Seven ways on how to engage your community
I was recently invited to give a talk on how to engage communities for the LaKademy 2020 online. For those not familiar with the event, it is the meeting of Latin American users and collaborators of the KDE community. There I came up with seven ways on how to engage your community and you can jump to the end of this article if you just want to jump to the chase.
I have been involved with free and open source communities for quite a long time and I am always trying to learn better ways to help them prosper. However, I have not yet given a talk on this very subject. So I did have to recall several of my memories and prepare a draft script. What you have here is basically this script, with some add-ons based on questions I got from the good people at LaKademy.
The chess club
The year was 1976 and I was in the sixth year of elementary school. Myself and Adroaldo, who soon became my best friend at the time (and also a lifelong friend) decided we would learn to play chess. We both had a chess set who, along with the tradicional pieces, also had square, carton pieces, which included a cheat-sheet on how to move them. Soon enough, we didn’t need anymore the carton pieces and started reading chess books on openings and the evolution of the game.
After a few months it became very boring just playing among the two of us and there were not too many people around us who were available to play chess. So we decided to teach our classmates how to play, using our two chessboards, during the breaks and after school. We were also able to convince our school to buy some chess sets and by the end of the year we already had dozens of people playing chess.
Paulo Nogueira was a public school, so most of the students' families lived close to it. When the summer vacations started, we moved our play into a small park nearby. There we held “championships” and we were even able to scratch some money to buy some prizes, usually very cheap chess pieces and used books. We then got to know of a chess competition happening in the capital of our State. We asked the school, our parents and small merchants of our region to give us money to hire a bus and also convinced some of the adults (along with a math teacher who was a great supporter of our juvenile passion for chess) to be our chaperons in the competition. I remember Adroaldo went very far and actually got an honorable mention.
We all grew up, moved into different schools and had very different career paths. Adroaldo first became a technician in agriculture and now he is the CEO of a big agricultural co-operative in the East Central region of Brazil. I first became an electronic technician, which led me to computers and now I work for the Linux Professional Institute. These dozens of months within our small chess community taught me a lot of lessons I still value.
Let me jump now to 1992, when I started working for Tandem Computers which, at the time, was the major manufacturer of non-stop, massive parallel computers, some of them running Unix. As these equipment were extremely expensive, big financial institutions, stock exchanges, insurance and telecommunication companies were our big customers which, together, formed the ITUG, the International Tandem Users Group. Within Usenet the group had its mailing list, alt.comp.tandem-users, and they also hosted several meetings all over the world. There was even a yearly ITUG tape with several utilities freely exchanged among Tandem users and, by selling this tape the user group was able to support its activities. Thanks to ITUG, among several other things, I was able to have people from the Stock Exchange in Sao Paulo to get in touch with the Paris Stock Exchange and, thanks to this, plant the seeds of online trading in Brazil. And also, thanks to links in the Usenet, I got to know Linux in its very early stages.
I noticed the ITUG related quite well with the small chess club from my childhood. Equipment sales were more related to Tandem’s capability of making its passionate users talk freely about the good things of our hardware and partners software than our marketing initiatives. So, during my time within the company, where I ended as the sales director for the financial industry in 1995, pretty much all I did was try to establish between happy existing customers and the coming ones, always having them joining the user group.
After leaving Tandem I came back to the place where I was born, in the South of Brazil, first as a partner of an Internet Service Provider along with a local, growing, University Centre and then I became its ICT manager, with a mission to start a development group who would create an academic ERP based on Free Software (there were already some fans of Linux and Open Source among us). In May, 2,000, while still developing our ERP, I knew, based on my previous experience, things tend to have success if you build a community around them. So we created an event called SAGU Development Seminar (SAGU was the name we gave our ERP). We got people from all over the country in our small town and gave them a CD with non-working code and several lessons on how to develop web applications with PHP and PostgreSQL. SAGU and other software developed by our group outgrew the limits of the University, originated a free software development co-operative and several spinoffs, which now provide jobs for hundreds of people.
The seven ways
The communities and projects I mentioned above are not the only ones I have been part of. I mentioned here the chess club, the Tandem Users Group and the SAGU group. I have been involved in several others along the years, mostly dedicated to free and open source software and social activities. I believe these examples, however, are good enough to give you some hints on how to engage people within communities and welcome newcomers.
- Believe and be passionate in what you are doing and let people know. Facilitate the contact among the chess players and let them talk about their passion and teach others about the trade and its tools and learn new ones. Be extremely honest, do not engage in ideas you do not really believe in
- Have a straight face. You will need to ask for resources, you will need to invite people to talk to your community.
- Work on setting up stages for people to show up, other than yourself. If you are a community leader you tend to be invited for several events, take this opportunity to also give visibility to other members of your community.
- Be focused. Know that one community will not solve all of the problems of the world. Concentrate on where your community can really help.
- Be open to other communities. Together, several good willing communities can solve all of the problems of the world.
- Communities have stories. People inside the community have stories. People relate very well with stories since the beginning of time. Have real, honest, engaging stories to tell.
- Make your tools and resources available outside the community. Publish all educational material you use under a creative commons license. If you write software, make it available under a free and open source license in a place where people can easily see it. Also, make sure that everything you publish is attractive to a broad audience.
What are your experiences working with communities? Do you have other hints you can provide to our readers? Please feel free to comment!