InnerSource Commons Board of Directors - a retrospective

InnerSource Commons Board of Directors - a retrospective #

In the last years I had the honour of serving on the InnerSource Commons board of directors. I was one of the founding board members. Thank you to Danese Cooper for inviting me to that: I still remember sitting in the subway on my way to work years ago reading her question of whether I wanted to be founding member of the InnerSource Commons. I agreed. And only read the request carefully when I had finally arrived at work - only to find out that what I had been asked was whether I wanted to be a founding board member … That was at a time where I had been board member of the ASF for two years (with a break of one year) in the past. So I only knew the time and energy intensive but also rewarding experience. I told myself the ISC would be much smaller, and decided to stick to my original decision. So far I never regretted that decision.

The past twelve months was the first time where we had people join the ISC board who did have a lot of corporate leadership experience - but not that much experience with the nudging, inviting, decentralized type of leadership that is so common in open source. We had people who were not part of the foundation from it’s very beginnings. Based on their experience learning the ropes of the ISC board I would like to publicly share my retrospective on what it means to be an ISC board member. Maybe it helps others make a better decision on whether this is a path they want to take.

I’ll link to other directors’ texts below as soon as they decide to make them publicly available.

For context:

  • Much like the ASF the InnerSource Commons foundation is a public charity, read: 501(c)3, serving the public good, mostly as an educational organization.
  • Much like the ASF the InnerSource Commons foundation was incorporated in the US.
  • Much like the ASF the InnerSource Commons foundation is built on the idea that individuals supporting the movement are more important than corporations and other legal entities supporting it. As a result influence in the foundation lies with it’s members, is bound to contributing to the foundation and is meant for life. As a result we do have members that remain active even despite changes in their employer. We do have members who carry our ideas to multiple corporations and public institutions.

One thing that was important to the founding members of the foundation was to allow people to remain part of the community, even when their resources to be involved ebb and flow over time. It was also important to us to build rotation into the system of setting up the board - making it easy for people to step down and take a break - returning back when they have collected new and fresh energy.

How did being on the ISC board differ from being on the board of The ASF?

The first time I became director at The ASF that foundation was already well established. It was large and influential. It had gained industry influence to a level that really only became clear to me when I got the birds eye view of a director. It also had well established processes - though dated, several pillars I knew from my project work did continue to hold.

At the ISC we decided early on that The ASF should be our role model - except where from history we knew that we would need to deviate to avoid certain challenges. We started with people that had ASF experience, with people that had listened to those stories for a very long time already, with people that had extensive open source experience. But we also added people who had been involved with open source only tangentially and really only touched base with those concepts through InnerSource.

That mixture meant that we had a good template to draw best practices from. But we also needed to get down to the reasoning behind processes at The ASF to explain how and why they work. Often that needed quite some historic knowledge and an understanding of why other alternatives that were being proposed would not work out.

Being so small meant that there was more space for experimentation. Discussions on changes were much less contentious. Being a small group of people also meant that it was easier than in the large group of the ASF membership to come to agreement and move forward.

On the other hand I did miss certain processes that people just followed automatically. Certain things that I know work very well in volunteer first settings where not everyone is on the same timetable and not everyone has time to join sync meetings were a challenge to explain to a group that hadn’t gone through ASF training. That’s a bit like what projects go through when the join the ASF incubator - except there the only way out and up is to learn the existing way of collaborating, instead of building a new way on top of that existing template.

Which areas were a lot of fun for you?

Seeing small suggestions turn into major areas for contribution and outgrow my initial idea certainly are things that are a lot of fun. I know from experience but also from wide spread guidance that one way to pull in new contributors is to tell them all the easy tasks you need help with. I also know that translations are an easy first step into communities. Now, what our working groups offer are a lot of educational material - be it our Learning Path that people can go through to get a self paced InnerSource training. Or be it our pattern collection. I remember suggesting months ago that we provide contributors a means to translate the Learning Path. What came out of that simple idea is way bigger than I hwould have imagined:

At first the learning path segments that were English (but written by a German speaking contributor) were translated to German by one of the colleagues of said contributor. Over time more and more people stepped up translating the Learning Path into all sorts of languages. As a next step volunteers stepped up to do the same with our patterns. Finally there were people stepping up to not only run local community groups, but also help translate the entire web site.

Channeling that work certainly has been an interesting question. In particular as some of the target languages are not spoken by any of the foundation founders.

Are there any parts of being a board member that you could imagine helping with even after stepping down?

I have been told that people appreciate my OSS experience as well as my knowledge of the inner workings of the ASF. Whenever I step down, know that I will not leave - at least not immediately. I will still be around, happy to share knowledge and answer questions.

Which areas were particularly time costly for you?

During the past year in addition to being director I also took on the role of president. While it’s a tiny bit of work - I do look forward to not needing to write a monthly board report :) I’m glad everyone did enjoy reading the ones I did write. It certainly was a new experience for me to write those - in particular given my limited experience with corporate English.

Overall though time invest was really a lot less than at a foundation the size of The ASF.

In early years the tasks that did eat up time were related to setting up process (think meeting cadence, preparation, agenda handling, reporting cadence etc. but also think membership voting), setting up infrastructure and access (think GitHub access).

Which areas were energy costly for you - didn't necessarily take a lot of time but were definitely not fun to deal with?

One thing that is energy costly is reminding everyone that we are dealing with volunteers, that we want a decentralized organisation where working groups are the places where you want to be involved to get things done - and where the foundation only exists to serve those working groups.

For someone that grew up inside the ASF it’s natural to understand that the foundation doesn’t pay for working group work, it does not meddle with strategy or technology produced by those groups - but it does meddle with how those groups are run. Getting that same understanding into a new organisation with people lacking the ASF background is something where questions will pop up over and over again.

Also switching perspective from “this is what we produce and sell” to “this is where we ask those benefitting from our material to invest time to help us improve” has been a challenge to communicate in a way for everyone to fully understand.

"I wish I had known this before joining the board"

Looking back at that one moment of panic when I realized what I had agreed to, I would tell myself that this time it truely will be different: Less time consuming. But on the other hand in a place where being alert is needed so discussions and decisions don’t move in the wrong direction early on.

I would tell myself that while not much has been written down there are still a ton of presentations recorded on several services that will help understand why the ASF does certain things the way it does them.

In your opinion - what are the strengths of the ISC board?

The ISC board builds on the strenghts of its members. It builds on the experience of those members - coming with a lot of leadership experience but also with a lot of open source experience. All that aside everyone involved does have a lot of humor but also brings there entire self - including experience from other organisations, including family, including stories from other contexts.

In your opinion - what are areas for potential improvement for the ISC board?

We are still young, there are only a limited amount of topics to discuss during each board meeting. But I miss the flurry of discussions happening between board meetings, I miss consensus building between board meetings.

Being still young one of the things I would like to see us better from the get go is explain to everyone involved - including people who are just getting started to use our material - how we operate. With more and more open source projects pushed forward by well financed benevolent dictators has meant that people have started to see open source projects essentially as equivalent to commercial products. As some piece in your supply chain. Something that we teach as a core part of InnerSource is to understand that you are not passively consuming - but you are expected to contribute yourself to mae things work better. I believe as a foundation we can better communicate that it is those who participate, those who give us their time that make the entire organisation work out well.

In your opinion - what changes should be made to the way the ISC board operates, interacts with communities, interacts with the wider ISC ecosystem, interacts with the public?

I do think we could make sure that our working groups are even more clearly perceived as what they are: The heart of the InnerSource Commons foundation.

Any advice for new board members - where to look first, what legal implications to keep in mind, what PR implications to keep in mind etc.?

So far we are still relatively small compared to the ASF at least, so a word on social media that you haven’t thought about for a very long time is bound to have less potential for damage than at an org like the ASF.

We are a 501(c)3 - I would urge you to do the boring work of reading through the bylaws and ask any questions you run into. If you have seen the work and offerings of the Eclipse foundation or the Linux foundation be prepared that we are similar - but subtly and intentionally different in some areas. So don’t be shy to ask existing members for their perspective on the exact aspects that we differ in.

We are incorporated in the US. While I at least hope our working groups are wide open to each and every contributor, while I hope they are culturally diverse at the corporate level you will need to read up on US regulations: In particular for Germans - a lot of dictionaries will translate our incorporation form as “e.V.” - while this is largely correct, there are several differences in the details. So beware of false equivalences there.

What are the tasks and time commitment?

You will have to provide community oversight for our working groups - making sure they are alive and humming along. You will be asked to help out with publicity work, speak at our events. Apart from that general structure, budget allocation, establishing connection to prospective sponsors are all relevant tasks.

Tell us about a moment from your time on the ISC board that is most precious to you.

Seeing InnerSource make its way into organisations has been awesome to watch. Being on the inside it sometimes feels like things have always been the way they are just now. Looking back several years though the progress does become very obvious: That includes feedback how our work on InnerSource is very important coming from ASF members who have been part of the Open Source movement for longer than I am working as a software engineer :)