Finding success in OSS

Finding success in OSS

I’ve been working in open source for quite some time and wanted to share some of my experiences in regards to managing OSS projects and communities. I’ve been employed by Umbraco, an open source .Net based CMS, for over 7 years (wow! where has the time gone!?) and have been working with the Umbraco project for even longer. In the past 10 years I’ve also started a number of my own OSS projects, seen many other colleagues and companies do the same, seen many get stalled, sometimes fail, sometimes succeed and more rarely, actually thrive. We’ve seen an enormous rise in the OSS take-up within the .Net world in the past few years thanks to Microsoft really embracing and encouraging open source and the communities that make it work. But OSS is not an easy or straightforward task. So how does an open source project succeed? … I unfortunately don’t have a straightforward answer for that either but I would like to share some insight based on my own experience.

The main reason I’ve mentioned Umbraco is because it is one of these rarer open source projects that has actually thrived and it’s quite exciting to be part of such a large worldwide community. So how have they made it work? Like many other Umbraco community members, I started using it many moons ago, working in agency land and wanting a .Net based open source CMS. At that time, it turned out that this was really the only one out there that seemed to do the job. For me, what made this project so exciting back then was how easy it was to help make the software better. It was easy to submit patches, it was easy to get feedback on issues and proposed features, it was easy to get in touch with other community members and what was really great was that it didn’t take long for your fixes or features that you submitted to be part of a new release. This was all back before GitHub or even Git existed so all of this communication was done in email or on custom built forums, but it still worked. Skip ahead to today and the underlying principles that still make this project exciting haven’t changed, it’s now just infinitely easier to do all of these things with better tools. The community of Umbraco is what makes this project tick, it has always been the main focus of the project and with community growth, the software and ecosystem thrive.

But it’s free! … so how am I employed??

This is the most common question I get asked about working for an open source project. When I started, I had no idea how to make an open source project sustainable along with having paid employees and I was equally intrigued. Umbraco offered a few services and products that were paid in order to be able to pay full time staff members and keep the project growing. These were things like various levels of certified training courses, add-on licensed products and paid support plans. Today the story for Umbraco is similar and includes all of these things but now also includes subscription models for Software as a Service called Umbraco Cloud which helps to continue the cycle of re-investing into growing the community and the project.

Most OSS projects are made by individuals

But … most OSS projects are tiny and are run by a single person who is the sole developer on a project who dedicate their own time to writing and maintaining it. A lot of this time will be used to help people: investigating issues, answering questions, writing documentation, fixing bugs, releasing new versions, etc… and all of this is done for Free but these are the things that make a project successful. It is actually quite difficult to create a community that re-invests their time into helping write your software rather than just using your software. If you can convince one or more developers to get on board, you’ll then need to invest more of your time in reviewing code, documentation updates, bug fixes and features created by your community. This time is critical, you want to be able to provide feedback and to integrate your communities changes as fast as possible… this is what will help keep your community re-investing their own time in growing the project and hopefully drumming up support for even more developers to chip in.

In my experience, this is where most OSS projects plateau because the project’s founder doesn’t have enough time to manage it all. This generally leaves projects in a semi-stalled state and may end up losing active developers and community members since their pull requests and submitted issues will remain pending for too long. These projects will ebb and flow, developers get busy and then may be re-inspired to find some more time. This doesn’t mean these projects are unsuccessful and it is probably the state of most OSS projects out there.

So how do you keep a project’s momentum?

I try to keep my own projects ‘active’ by answering questions, reviewing PRs and releasing new versions as often as I can… but in reality, this doesn’t happen as often as I would like. Sometimes I get re-inspired and may invest my evenings or weekends on some features but ultimately, I don’t think this is sustainable if you do want your OSS project to become community driven. One of the first OSS projects I created was called “uComponents” which was a collection of plugins for Umbraco and I did something with that project that I haven’t done with any of my other ones – I asked another community member to take over the project. This meant providing write access to the code but more importantly trusting another developer to help move the project forward. Eventually there was a few devs with write access and helping to manage the project and it ended up being very successful. I think if you can find people to help manage your project and allow yourself to trust other devs with that task, it will massively help your chances of not stalling the project.

I think the key to keeping a project’s momentum is to get really good at setting up the fundamentals for establishing a community:

  • Make it as easy as possible to contribute and discuss
  • Respond to your community in a timely fashion – doesn’t need to be a solution, but some form of acknowledgement is needed
  • Have good documentation and make sure the community can contribute to it
  • Have small achievable tasks on your tracker and use tags like “up-for-grabs” or “help-needed” so it’s easy for the community to know where they can ship in
  • Have CI/CD setup with tests, feedback and build outputs for the community to use
  • Trust other people in helping you to manage your project

How do larger OSS projects do it?

I can’t answer this question for all larger OSS projects, but I can provide some insight with what we do at Umbraco. The more popular a project becomes, the more people there will be that that need help. Ideally, you’ll want to try to convert the people that are needing help, into people that are providing help. To do that you should have all of the above points working well to make it easy for your community to start helping each other instead of just relying on you. Trusting the community is certainly at the heart of it all and this allows for the community to manage several aspects of itself.

At Umbraco, we have a community PR team that dedicates their own time to helping out with the project and assisting with communication between the community and dev team and ensuring that contributors are receiving a timely response. We have a community documentation team that dedicates their own time to generate missing documentation, assessing documentation PRs and to help encourage more contributors to get involved. Our community forum is also open source and is where community members can ask and answer questions. We use GitHub for all of our code and our public issue tracker and use tags like up-for-grabs along with some bots to help automate the interaction with contributors on GitHub. We’ve also established some policies regarding issues and PRs to try to keep their numbers to a minimum, as one example: only allowing an up-for-grabs issue to be open for a certain amount of time and if it doesn’t get picked up it just gets closed. The premise for this is that it isn’t important enough for the community at the moment since nobody wanted to pick it up, so it gets closed with the option of being reopened if it becomes important again.

In order to manage all of this interaction we have a couple of full-time staff members that spend a significant amount of time working with the community and these community teams, on our forums and on our issue trackers. Several years ago, this was not the case and it’s now clear that managing a large community is a full time role and what quickly became obvious was that the more you invest in the community the more you get back.

CodeGarden conference

Are my own projects successful?

Sort of, yes and no. Some projects get old and I’d rather they didn’t exist anymore but people still use them so they need to be maintained. Some projects are newer and I’m excited about them but then lack the time to keep their momentum going. Then I have a problem of having too many projects! The important thing to me is that I keep learning and I’m generally happy to keep investing the time I can find into all of my projects. I think some of my projects would be more successful if I actually did all of the things I mentioned above :)

The fact is, unless you have a lot of spare time or you are getting paid to work on OSS (so that you can make time), establishing and fostering an active community is difficult and requires putting in a lot of time and effort. For me it’s entirely worth it, I think starting and managing your own OSS project is hugely rewarding and it’s a wonderful platform for learning and collaborating regardless of how big or small the project becomes.

Being a part of a community

You don’t need to be the founder of a project to reap the rewards of OSS. You can learn an enormous amount by collaborating on an OSS project. Of course there’s plenty of technical knowledge to gain but there’s a lot of other skills you can gain too and in my opinion the most important of all is communication skills. It’s easy to get frustrated by software or by other community members especially if you’ve run into some annoying bugs, somebody is being a jerk or just being difficult to communicate with. But, it’s important to not let these types of things get the better of you and that in itself is a difficult skill to master!

Communication is a 2 way street and it’s important for both community members and project owners to be friendly, patient and helpful.

A great example of this is in bug reports. Some reports are unhelpful, aggressive or even angry. When submitting bug reports or asking questions, keep in mind that you are generally asking people for help for free. Please be helpful, please be friendly, please be patient. Please think about how you would like to receive a bug report or be asked a question, include as much information as you can and remember that most people can’t read minds ;) And vice-versa, if you are responding to questions where people aren’t being as helpful as they should be, you’ll typically you’ll be able to turn a conversation into a friendly, patient and helpful one by just communicating that way yourself.

English is typically the language used in OSS projects and some people might not speak English as a first language and that’s ok! In this case, those 3 points are extremely important and it’s quite rewarding to see international community members who come from all sorts of backgrounds, countries and languages collaborating on a single project.

When both community members and project owners adopt these values, great things will happen and everyone wins!

Umbraco Friendly Hoodie

… now I need to go find some time to update my OSS projects :)

This blog is powered by Articulate, an OSS project that I maintain which is running on Umbraco, an OSS project that I work for and this post was written using Open Live Writer, an OSS project that could use some love.


Shannon Thompson

I'm a Senior Software Engineer working full time at Microsoft. Previously, I was working at Umbraco HQ for about 10 years. I maintain several open source projects (many related to Umbraco) such as Articulate, Examine and Smidge, and I also have a commercial software offering called ExamineX. Welcome to my blog :)

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