Jen Weber gestures at a slide depicting an inverted pryamid with four layers. Largest to smallest, they are labeled 'Users', 'New Contributors', 'Regulars', and finally ':D' (that is, a smiley-face)
Jen Weber speaking about “How to grow (or save) your favorite open source project” at All Things Open, October 2018

Last week I once again visited Raleigh for All Things Open, an annual conference about open source software with a particular (but not exclusive) focus on its commercial uses. While I enjoyed last year’s conference quite a bit, I consciously experienced the event differently this time. Knowing that all the devops talks in the high-capacity ballrooms would not hold my interest much (such Kubernetes, many Docker, wow), I instead stuck to the cozier meeting rooms downstairs, where one found tracks dedicated to topics like community building and open government.

My strategy paid off; all the notes I took came from talks with little or no code on their slides, and all the personal connections I strengthened or forged at the conference’s social events had entirely more to do with common interests in organizing people and projects rather than just programming computers. I did try some of the upstairs talks, and I bounced out of every one within minutes. The presenter would start stepping the standing-room-only crowd through the process of opening a database handle in Go, or whatnot, and I would feel entirely out of place.

Yes, after twenty years in the field — as many years as the term “open source software” is old, according to a bit of trivia repeated by many speakers — I seem due for some reflection on my own identity as a technologist. Long time gone is the the eager young hacker always hungry to pick up new languages and techniques. I know I still love building things, and some of those things I love building are still made of software. But, increasingly, my interest mellows from development into maintenance. Less disruptive software frameworks, more dependable human-driven foundations.

And on that note, here are my three takeaways from this year’s ATO:

I should represent IFTF at these sorts of things. As usual, I registered under my “Appleseed Software Consulting” freelance identity, so that’s what my badge said. Nobody cares about this, and that counts double at a software-focused conference. Even I don’t care about this, really; I may love my clients, and feel proud of the work that I do for them, but when a polite person asks “So, what do you at Appleseed?” I usually say something like “Oh… I make websites,” and that’s the least boring response I can give, even to a fellow technologist.

A badge bearing “President, Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation”, on the other hand, would serve as powerful tinder for starting a conversation about a much more interesting organization I truly love to talk about. Shortly into All Things Open I started ignoring my real badge and introduced myself with “I help run a digital arts nonprofit.” Even saying only that much, I know that I myself already look far more interested with this than with some tired mumble about building custom software solutions.

And — let’s face it — as its president, I really need to step up my fundraising game for IFTF. Not to say that every conversation must turn into a chance to make the ask, but rather that I should never pass up an opportunity to spread awareness to a receptive audience (even audiences of one!) about IFTF and the good work it does.

Further, I had the good fortune at ATO to meet and collect wisdom from a number of much more experienced non-profit leaders. In the very common case where — like me — they served their organizations as unpaid volunteers, they were either retired or they had day-jobs. In our conversations they scarcely mentioned these jobs, whether present or former, unless they could draw from them some anecdote relevant to their nonprofit roles.

From now on, when I attend a technology event, I’ll rep my role at IFTF up-front, and fill my pockets with IFTF business cards and stickers to boot. (Note to self: Make more stickers.) You have survived multiple board elections to earn these shoes, jmac; you should wear ‘em outside the house once in a while.

I must focus more on leveling up my projects’ contributors. I attended two quite inspirational talks early on the conference’s first day, Jen Weber’s “How to grow (or save) your favorite open source project” and Deirdré Straughan’s “Marketing your open source project”. Together, they made me feel impatient to better myself when comes to not just welcoming contributors to the open-source projects I manage, and not even just making them feel rewarded, but actively encouraging the more interested of them to stick around. With kindless, patience, and luck, one can level up initial “drive-by” project contributors into regular contributors, and then — in jewel-rare cases — into full-on project collaborators.

As the seasons accrue, I become more interested in knowing that I can safely leave projects I love, even projects that I personally started, and know that they’ll stay maintained and useful because I left them in the hands of people I trust. I lead more than one open-source project with user-audiences larger than merely myself, and while all enjoy a handful of contributors’ names attached, none really have any true collaborators, much less a succession plan. After these talks, I find myself very much moved to amend this.

I love open data, and I should play with it more. Finally, I really dug Nathan McMinn’s “Monitoring your city with open source IoT”. The speaker described a project he leads of sprinkling tiny, sensor-laden Arduino computers throughout his home city of Birmingham, Alabama as part of a citizen-led air-quality monitoring initiative. Working entirely in public spaces, the project neither hides its work from the municipal government, nor has it delayed itself by seeking unnecessary permission or resources from it. I really appreciated that!

It reminded me very much of my own work with BumpySkies, except in some ways more ambitious. BumpySkies analyzes and presents publicly available (if rather obscure) data in interesting ways, while McMinn’s project didn’t even have an API to start with, necessitating the team’s puzzling out how to collect the data in the first place. Even so, I found myself very much impressed by its scale, working at the level of a single, modestly sized American city.

I haven’t added any new features to BumpySkies since launching it two years ago in part due to my fear that the Trump administration, currying favor from its anti-intellectual base, might at any moment shut down the taxpayer-funded data sources BumpySkies relies on. McMinn’s talk, though, explicitly advocated local action, looking for opportunities in one’s own city to build something creative for the enrichment or edification of fellow citizens. It could be it an end-to-end project like his, or a new use for an extant API. Before he finished talking, I saw that Rhode Island does indeed publish an API for the buses that trundle past my Providence home all day long, and I spent my lunch hour scribbling out some ridiculous ideas for what I could do with it. I know that any work I did in this smaller sphere would feel much less susceptible to the increasingly polarized whims of national politics.

I may talk a good game about growing up and into more of a mangement role, but I will always be a hacker. Even as I perform more staid “adulting” in the technological realm, it would behoove me to always have at least one fun and invigorating project on the stove. I know from experience that I love working with public APIs like this, and thinking about them city-scale makes me hunrgy to try something new and beautifully absurd.

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