Growing a Community for a New Open Source Project

Justin Pettit at presenting on Open vSwitch and OVN Projects at LinuxCon China earlier this year.

by Ben Pfaff,  principal engineer, and Justin Pettit, senior staff engineer, VMware Networking & Security Business Unit (NSBU) R&D

We traveled to Beijing this summer to present two talks at LinuxCon China June 19–20. Our first talk, “The Open vSwitch and OVN Projects,” was a technical talk about the work that we do on Open vSwitch (OVS), which is a familiar matter to us.

Our second talk, “The Business Reality of Building Open Source: What We Learned from OVS and OVN,” was not technical. Instead, it was primarily about our experience working on an open source project at VMware. We explained what we learned about how to create and advocate for open source within a company that has not been oriented around open source.

We aimed to dispel some of the misconceptions that we have seen managers and developers bring to open source, especially to new open source projects. A favorite example is the notion that an open source project will acquire a vibrant community of users and developers immediately upon its initial release. This is usually wrong, but the myth persists.

A specific case that often comes to mind is from a networking industry event that we attended in May 2012, where the speaker announced an open source project release for June, saying that it would grow a community by September. That project never grew beyond 20 contributors, and its last commit was in August 2015.

We used our talk at LinuxCon China to give our own tips on how to grow and promote an open source project, rooted in a few principles:

  • The leading principle is transparency, primarily by documenting the processes used to advance the project. Users and potential contributors need transparency and consistency to enable them to rely on a project to reach their own goals.
  • Another important part of growing an open source community is focusing on long-term goals. A clear plan makes it clear to potential users that the project will continue to be maintained, and contributors understand the types of features that would be useful and welcomed by the project.
  • We also discussed the importance of building a supportive and positive development culture. Some projects foster a more confrontational community that we feel can be off-putting and dissuade potential contributors from participating.

We found that by applying these principles to Open vSwitch and OVN projects, we fostered a vibrant community of both users and contributors.

What principles work for you when trying to promote a new project within your company and the open source community? And how do you encourage new and ongoing contributions? Share with us in the comments below and on Twitter @vmwopensource.

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