by Swapnil Bhartiya

Q&A: Jono Bacon on joining GitHub

Nov 06, 2015
LinuxOpen Source


Jono Bacon is probably best known for his stint as former community manager for Ubuntu. He then left Ubuntu to build the global XPRIZE community at the XPRIZE Foundation. Now he is moving on to GitHub. We interviewed Bacon to learn more about his new role, his evolution as a community manager in all these years, and much more. Read on…

How was your tenure at XPRIZE? How it affected you as someone who is heavily involved with open source?

I had a great time at XPRIZE. When I first met Peter Diamandis (founder of XPRIZE) and we discussed the role, I was attracted for 3 primary reasons. Firstly, I wanted to get outside my comfort zone and try something a little different. I always like to challenge myself and XPRIZE was a whole new world from Canonical. So, while it was a little unnerving to jump into the deep end of a different swimming pool, I relished the challenge and opportunity. Secondly, I loved the mission of XPRIZE, in shaping solutions to major problems in the world. I have always wanted to focus my efforts on a wider impact in the world and XPRIZE is at the epicenter of some incredible work going on. Finally, I was going into an organization that not only had a blank slate and no community, but I also had the leadership challenge of helping the organization to understand and embrace the opportunity of community.

To be frank, my open source background didn’t really play much of a role in my work at XPRIZE, and this was both an advantage and disadvantage. The advantage was that my open source experience equipped me for a range of technical, political, and leadership challenges as I sought to bring XPRIZE leadership and key teams on board with community. The disadvantage was that in the open source world I have a (hopefully positive) reputation that makes conversations within an open source context easier. At XPRIZE this reputation didn’t really exist so I couldn’t rest on a body of experience to help my work: I was absolutely the new guy and I needed to build my reputation from scratch. I saw this as an opportunity though: I wanted to earn my stripes there.

What’s the takeaway from your XPRIZE experience?

The overall takeaway is that I am proud of my work at XPRIZE, not only for the satisfaction and results of my work there, but also for the sheer amount I learned while executing it.

Before I joined XPRIZE I had consulted with a number of companies to build both internal and external communities and I felt I had the nuances of building community in new areas pretty much about down pat.

When I joined XPRIZE I was exposed to an entirely new world and a new normal. This was an interesting mix of both collaborative and competitive innovation and a subject area that was really, really broad (e.g. health, education, space, manufacturing, environment etc). This proved to be a great opportunity to throw away prior assumptions in my work and explore my existing approaches, and new ideas, from a different angle.

XPRIZE also gave me the opportunity to think much more deeply about the nature of innovation. The reason I do what I do in my career is because of a core belief that we can optimize how people collaborate together and be even more impactful in our work.

My time at XPRIZE helped me to discover that innovation comes in two primary forms. On one hand you get the XPRIZE approach where you set an audacious goal with a very specific set of testable conditions that

entries need to pass. For all intents and purposes, these teams who compete are setting up startups with a serious investment (3 – 5 years and significant funding required). This incentive model is great for major market failures where both industry and government have not delivered results, primarily because the value of an XPRIZE is not just the solution but the testable nature of the solution that maps more neatly to delivery and productization.

The other type of innovation is more familiar to open source folks…that everything starts out as a hack. With most open source projects there is no specific milestone goal and specific set of testable conditions: progress is instead far more agile and reactive to the needs of the community and users of the project. This model maps well to projects that don’t really know the ultimate end goal they are shooting for, arguably because that end goal keeps changing. This notion of an uncertain end-game and ever changing requirements is a core part of behavioral economics and I think this is one of the reasons why open source has been so successful: it can adapt quickly, deliver quality, all on an open collaborative foundation.

The former model, the XPRIZE model is wonderful, but it does offer more limited opportunities for community growth at the core of the prizes, primarily because of the inherently competitive environment and the shared set of competitive requirements (which makes collaboration tough). This is why I focused a lot of my work at XPRIZE around building community across multiple prizes and for non-competitors who shared a passion for our mission. The latter model, the more open source centric piece, is all about optimizing collaboration: if you can help people to work more effectively and satisfyingly with each other, you speed up innovation. This is why I was attracted to make my next home GitHub…GitHub is at the heart of where millions are collaborating.

You are joining GitHub as the director of Community. Is this a new position or did it already exist?

Honestly, I don’t know.

The conversations at GitHub actually started out as a product management role for managing community requirements as it relates to collaboration, trust, and safety. As the conversations progressed though it was suggested that my remit be broader and this is when a Director of Community position was proposed to me. At least from my digging online I had never seen this role advertised before. Wish me luck!

What’s the role of Director of Community? How do you direct a community that comes together driven by a common passion?

Well, I wouldn’t recommend reading too much into the title of any job in a company. It is better to read more into the responsibilities and focus of the role.

My work at GitHub is going to be oriented around four key areas.

First, I will be focusing on product. I believe GitHub is the very best platform in the world today for collaborating around code and issues that relate to code. Building successful open source communities though is much more than just code. There is a mixture of planning, release management, infrastructure, governance, QA, conflict resolution, support, and other elements. I will be exploring what communities that currently use GitHub could benefit from in the platform to make their work easier and more effective and how we can attract new communities to make GitHub a no-brainer for their projects.

Second, similar to my previous roles at Canonical and XPRIZE, I will be championing GitHub as the most logical home for building strong and effective communities. This will be a mixture of speaking at conferences, engaging with our existing communities, working with the press, working with prospective communities, and more. So, expect to see a lot more of me rambling on about Github.

Third, I will be working to help communities to be safe and successful in their work. We want GitHub to be a safe, empowering, and motivating place for everyone, and we want to equip our users with the very best tools and knowledge to have a real impact in the world. This will incorporate product changes, as I mentioned earlier, but also knowledge, documentation, training, and more.

Finally, GitHub is a growing company that has experienced an explosion of interest and excitement about the platform. I am looking forward to working with GitHub leadership and across different teams to help us become as successful as possible as a company. Long live the Octocat!

GitHub is the #1 platform for open source development and is being used even by big companies like Google and Microsoft. How does it feel to be joining such a company?

I am really excited to be joining a company that is already doing some really awesome work. There is a well known premise in psychology that if you give something a name it normalizes it. An example of this is the term ‘designated driver’. Before the term existed, people who were driving their friends home on a night out often felt (rightly or wrongly) a little awkward to be the only person drinking Diet Coke in a group of boozers. People generally react to roles, and thus ‘designated driver’ was promoted extensively  and it helped to influence behavior.

Likewise, the notion of ‘our code is up on GitHub’ has become a normalized condition in open source. I think GitHub can be credited for delivering a platform and culture that has made ‘code on GitHub’ a named thing too.

This opens up a great opportunity for GitHub to optimize our platform to make the projects that use it truly successful in ways we haven’t thought of yet. Of course, the inverse risk is that if we don’t do a good job, it is ours to lose.

I am excited about the opportunity. GitHub is a great company with some really smart people, and I think we can do some incredible things in the coming years.

Can you talk about your evolution as the community manager of Ubuntu, then XPRIZE and now GitHub?

Sure. It has been a fun ride.

When I joined Canonical I had some experience working with communities but I had never being at the forefront of such a large and opinionated community. As such, my experience there was a trial by fire. I had a sense of where to focus my efforts, but like anything in life, the way you plan to do something and the way it actually turns out are often quite different. As such, I was confronted with some really interesting opportunities and challenges and this helped me to get some strong in-the-trenches experience.

It was at Canonical where I also sensed the opportunity of growing a community leadership industry and helping to build institutionalized knowledge around collaboration and community. This is why I focused my efforts on writing my book, The Art of Community, founding the Community Leadership Summit, and consulting with various companies to build up my experience around external community strategy and inner-sourcing.

As I mentioned earlier, my move to XPRIZE was largely to break out of my comfort zone and continue my learning and development. This was a critical chapter in my life: to look at many of the same challenges from a totally different vantage point and to be faced with an entirely new set of opportunities and challenges was a tremendous experience.

While my time at XPRIZE was rewarding, I started missing a more direct relationship with technology people and open source. At heart I am a geek, and more specifically, an open source geek. This is when I decided to move on. My choice to move on though had a key requirement: I wanted to continue to focus my efforts on a wider impact in the world and to also work for an organization that I felt had the right sense of mission and culture. This is why GitHub seemed like such a logical choice to me.

What excites me about GitHub is being in a position where I can play a role in impacting the heart of where collaboration happens. This will involve a whole new set of challenges as it relates to product, data, and more, and I think this will give me the right mix of impact, meaningful work, and continuing my own development and experience too.

XPRIZE didn’t have much to do with open source directly; does it feel like coming back home with GitHub?

Honestly, it feels awesome. It is strange, when I left Canonical for XPRIZE, rather naively I didn’t really consider the fact that some people would think I was leaving open source. I continued to be an open source user, write for, work with open source companies, and participate in open source projects.

There is no doubt though that while open source is an ingredient in XPRIZE it does not define the culture of XPRIZE. This is understandable from XPRIZE’s perspective, but I did miss it, and I am delighted to be back. You don’t get rid of me that quickly, people.

GitHub is different from Ubuntu in that there is no single project but it’s like a massive galaxy of thousands of projects. How different would it be to engage with this community vs Ubuntu community?

This is a great question and it is something I have a sense of an answer of but I think I will get a much better sense of when I start working in a few weeks.

When you look at Ubuntu there are two overall scopes of community. On one hand you have the many, many individual teams. This includes the developer teams, docs writers, translators, QA team, LoCo teams, and more. These teams are commonly fairly small and often have their own specific team culture which is naturally anchored around the type of work they do. On the other hand you have the wider Ubuntu community that incorporates everyone; these teams I just mentioned, but also users, app developers, ISVs, teachers, and others.

The kind of community leadership required for these two overall scopes is quite different. For the former, the individual teams, it is all about helping them to be successful, optimize how they work, work well with other teams, resolve personality conflicts, and get a good sense of overall strategy moving forward. For the latter it is more about inspiring and driving the culture, setting a good example, and inspiring the overall impact you want to have. These two scopes are common in lots of places – government, companies, charities, and elsewhere.

Where GitHub is different is that while there is an overall GitHub user community, the individual projects and repos in GitHub are really quite independent projects. Unlike Ubuntu where the individual teams served a generally common Ubuntu mission, the projects and repos in GitHub serve a multitude of missions and goals, many of which are competing or incompatible with each other.

My current thinking is that my work should start by helping to equip those projects as best I can to build strong and engaging communities. The majority of people in the world find community leadership a bit of a mystery and I would like to help bridge the gap to help everyone build awesome communities. I think a big chunk of my initial work is going to be really just listening and getting a good sense of what the GitHub experience has been for so many folks, and use this as a means to plan future work.

Of course, there is also a lot of opportunity around the wider GitHub userbase, but I want to get a better sense of things before I even start considering plans around that. The reason is simple: platforms like GitHub often have to strike a delicate balance between being an independent tool for general use and otherwise influencing opinion and policy. This needs to be handled carefully so I want to listen and learn extensively first.

Are you still involved with the Ubuntu project?

I am, but where time permits. My schedule is rather hectic these days but I try to devote as much time to Ubuntu as I can.

I am regularly in touch with David Planella who was my replacement when I left Canonical. David and I regularly discuss community strategy, requirements, and next steps. I also keep in touch with Rick Spencer (VP Ubuntu Engineering) and Mark Shuttleworth. I have also been involved in the Ubuntu Summit coming up in LA next year and I regularly try to raise awareness about the great work going on in Ubuntu.

So, while nowhere near as much time as I used to spend, I try to help where I can.