Sustain OSS 2018: quick rewind

Sustain OSS 2018: quick rewind

This year, I attended the second edition of the Sustain Open Source Summit (a.k.a. Sustain OSS) on October 25th, 2018 in London. Sustain OSS is a one-day discussion on various topics about sustainability in open source ecosystems. It’s also a collection of diverse roles across the world of open source. From small project maintainers to open source program managers at the largest tech companies in the world, designers to government employees, there is a mix of backgrounds in the room. Yet there is a shared context around the most systemic problems faced by open source projects, communities, and people around the world.

The shared context is the most valuable piece of the conference. As a first-time attendee, I was blown away by the depth and range of topics covered by attendees. This blog post covers a narrow perspective of Sustain OSS through the sessions I participated and co-facilitated in.

Speed breakout groups

The morning started with speed breakout groups of between six to twelve people. Several attendees acted as facilitators for discussion on special topics. Every attendee could about half of all groups. I took extensive notes in the following groups:

  • Charitable participation in open source
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Turning open source projects into sustainable projects / companies
  • Design in open source
  • Open source financial sustainability models

Sustain OSS: High-level takeaways

To save you time, these are my high-level takeaways across all breakout groups I participated in:

  • Open source isn’t something just done in people’s free time
  • Complex systems can enable systemic bias in terms of what “open source” means
  • Sustainability as topic of first priority / consideration, not an afterthought
  • There is no “silver bullet” solution to any of these challenges; they all require adaption to work across communities, projects, and organizations

Charitable participation in open source

This breakout group focused on the connection between charitable organizations and free software projects. It was facilitated by the esteemed Karen Sandler of the Software Freedom Conservancy.

Overall, the conversation was split among creating ethical software, finding sustainable funding models, and balancing how much control to relinquish as a managing organization of an open source project. Some felt pride and ideology were strong drivers for contributors to ideological projects (which also mirrors my experience at UNICEF). These could be key motivations to understand for contributors. Additionally, the challenge around sustainable funding models was common across charitable foundations focused on free software. Grant funding is a common strategy employed by charitable organizations, but the short-term nature of grants puts additional strain on resources to continue searching for new funding. Lastly, for charitable organizations overseeing or supporting free software projects, there was uncertainty over how much control should be left to projects. Attendees generally expressed a desire to let projects do what they want, but it sometimes came at the risk of additional overhead for the organization when everyone does something of everything. The concern over toxic communities came up, and how some issues remain buried until farther along in a relationship with a project. One successful solution employed was to hold monthly meetings among all member projects of an organization to address difficulties.

One interesting detail that captured my attention: one attendee noted how extensive effort into fundraising campaigns targeted to members of a foundation actually increased member engagement with the foundation.

Diversity and inclusion

My biggest takeaway from this session was the danger in thinking of open source as something we do in our free time. This can be exclusive to different genders, races, and socioeconomic statuses. Some “free time” is more equal than others. The actionable piece for me is to be more conscious in building and growing communities to support different levels of contribution in a community.

The question I wanted to explore after reflecting is to ask of those who feel disadvantaged:

  • What factors makes a project more or less inviting for you?
  • What can we do better when designing for participation in our communities?

Turning open source projects into sustainable ones

My notes weren’t thorough on this session, but there was an interesting point on trademark that came up during discussion of the Commons Clause. One participant was pursuing trademark law to enforce commercial protections and sustainability. They gave an example of a large corporation advertising support with a major open source project (e.g. a major software/hardware vendor supporting a specific NodeJS version). They wanted to use this as a way to create a more financially sustainable model for some projects.

Design in open source

This breakout group focused on sustainable design and design practices in open source communities. The role of designers in technical projects was also discussed and how we can build technical communities to be more inclusive for designers. It was facilitated by Elio Qoshi.

My takeaways from this breakout were that established ways of working can be unfriendly to designers and there is a need to emphasize diversity across different roles in a project or organization. Certain tools, platforms, or other mechanisms for contributing have poor user interfaces. They can push people away because of barriers to contributing with a frustrating user experience. Next, the need for diversity in roles was noted, with an example of engineers leading project management. Sometimes bias or oversights afforded as an engineer accidentally excludes others like designers or writers from contributing to our project. We should endeavor for people to spend more time on their preferred and most effective methods of contribution.

Financial sustainability models

This breakout session focused on the traditional sense of sustainability: in finances and resources. Attendees discussed different models used to fund open source projects and foundations. The session was facilitated by the founder of the MusicBrainz project, Robert Kaye.

The model used by MetaBrainz essentially as a data broker was interesting and unique. MetaBrainz offers commercial data usage at a cost, and companies using their data have a strong need for the data and see value in it. Through other parts of their model since changing three years ago, they had significant gains in their revenue and were able to increase paid staff working on the projects.

The Amazon invoice cake is also an amusing story, but you should ask Robert directly about it.

Hour breakout sessions

After lunch, attendees participated in two hour-long breakout sessions to explore specific topics in greater detail.

Human aspect of governance

Longer form notes are available below. I won’t go into detail since it has its own document with notes and highlights.

University engagement

Together with Josh Greenberg of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, we co-facilitated a spontaneous session on how universities can engage with open source communities and vice versa.

In our session, two major topics were discussed:

  • Education (e.g. curriculum, institutions, programs, etc.)
  • Research

We asked all participants why they decided to participate and what questions they had, even though we weren’t able to answer all of them:

  1. How do we get the word out?
  2. What research is most valuable for open source?
  3. How to long-term sustain projects?
  4. How to actually do and support research?
  5. How to engage both students and faculty?
  6. How to harness / enable institutions to make positive contributions to ecosystem?

For education, we agreed that introducing and teaching open source in curriculum better serves students and the institution (both financially and in career satisfaction). Many technology companies today are participating in open source and it is an important skill to have for students entering the workforce. For research, students are already doing research and proposing topics, so better student engagement in open source is better for research.

Our takeaways were to better engage with existing organizations working on these problems for years already (e.g. POSSE), shifting the perspective of universities to be stewards of FOSS, and using collegiate hackathons as a way to better engage with undergraduate students.

One additional point that stood out to me was the emphasis across all breakout participants for a need of good communication skills to be successful. In many cases, the companies hiring top tech talent (from our breakout attendees) listed this as most desirable skill. Technology and new skills can be learned, but teaching good communication skills and how to work collaboratively are not easily learned.

Other takeaways

One takeaway I couldn’t fit elsewhere was my changed perspective on “technical” vs. “non-technical” work. The phrase “non-technical work” implies an “other space where development does not occur”. Does the phrase place unequal priority on technical work? One action item is to avoid using “non-technical work” as an umbrella term, and instead call these areas by what they are: design, documentation, writing, marketing, community building, etc.

For me, I still want an umbrella term for these things, but I’m open-minded for better alternatives to non-technical.

Skill share: conflict resolution

The last event of Sustain OSS was a 1×1 skill share. Roughly half of the attendees identified a “skill” they could teach someone else in the room. The other half of attendees paired with someone teaching a skill they wanted to learn more about. I paired with Jono Bacon on a short breakout on conflict resolution.

Jono detailed steps of working through and resolving conflict, including how to identify root problems, how to make steps to resolve them, and some personal philosophy of how we build and maintain relationships with others.

An important first step is to identify the critical point: this could be an ongoing crisis, dealing with interpersonal conflict, or dealing with burnout. When someone is explaining a problem, listen fully to them and understand what they are saying. Let them get it off their chest. Is there something else causing this behavior? Tap into the cloud of ranting and determine what the root cause is.

Once common ground is established, make a plan to resolve it. Jono’s advice was to create written next steps and be explicit about expectations. This way, everyone is on the same page of what the next steps are and everyone involved has signed off on these next steps (this creates a sense of commitment and the next steps become written as “law”). Encourage others to restate the goals of conflict resolution in their own words. Once you have written goals and expectations, the crucial next step is follow-up. Check in on a regular basis with the person or people involved. Try to be neutral and unbiased when listening to others in these conversations. Go in with an open mind.

Lastly, we contextualized conflict resolution in personal philosophy of how we build and maintain relationships with others – both in and out of our open source projects. Sometimes the best way to address difficult interpersonal problems is to stop avoiding them and simply address them. Much easier said than done, but otherwise there is no escaping the perpetuated cycle of conflict if someone doesn’t make a first step.

It’s not just about code.

Thank you

To wrap up this Sustain OSS report, a few obligatory thank-yous are needed:

  • Sloan Foundation / Ford Foundation: For the financial support I needed to attend and participate in the event – this is never something I take for granted and I am happy to have received a scholarship to attend and participate
  • Josh Greenberg @ Sloan Foundation: For helping me get over some imposter syndrome and co-facilitate the university engagement breakout session with me – thanks for the gentle push
  • Robert Kaye @ MetaBrainz: For being generally awesome and finally giving me someone to nerd out about all these crazy ideas of how free culture and music can actually be related!
  • Stephen Jacobs: For always being supportive for yet another trip abroad and helping me map a strategy to get the most out of Sustain OSS

Sustain OSS gave me a lot to think about and consider. I’m glad and fortunate to have attended. I hope this event report gives additional visibility to some of the conversations held in London this year.


  1. brainwane – New York City, NY, USA – Sumana Harihareswara is a geeky woman living in New York City and maintaining open source software, teaching newer coders, reading science fiction, writing technical documentation, and programming. She has managed programmers at an open source consulting firm, led the open source community behind Wikipedia, and co-edited a speculative fiction anthology. She toots and tweets as @brainwane.
    Sumana Harihareswara says:

    You mentioned wanting an umbrella term, other than “non-technical”, for skills that are involved in the making of software but that are not programming. One way to think of it is that there’s programming skills and there are productizing skills — programming can make a program, but you need writing, design, QA, systems administration, marketing, project management, and so on in order to make a product.

    Relatedly, I’ve been saying “professional skills” instead of “soft skills/people skills”, and “domain skills” instead of “technical skills”.

    1. JWF – United States – Justin W. Flory is a creative maker. He is best known as an Open Source contributor and Free Culture advocate originally from the United States. Justin has participated in numerous Open Source communities and led different initiatives to build sustainable software and communities for over ten years. Get to know Justin better from his website or blog below.
      Justin W. Flory says:

      Great – thanks for answering the call for suggestions, Sumana! I hadn’t thought of it in this way. I’ll try to be more mindful to use terms like these too.

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