The Unique Steps Needed to Grow Your Open Source Community
AMSTERDAM — As the KubeCon+CloudNativeCon Europe crowd leans into a Dutch Spring, surrounded by tulips and talking about communities in bloom, it’s only fitting the metaphor stretches to a panel about growing those communities.
Kubernetes Community Days or KCDs are community-organized local — in-person, online, or nowadays hybrid — events in more than a dozen countries and twice as many cities. In 2022 alone, KCDs included 8,700 attendees across 18 events. Reflecting the open source community as a whole, these events are organized by mostly enthusiastic volunteers, with a lot of support from the Cloud Native Computing Foundation or CNCF.
KubeCon’s community track kicked off with a panel of KCD organizers: Alessandro Vozza, Annalisa Gennaro, Max Körbächer, Paula Kennedy, and Matt Jarvis. Reflecting on their own experiences provides valuable advice, not just for tech event planning, but for open source communities as a whole on how to motivate community members, at scale.
Open Source Must Leverage Intrinsic Motivation
This idea of begging for sponsorship and volunteers may seem unusual in the corporate world but it’s the name of the game in open source. Whole projects are meagerly supported by sites like Patreon and the Open Collective — more like a tip jar than an income. If you’re an established contributor, GitHub Sponsors — which specifically encourages financially supporting the maintainers of your dependencies (as you should) — is an option. However, the average open source maintainer makes less than a thousand a month, about a tenth of what their salary would be in a similar, salaried role. Those making six or even five figures via sponsorship are tokens and far from the norm.
Of course, there are larger projects, like many in the CNCF landscape, where people have jobs where they are paid to contribute, which is great, but they’re not the main target of this audience. Although a maintainer of a depended-on open source project should be able to make a living, this article is more toward the other contributors. Those who are intrinsically motivated to contribute to an open source community, whether a project, a codebase, or an event.
Earlier this month, Bianca Trinkenreich, Ph.D., and her team at Northern Arizona University, released a paper, which looked at the sense of virtual community within one of the largest and oldest open source communities — of the Linux Kernel. Their work examines the intersection of the following intrinsic motivators:
- Power distance
- English language confidence
- Gender – which often acts as a proxy for other underrepresented groups in open source
- Tenure – getting past those challenging first contributions
The paper concluded that compensation decreases intrinsic motivation, which makes sense as it’s an extrinsic motivator. Those from marginalized groups, including those who did not identify as men, cited less a sense of community, noting concerns like not being able to access social capital and feeling “othered,” concerns cited across the tech industry. Those with higher English confidence levels felt a greater sense of community, which harkens back to open source’s perpetual language barrier to entry.
This research builds on previous studies that found that 90% of open source contributors do so because they enjoy it. So how do open source projects and events leverage that fun?
In some ways, community events need to leverage the same intrinsic motivation because people usually need to take time off work and either angle for budget or pay out of pocket for tickets and travel. This research also emphasizes the importance of these local Kubernetes Community Days events being offered in languages besides English, since the large ones, like this week’s KubeCon, are English dominated. And we already knew that diversity and inclusion in open source rely, in part, on creating more space spaces.
This is probably why this KubeCon panel emphasized that you need a mixture of skills on your volunteer event organizing team, to therefore attract the right mix of speakers, community, and sponsors. Unlike most open source communities which rely on mostly technical contributors, open source event planning demands marketing — KCD Italy allocates half its team to that — a local network of prospective speakers, and even event planning experience. (Of course, open source communities would better benefit from an array of technical and non-technical skill sets too.)
Don’t forget to try to get a rather large team of volunteers, Kennedy reminds, because, for all on stage, this is a hobby not what pays the bills. “If you only have a small amount of people that means it’s a lot of work for a small group. If you’ve got a bigger team, at least you can split responsibilities, you can share tasks, and if someone has a really busy time at work, someone else can pick up the load,” she said.
As Körbächer, co-organizer of both the Munich and Ukraine events, pointed out, “When you organize something, most of the people want to make money out of you. But when you try to make a community event, you have a limited budget.” So you need someone who has an idea of what venues and catering should cost.
This brings us to the challenge that just about all tech events face: Budgetary constraints.
But Also Get Sponsorship
“Sponsorship is vital. Without sponsors, there is no event because it is unlikely you will cover the cost with ticket sales,” Gennaro, co-organizer of the Italian event, said. And you don’t just want day-of sponsors, because renting the space comes with a hefty upfront cost.
KubeCon could’ve done a whole panel on this topic alone. After all, it’s just going to get harder in this time of tech layoffs and cutbacks. What is a Kubernetes Community Day likely to cost? Italy this year will be the first time in-person, exponentially raising the cost to upwards of €70,000 for 250 people. And that’s a lower-end event. Both the Amsterdam and London-based co-located events cost around €180,000 each.
KCD and non-profit events struggle to find sponsors but aren’t always sure where that struggle is coming from. Sometimes it could be because the C-level decision-makers don’t feel as connected to the community, Gennaro speculated. “It’s never the correct time for asking for money. Budget is always allocated,” she continued, no matter which month you start asking. Her team in Italy now has achieved five regular sponsors, which helps put that money upfront but it continues to be tight.
It’s also challenging to make a sale when sponsors are used to getting more. Set clear boundaries, Gennaro continued, “repeating that KCD events are community-driven, community-oriented events, organized by volunteers with no profit goals. This is not a very easy message to convey. Sponsors want something back. They want leads. Brand visibility seems not to be enough for them.”
This is why Vozza, co-organizer of the Amsterdam event, said to be prepared for a lot of rejection, while Körbächer recommended starting courting sponsors as soon as you decide to hold an event.
Not all sponsors deliver in the same timeframe either.
“The bigger they are, the slower they are to pay usually,” warned Kennedy, who along with the panel host Jarvis is on the KCD UK planning committee. She argues to also target smaller recently funded startups that may have quicker cash flow.
In fact, she suggests that the first sponsor leads come from the companies the organizing team works for because the immediate challenge is the cashflow, to pay for that venue and often catering downpayment before sponsors most sponsored have even signed on.
Make It an Event Everyone Wants to Join
After all, people are taking time off work or giving up their weekends to join your event. And you have tickets to sell. You have to make not just your event, but the community surrounding it, as compelling as possible.
For Jarvis, it all comes down to the program: “Speakers are the lifeblood of any event. They’re why your audience is turning up,” he said.
One of the ways KCD casts a broader net is via a Call for Speakers, which not only recruits your entertainment, but it’s a way to promote the event with a community feel. Just be warned, Kennedy says, that about 90% of submissions will still come in over the last three days. Having been around for a while, Kubernetes Community Days run the risk of having the same faces applying year after year, which is why the UK committee reaches out to new voices and thought leaders on a theme, as well as reaching out to local groups to approach underrepresented communities and invite them to apply.
Diversity of speakers was cited as a challenge by all panelists, with Gennaro sharing that right when she started out in the CNCF space, she was approached to do a partner talk — and then told it was just to check off a diversity box. Everyone agreed those kinds of shortcuts are not the best approach.
“It’s complicated to get it right,” admitted Körbächer, recommending you have diversity guidelines to follow, but warning that “company sponsors are asking, ‘Hey, how’s your diversity ratio?’ If you cannot provide this, I take my money back, I take my speakers back, and you can do this thing by yourself.” He did push back that sponsors must play a role in that diversity recruitment, too.
This inclusiveness also comes down to the venue. At a community event — or really any event — accessibility is key. Then the decision, in part, comes down to a Goldilocks challenge of enough space, but never too much, lest you go over budget. And make sure, Körbächer reminds, that it is a flexible space that allows people time and space to adapt to it, as well as suits what you expect your schedule to be, for formal talks, workshops and breakout rooms.
It may sound redundant, but, when it comes down to it, events like Kubernetes Community Days, are community events. And are part of a larger global community that allows organizers to rely on and learn from other events. And, of course, being open source, to publish and amplify that learning.
Check back often this week for all things KubeCon+CloudNativeCon Europe 2023. The New Stack will be your eyes and ears on the ground in Amsterdam!