June 2009

"Business gets done between people who get along."

Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems (paraphrased from an interview)

It is easy to focus on the purely technical side of engineering: design, coding, documentation, licensing issues, and the release process. The interpersonal aspects of engineering also have a vital part to play. An important and frequently overlooked part of the successful free/libre and open source (F/LOSS) enterprise are the soft skills of communication, administration, and relationship building.

Google uses, creates and supports open source software (OSS) both as the raw material of code, and as a development model. My work in the Open Source Programs Office (OSPO) at Google as one member of a three person Outreach team is almost entirely about the mechanics of building good relations between the F/LOSS community at large and Google. This article describes our day-to-day tasks which are variously focused on student programs, external communications, event management, and financial administration.

Google OSPO

Google's OSPO team is responsible for reaching out to the F/LOSS community, primarily, but not exclusively, outside of Google. We keep communities informed of the value Google places on OSS development. Giving back to the F/LOSS ecosystem that has given Google so much value is the right thing to do, and hopefully our outreach in turn will help the community feel good about Google.

Our Outreach work involves a variety of programs and activities. Other members of the OSPO team code on open source projects, help Googlers release their code under open source licenses, and make sure that Google uses open source code from external projects in accordance with all licensing terms. The Outreach team also focuses on the "high-touch" side of “high tech”.

As a job description, building relationships can cover a lot of ground. Primarily, I work on organizational and people relations, largely concentrated on communicating what Google is doing in and around F/LOSS. My day-to-day work includes:

  • student programs

  • events

  • external communications

  • internal adminstrative work

The following sections discuss these duties further.

Student Programs

The most visible and arguably most influential part of our work is our student programs, Google Summer of Code (GSoC) for college students, and Google Highly Open Participation Contest for students ages 13-18. Both programs offer the combined benefits of introducing students to OSS development and community. These programs help to:

  • move the mentoring projects forward in the short run

  • train the participating members from each project in mentoring skills

  • develop a pool of potential new contributors to open source projects

GSoC is currently in the middle of its 5th year, with 1000 students from 70 countries working with 150 different F/LOSS projects. My specific work in the program includes:

  • compiling and publishing statistics on the 4 previous instances of the program

  • assisting with managing the student members mailing list and responding to questions

  • giving informational presentations about the program at conferences

  • conducting surveys of past participants to measure the value of the program to them and the F/LOSS projects they worked with and to look for ways to improve the program going forward

  • providing some assistance in choosing the mentoring organizations at the start of the program

  • coordinating the Mentor Summit for a subset of student mentors from each participating F/LOSS project at the conclusion of each year's instance of the program


Despite the speed and utility of life online, people still benefit from meeting in person to exchange ideas, build consensus, make plans, and work collaboratively. In fully distributed groups, like most F/LOSS projects, having a chance to meet face-to-face can make all the difference in getting things done. Because of this, our group helps to support a number of conferences, un-conferences, code sprints, workshops, and hackathons throughout the year. These events are of all sizes, happen all over the world, and serve a variety of different F/LOSS projects and communities. Our support is sometimes limited to financial sponsorship. Other times it is more content focused in sending a Googler to speak, and/or paying for a speaker’s travel.

Recent examples of events for which we did both include BSDCan, in Ottawa, Canada, at which I and my colleague Leslie Hawthorn spoke on How to Get Started in Open Source, and SambaExperience 2009 in Gottingen, Germany where our fellow OSPO teammate, Jeremy Allison, spoke on Samba.

Our group also hosts a number of events, usually but not always on the Google campus in Mountain View, California. These range in size from 10 person working meetings to multi-day conferences of 500+ attendees. Sometimes these events are fairly simple to make arrangements for, but “host” is a fairly benign word that doesn’t fully reflect all that can go into producing a larger event. I’m currently working on an annual invitation-only un-conference for approximately 250 scientists where my tasks range from:

  • suggesting invitees

  • space and menu planning

  • trying to figure out the local fire codes that might prevent an invitee from presenting a demonstration involving a flaming bacon lance

  • making arrangements with NASA for the loan, safe shipment, and display of a tire from a space shuttle

External Communication: Blogging, Speaking, Calendars

A big part of my day revolves around communication: spreading the word about Google’s efforts to support and contribute to open source.

Our group operates a blog which is in the list of the top 10 most read Google developer blogs. If you’ve never tried to find and coax copy out of a steady stream of guest authors, you may not appreciate what goes into putting out 3+ posts a week, week in and week out. My role is mostly confined to copy editing or writing the occasional post, but I also do some of the herding of authors as well.

Our group gets dozens of requests for speakers every year, far more than any one person can handle. Last year I began to speak at conferences on behalf of Google, initially on GSoC, and more recently on “Getting Started In Open Source”. It can be argued that many extremely fun activities are also challenging: I certainly find creating presentations and public speaking to be both.

Google's calendar shows developer-related events, including open source conferences. I spend a good deal of time adding F/LOSS events that our group is sponsoring, hosting, or that a Googler is speaking at or involved in. We also include community posting; if you are having an event, please add it to the calendar.

I also maintain an internal-only list of F/LOSS events as part of our funding efforts, in cooperation with several other departments at Google. It’s important to identify events and contests that we might want to participate in far in advance so that we have time to take appropriate action.

Internal Administrative Work

Like every job, mine includes a fair amount of pick and shovel deskwork. Google's global presence means that we are able to do a lot of good, which in turns means there is a lot of paperwork. As “keeper of the budget” for the Outreach team, I spend a good chunk of time per quarter reconciling our spending against our plans, and working with the finance team to make sure all invoices are accrued correctly.

Recognizing Non-Technical Contributions

The world of F/LOSS has many stars, but many more contributors--both of code and of the sort of non-technical work I do. As George Elliot writes in Middlemarch: “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts”.

I have been pleasantly surprised to see the role of Community Manager not only acknowledged but celebrated in recent years. All of us in the Outreach team hope this will in turn lead to the recognition of the contributions made by the many who further F/LOSS development in non-technical ways.

Recommended Resources

GSoC Blog

Getting Started in Free and Open Source



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