community affairs. In the field of software application development, the need to create, maintain, support and nurture engineering communities has always been paramount.
Remember, while it’s hip to be a geek these days, programmers and software engineers of all disciplines have been categorized as nerds for most of the past half-century, and as such, logically, often found solace in communicating with their peers, mostly virtually, but sometimes in real life when someone brought pizza.
Today we can see that software communities have evolved. Enterprise software vendors promote their own technology platform groups with formalized names, approved certification levels, and dedicated conferences.
Open Source, via the Overlords
But proprietary platform groups notwithstanding, many would argue that the real magic happens in software communities in the open source arena. By its very nature, open source attracts loners who want to build better software for a reason—and that reason is typically simply because they can’t, ie, not because they have to do it for an enterprise software overlord.
Communities thrive on open source, operating as a cohesive, nurturing, often self-sustaining body of people in which meritocracy and enthusiasm always trump any form of status, gender, creed, or bias.
Priyanka Sharma is a leader in her field and well versed in all aspects of engaging with the software community. As Executive Director of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), Sharma has seen community engagement evolve and thrive over the years. After all, today the CNCF has a community of more than 175,000 contributors and almost 140 projects.
With a global recession currently sweeping us all, Sharma claims that the resilience of the open-source and cloud-native communities will be more important than ever to keep software innovation flowing. The community has continued to grow during the pandemic and will continue to do so in times of recession, she says. In her view, organizations that are doubling down on open source are better equipped to meet the challenges ahead and emerge stronger than ever and ready to take advantage of better economic times.
Community is the elixir of life
“Community is the lifeblood of open source, and open source is the engine of software innovation,” said Sharma. “Today we can be pretty sure of the facts – open source and the urge to build on a cloud-native layer of software engineering don’t exist without community. Why is that? Because the most successful groups stand by their commitment, the best idea wins. As part of that mandate, a truly successful technology community is one where everyone knows that everyone can contribute, and also understands that the team’s mission is to create the best outcome for the greatest number of people. “
If you look at how the CNCF has fared and whether or not it got it right, the organization now has a membership base made up of software developers and engineers from over 830 companies – and their numbers are growing every year.
“Today, if we look at the state of the nation in enterprise computing, we can see that open source code is part of at least 70% of the entire stack overall. However, many open source contributors are still unpaid volunteers. Even more than enterprise technology as a whole, the future of open source depends on the community. People will use open source for the technology, but they will contribute for the community. Unless you’re one of the best-funded open source projects, your sustainability depends on building a community,” Sharma explained, in a tone more honest than most tech CEO platitudes.
She goes on to note that “shared mission” is also a key element in building community, and that this reality is becoming a reality for businesses of all types.
Busagang & Bacon: The Common Mission
“Making progress toward a shared mission is the most motivating force a professional can feel. Communities provide these benefits by creating a sense of shared responsibility and a set of values while preserving individual autonomy,” write HBR authors Jeffrey Busagang and Jono Bacon.
While the authors’ research is aimed at companies that have turned community into a “competitive advantage,” the same ideas of shared mission and motivation apply even more to open source communities. They conclude: “We are in the early stages of truly realizing the potential of carefully designed, productive communities.”
The messages emanating from the CNCF align well with core human empowerment, welfare and fairness standards that all progressive organizations and individuals follow as we collectively embrace inclusivity. Sharma and his team point to how clearly diversity is helping open source become better, pointing to the evidence that increasing diversity and inclusion is associated with financial growth.
In fact, diversity also leads to better performance on several metrics, including innovation, creativity, and product quality and usability. Because open source means anyone can contribute from anywhere, it can and should lead the way in terms of the increasing variety of software.
Sharma: Community strength equals performance
“One of the hallmarks of open source development is that you’re essentially working in the public domain. This means projects generate feedback and updates much faster and in a more organic (and maybe human) way. The stronger the community, the stronger the output of the software. Successful projects tend to find ways to encourage others to participate in the community through adoption and contributions; These are the projects that provide clear user documentation and effectively promote the solution across different channels,” explained Sharma.
Members within the CNCF community itself have commended Executive Director Sharma’s positive assertion that open source is the ultimate user-centric development engine. Why did she make that statement? Because she says users will envision, suggest, and prototype features in products that an organization’s internal marketing team might never have imagined.
“When an economic downturn hits, open source usage surges. Interest in this area will only increase. But sometimes there’s a strange dichotomy between usage and people willing to get involved and contribute to projects,” Sharma explained. “It all comes down to the ‘supervisors’ [software project decision makers] and contributors who really make open source software work. Executives around the world need to understand who and what open source project maintainers are, and find out if there are in fact maintainers in their own organization. These are the heroes who actually work on projects alongside their full-time roles.”
Sharma states that there is always something new in the cloud-native ecosystem and the 1000+ maintainers working in the community ecosystem are constantly collaborating with the approximately 176,362 (at the time of writing) contributors working on it, spending their own time on it to invest in help code, help creating, correcting and editing documentation, working on policies and much more.
Regarding the post-adolescent era of cloud we now live in, CNCF evangelists and advocates agree that cloud native is the most dynamic, most talked about, most development intensive – and therefore the most community critical – element of the entire technology industry is . As for community-critical collaboration, Sharma says she sees the transition to the next and most immediate era of cloud-native computing as an essentially community-driven process.
“We’re all in the same boat. We’re going to build technology a certain way, aligning ourselves with the impact of what we’re doing, and that process will inevitably involve agreements, disagreements, shifts in direction, and stumbling blocks as some methodological ways of thinking experience friction or even collide,” Sharma said, “But that’s okay, it’s what makes any functioning software community work. As long as people maintain a healthy level of respect for differences—and they almost invariably always do—can we keep the community together despite differences and let it grow.
She goes on to say that every member of the community matters because if nobody contributed, there would be no community and no open source and probably no cloud native.
“The community has the ability to master a technology, program it, and even create the infrastructure for a new human civilization. Anyone can build it. People come together to create an inclusive and welcoming environment so we can all learn and build better software together. We call it #TeamCloudNative and we support each other, build each other up and create great technologies. While not every individual qualifies as cloud native, anyone interested in the term qualifies as part of the community,” Sharma said.
The user is always right
Ultimately, any technology only thrives when it is used.
The end users in the CNCF ecosystem are a vendor-neutral group of more than 170 organizations that use cloud-native technologies to build their products and services. These veteran practitioners — including companies like Boeing, Volvo, and Spotify — are often fierce competitors in other fields, but they come together to support software development that hopefully benefits us all.
With cloud-native becoming the norm in so many computing environments, technology analysts and evangelists are shifting their focus to examining management tools at the platform and even kernel level, meaning there’s a lot happening “below the cloud” model that the casual user has won didn’t know, but will ultimately benefit if the CNCF and other related industry groups continue to do what they do – which they almost certainly will.
Community issues, even more than software code issues, people, plural, come first.