunion.

This is community — that long-term commitment and trust over time. We as a community on the other hand, were committed to not letting the “brand” down — we delivered on the promise of great content, knowledge sharing, networking with peers, and an event run to our highest standards (that we could afford) — and really kick started something awesome, that is still thriving today.

Takeaway: The core underlying sentiment that all of this action generated was to make us, as a local team, feel trusted — and like first-class citizens in this community. They trusted us to get the task done, they empowered us to do it ourselves providing us with the tools and framework, and enabled us to be recognized in the local communities as the team behind the event. This was and remains extremely powerful.

This is one of the reasons, to this day, I still lead this community year to year, and am active in the Slack, and have made some of the most genuine friendships I will make in the tech ecosystem through this community. I love the people and its values, and that keeps me committed.

★Soul — The OpenStack Case Study

Another great example of community done right was the team behind OpenStack. To this day, we remain good friends — and I was even recently invited back to the 10-Year reunion (after being inactive for quite some time) — which just goes to show how incredibly loving this community is.

The trust in the OpenStack community was built on similar values — but was also backed up in resources, commitment and action. Cloudify, the company I was employed at was a nascent open source startup around 2013, where part of our core DNA was being open source and building open source communities. Cloudify was built to be natively integrated with OpenStack, and part of this process enabled us to discover what a thriving and welcoming community OpenStack was. We decided to bring the benefits to Israel — where at the time there were a number of Israeli companies who were also deeply invested in OpenStack’s success — from Mellanox, through LivePerson, Red Hat’s local innovation center, Ravello (later acquired by Oracle), JFrog, IBM, Stratoscale among others.

At the very beginning, the Israel community was so hyped-up about OpenStack and its potential — we held an event TWICE a year (following each major OpenStack Summit — North America and RoW). The OpenStack Foundation, not only supported our local event monetarily — being a substantial sponsor of the event, but also sent someone from the core team to each and every event and prepared a keynote, supported with swag and stickers, graphics, ads, as well as connections and networking to sponsors and speakers in the community who would be willing to join our local event. They provided support where and when needed, but were also empowering and hands-off enough to let us run with it, and lead our own local community.

Another one of the greatest things I will always remember the OpenStack Foundation for, is recognizing Cloudify as a community sponsor on their website — which generated a lot of traffic, and provided our small company global recognition, just for our community work. Sponsorship tiers were costly and were mostly the purview of much larger corporations — from Red Hat to T-Mobile, HP (at the time), Suse, Canonical, among others. This was a huge win for us to be able to have our little logo, next to these giants, because the OpenStack Foundation sincerely cared about the work we were doing to support the initiative. This is one of the most gracious demonstrations of trust I have encountered on the community front.

We did our part to return this trust by sponsoring the OpenStack Summits, by making the event memorable, leading local workshops and even bringing in experts from around the globe (e.g. Florian Haas and the Hastexo team), taking day trips with the team after the event to give them a small taste of Israel on their constant travels, bringing great speakers from the worldwide community, having a super fun beach party (the one constant and one of the best features of a Tel Aviv event), and remained committed in the long-term — kickstarting Facebook and Slack groups, and doing what we could to spread the gospel.

Takeaway: Community is not a business, it is a trust model. While communities need money to thrive and be sustainable — this is true in both directions. A small local community can do wonders for the global community if this is properly appreciated, and is eventually worth its weight in gold. This model helped both the global Foundation and local community to thrive. Believing in the local team and backing them with whatever support was possible helped us deliver on that promise.

A Little on Recognition

One of the engagement models I learned from the OpenStack community, and have taken with me as a guiding principle when creating my own communities is the powerful concept of recognition. The OpenStack Foundation awarded every single committer to each release with a free ticket to their Summits — which were a celebration of the project, and really great bi-annual events. I always appreciated this — and it wasn’t just for code. Even if you helped fix documentation — you got a ticket. I always thought this was an excellent demonstration of inclusivity, and enabled those for whom the tickets to the events might be too costly to afford, a golden ticket to the event that was within reach.

I can also say that the DevOpsDays community does this quite well, too. Recognition there comes in the form of status, achieved by hard work and commitment — chop wood and carry water. When the original core team was looking to step down and how to handoff the ownership to a trusted team, they looked to their most comitted and dedicated local organizers, and this is quite a demonstration of trust and recognition. Those who did the work — earned much-deserved global recognition, that enabled those who really believed in the community to feel that there was a path to greater ownership and contribution. This says a lot about trust and “in it together”.

The Flip Side — When Community is Abused

I’ve been a part of communities where the exact opposite of the trust values are practiced, and this has influenced my desire to ever return to being an active participant in them, some examples. When we were pivoting the OpenStack community in Tel Aviv after a few years, to be more inclusive of other open source and cloud technologies, we decided to try and partner with other leading communities in the ecosystem. Trust broke down when instead of monetarily supporting the initiative or even simply supporting with empowerment and trust (for free volunteer community work to spread their gospel — people whose time is quite valuable), we were asked to pay to use their logo. This didn’t make us feel like a first-class citizen in the community, or that our time and resources were appreciated. As a sponsor-dependent, not-for-profit event — this didn’t seem like a good use of our minimal funds, so we went independent. What’s more, we invited executives from the Foundation numerous times to join our events, and this invitation was never taken up on.

This was their fundamental modus operandi, and was even re-validated when they tried to kickstart their own grassroots events similar to DevOpsDays and OpenStack Days. I had words on Twitter about it.

This same organization decided that for one of their projects, instead of holding a dedicated event, they would do a global “road show”. Cloudify along with Amdocs decided to lead the Tel Aviv event. After the successful event was held — with no resources or support received from the organization whatsoever, on the global marketing call they gave themselves a pat on the back for the successful “global road show they pulled off” without even so much as thanking any of the local organizers or hosts. Not a great demonstration of “in it together”.

And a final example on recognition and appreciation. I once organized from 9–hours away (and in a distant time zone) a mini-summit to be held at one of their flagship events. I did this on my own time, found the speakers, and content and arranged everything to deliver more hype and interest in the event. After flying out to Austin, Texas on my own company’s dime, I arrived only to discover that I wasn’t even afforded an entry ticket to the flagship event. After inquiring about it, and assuming it was simply an oversight as part of event organization mishegas — only to discover that it was not an oversight at all, and that the expectation was for me to purchase a ticket. Despite taking a 16–hour flight, and putting hours of work into the mini-summit for their event to be successful. Needless to say, I never volunteered to help them in any further capacity, this was simply so insulting.

Takeaway: If you’re not going to help BUILD the community, certainly don’t HINDER the success of the community. And if the community, despite your lack of help manages to succeed, don’t take credit for their achievements. This left a bad taste in the mouth of the local community, which remains until this day. Like I said above, if you’re trying to monetize on the back of your local and dedicated community volunteers, something is broken in your model. You can say, there’s no LOVE lost.

[COMPLETE AND TOTAL ASIDE]

One more thought on this, and while slightly unrelated, feels sort of related to me here. I wasn’t overly vocal this time around with the change in licensing around Elasticsearch and Kibana, as I was when the Open Distro for Elasticsearch was announced. As I didn’t have much to say about it that wasn’t already said. But I was a little stumped, or confused by what felt like overly vehement rage about the licensing change that I didn’t feel like other COSS companies received following similar licensing changes. And now after putting these thoughts down I realize it comes down to a breakdown in trust and love. As they say, there’s a fine line between love and hate. Community members poured their heart and soul into this project and community, and trust broke down when this wasn’t reciprocated. Remember trust == consistency over time? This consistency and constant belief that drove the community to be active, participate, and contribute code, was breached. It’s pretty heartbreaking, and I think a flourishing community like Elastic would only do this under complete duress, which makes it even sadder. The whole open source community model is breaking down — but that’s for a different post.

Final Thoughts

It’s funny how one simple comment can change your entire perspective. I read and reread Tsahi’s comment multiple times, and realized this is that ONE “unquantifiable” thing that many companies don’t really grok when trying to build thriving communities. In a recent talk at Community Summit TLV, Philipp Krenn — Developer Advocate at Elastic, defined what Developer Relations ISN’T and IS (or should be). Highly paraphrased — ‘if you’re measuring your DevRel on leads — you’re a marketing organization, if you’re measuring them on revenue, you’re a sales organization. DevRel is measured on growth and reach’. This made me think. And now I realize has something that, to me, rings of heart and soul. Trying to be as far-reaching and widely inclusive and embracing as possible. Sounds like a bear hug right? And there’s comfort in that.

Another thing I’ve noticed, and one of the reasons I have difficulty believing in community roles these days, is that while I understand that community can’t be completely decoupled from the business — building that love and commitment takes time. The business needs to see the benefits of leading community, but ensuring the community has a breathing heart and soul, is something not to be taken for granted, and can’t be simply engineered. It takes work and commitment, and instilling that love and commitment in others through appreciation and recognition of their hard work.

I like to quote Conan O’Brien often, when I talk about how I envision success.

“Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.”

This, to me, is the exact truth, for great communities as well.

The ROI will not be immediate, and many times the initial value will be hard to quantify, because to gain that traction and momentum you need to cultivate that love, and the onus is on you to be the breathing heart and soul of the community. Some call this social proof (🥶 brrr cold), others will talk about a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators (a very simplistic categorization), but eventually there’s this added sentiment, a magic that happens with reciprocation.

Companies I’ve worked for who didn’t know exactly how to quantify the community efforts, and decided to forego them in the end, came back to me years later to tell me they “figured it out”. They suddenly understood what the community efforts afforded them, that they didn’t know how to previously quantify in business metrics. I was told —before when they were investing a lot in community — doors opened easily, their name was recognized, their engineering credibilty was appreciated, and they’re suddenly finding themselves working quite a bit harder to achieve that level of trust that before was just a given, and mostly taken for granted. Those are your unquantifiable metrics. They may be qualitative, but they go a long way.

Try and be givers, before you are takers. Try and be the community you want to build. Pour your heart and soul into it — and you will see the magic happen.

A little zany somewhat brainy, and a tireless crusader for social justice.