December 7, 2014

Day 7 - What System Administrators Can Learn From Community Management

Written by: Daniel “phrawzty” Maher (@phrawzty) & Jonathan Clarke (@jooooooon42)
Edited by: Yakira Dixon (@yakiradixon)


At first blush it might not seem like there are any parallels between system administration and community management, but the two fields have much more overlap than you might think! Before we begin, let’s define community management briefly, and to do so, I’m going to lean on this this excellent post by Deb Ng. It’s not marketing, nor social media, nor tech support, though these things can be involved. A community manager is a strategist, a content creator, and above all, a communicator. In this article, we will explore a handful of key principles from the community management world and see how they apply to system administration.

It’s important to realise that both fields are concerned with systems, which is to say, “an assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole” (source). In the case of sysadmins, one normally thinks of the relationship between nodes in a cluster, or clusters in a farm, or farms in a data centre, or - well, you get the idea. For community managers, one normally thinks of the relationship between members of a forum, or forums in a site, or sites in a community, or - well, here again, you get the idea. In both cases, the relationships between the individual elements of the whole can be complex, and often require specialised tools and years of experience to get a handle on.

Managing groups at scale

Scale is an important concept in community management. What works for managing a group of two people might not work for a group of 20 or 200 people. It’s generally easier to discuss a topic in a small group and achieve consensus when there are mutually-shared interests. Small groups can function directly together since the number of individual voices is low and the space needed for them to work is commensurate with their size. Logistically speaking, a small group can make use of pretty much any communication platform that happens to be convenient - a common list of people to CC when emailing and a Google document might well be enough.

Contrast that with managing a community of, say, 50 people - that’s a big list of people to keep tabs on every time you need to write an email (not to mention the amount of noise that might get generated with an errant reply- all), and as anybody who’s ever tried to play a fast-paced game of multiplayer text editing knows, that’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen when it comes to a shared document. Even at this modest scale, some sort of more purpose-built tooling is required, such as a proper mailing list or forum site. This necessity is borne from two important effects of larger groups which, for our purposes, we can refer to as quantity and quality.

Quantity is straightforward: more people means more conversations! A handful of emails per week is trivial for any one person to deal with, but multiply that by a factor of ten or 100, and the trickle becomes a raging torrent. The more information that’s being generated, the more difficult it becomes for any one member of the group to process it effectively.

Quality refers to the nature of those conversations, and in particular, their level of diversity. Each person in the community will bring their own particular histories, viewpoints, cultural perspectives, and so forth to the group. Good tooling can make all the difference when trying to manage such a heterogenous system. A straightforward example of this is mature forum software that has conversational threads, thematic areas, and a robust back- end for gathering statistics and metrics about usage.

From here it shouldn’t be difficult to make the mental leap to system administration. Two servers sitting on your desk are pretty straightforward to deal with - even if they’re totally different, there’s only two of them, so you probably don’t need any special infrastructure to manage them. Scale that up to a dozen servers, however, and the situation becomes much more complex. The dual effects of quantity and quality are instantly applicable. At even relatively small scales the importance of a coherent configuration management tool becomes evident: something that allows the different nodes in the system to be organised as operational or thematic groups, and with a robust back-end for gathering statistics and metrics about usage. Sound familiar?

We’re going to come back to scale later, but for now, let’s move on to something a little bit more esoteric.

Writing a mission statement

I know what you’re thinking: “mission statement? That’s just corporate-speak nonsense!” And yes, that can certainly be the case, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, a good mission statement is essential for any community, and explicitly stating it can help to crystallise the community in powerful ways.

Most organic communities assemble around an initial idea or principle. While this shared element is enough to form the community, it’s rarely enough to maintain it, and almost certainly insufficient for real growth - the secret sustainability sauce is made up of the values that original germ represents. In other words, people come for the brilliant spark, but they stay for the ideas generated from the spark. A mission statement is a way to codify and present both.

Sound a little high level? Consider that at some point in your life you’ve probably come across an open source project that was little more than a few hundred lines of code and a README. But something about this project made it different from the others. The documentation, ersatz though it might have been, clearly elucidated the problem and how this project acted as a (potential) solution. This simple addition to the repository made all the difference in the world because it helped you to understand how the project could fit your particular situation. Even without a deeper analysis of the code in question, your interest was piqued and your desire to learn more was set into motion. What happened there? Believe it or not, what captured your attention was, fundamentally, a mission statement.

Most established companies have mission statements. These are organisation- wide screeds that may or may not have any direct relationship with the work that any one contributor effects within that organisation. Is it possible to bring the granularity level down a notch or two, and if so, what might the benefit be? Could it be useful to a system administration team?

Imagine you’re just starting on a new project: a simple but powerful collection of scripts to manage virtual machines that’s going to make everyone’s day-to-day work much easier. Right now, even before you’ve begun writing any code, is the perfect time to write a mission statement. Start with something simple like “I’m fed up of typing in a dozen long and complicated commands every time I need to migrate a VM in our infrastructure, especially in the middle of the night, when on call. I intend this to be a small wrapper tool that can do normal migrations for us by typing in just one command. This should reduce the amount of time we waste on manual migrations and help to eliminate typing errors”. This brief, simple statement encapsulates both the problem and the solution, clearly defines the scope of the project, and describes both the initial idea germ and - critically - the parameters for success.

There are numerous benefits to drafting your mission statement at the earliest possible stage. Crucially, by acting as a sort of combination compass and mold, it acts as a guide to keep the contributors focused (even if you’re the only one), which helps to nip things like feature creep in the bud straight away. Keep it short and don’t overthink it. Much like setting up some new test infrastructure, or working on a new program, the best thing is to start small and iterate over time as necessary. Finally, writing a mission statement should be easy; if you’re embarking on a project, then you know best what problem you’re trying to solve, and at those early stages is when you’ll have the most clarity about it. If for no one else, write the mission statement for your future self - a few weeks down the line you may have gone so deep you completely forgot the original problem you were trying to solve!

A good mission statement can also be used to generate excitement which, as we’ll see below, can be a powerful tool for getting things done.

Encouraging involvement

A key principle of community management is actively encouraging contribution and involvement from the community. A good community manager will generate excitement and foster enthusiasm. Cultivating a positive emotional connection to the community will make members more loyal and encourage them to participate even more - a virtuous cycle that in turn makes the community even stronger. That said, while a general feeling of excitement is, like that initial idea germ, enough to create a spark, it’s insufficient to maintain the community. The excitement needs to be backed up by concrete measures to encourage active involvement.

There is a fairly well-known philosophy in the open source world called “Release early, release often” that was popularised by Eric S. Raymond in the late 90’s. The essence of the philosophy is that sharing versions of a software project early and often will ultimately improve the overall quality of the software. This happens because beta-testers and early adopters can have fun playing with new features while contributors can learn the codebase by fixing obvious bugs - that early feedback will help influence development in useful ways. In fact, as long as they’re not fatal, it can be helpful to leave some bugs in there deliberately! Providing low hanging fruit can enable an enthusiastic contributor to jump into the project by giving them the chance to fix that bug themselves.

Looking at this from a systems perspective, this is basically a process with a feedback loop, and by releasing often the loop is accelerated. In other words, excitement is generated by rapid development, and the rapid development is encouraged by excitement - it’s almost too easy!

As a system administrator, while you may certainly be leading up a project for which the rapid release model is applicable, that won’t always be the case. That’s no reason not to adopt this principle, however; by actively encouraging your co-workers to get involved, you help to build a trust relationship that will pay dividends down the line. Consider the development vs. operations silo for example - how nice would it be if the two groups actually worked together on projects right from the start?

So how do you generate excitement? The easiest thing is to talk to your co- workers. Write a mission statement - or, better yet, draft one in collaboration with some potentially interested parties. Ask questions, discuss ideas, and continuously act on that feedback. Share design documents, proofs of concept, and initial implementations. Don’t be shy about unfinished releases or weird bugs, and don’t let perfection be the enemy of good - the important thing here is that both the features and the bugs are clearly explained.

Whatever the scope of your next project, try sharing the idea with your co- workers (or whomever) before you get started and see how they react. Chances are, you’ll get their support a lot more easily that by showing them hundreds of lines of script that don’t yet solve the whole problem - and they probably won’t nitpick about your chosen scripting language or variable naming while reading the mission statement either.

Of course for others to be able to fix bugs in your code, they need to know how to get that bug fix back into the code. Which brings us to our next topic"¦

Establishing community guidelines

A simple search with the term “community guidelines” will reveal hundreds of thousands of examples from across the web. They encompass, either implicitly or explicitly, communities of just about every conceivable size on more or less every topic there is. It’s difficult to find a legitimate site that doesn’t have one - but, what are they? Simply stated, they are the basic tenets that frame the social contract between all of the members of the community, and they serve as ground rules to help that community to interact well. For example, an increasingly popular type of guideline is the conference code-of-conduct, which most conferences have now to help ensure that respectful and inclusive behaviour prevails.

Responsible community management is, in many respects, predicated on the existence of community guidelines. It’s one of the most important tools that leaders can use to act decisively and consistently.

When technical folk collaborate, be it in writing code or in administrating a server, we all tend to do things slightly differently from one another. How so? A simple question: where do you put custom binaries on a server?


Now, chances are you’re thinking “I don’t need to write out guidelines - we’re a tiny group”. You may well be right - your group probably can function just fine, for now; however, consider when a new person is joining your team. They will need to understand “how to do stuff around here”. Thinking further, the future could include a larger expansion, perhaps open sourcing a tool you wrote, or your company being acquired or merging with a larger one. In these cases, having planned ahead and written down the key points on how to work together could be a life saver - for both yourself and the new arrivals.

As with everything, the key is to start simply: put a minimum viable set of guidelines together and then iterate as necessary. Some good starting points might include things like “all code must live in a given version control system.” That’s a simple, effective guideline that is both easy to follow and hard to misinterpret. Stipulate the conventions up front: paths on file systems, tabs vs. spaces for indentation, and so forth. That’s a great start.

Next, explain how to contribute; this could be by sending a pull request on GitHub, a patch by email, or whatever. The important thing is to set up a consistent framework. Elucidate expectations for responses to contributions, too - it’s better to say something like “I only review patches on Mondays, so please be patient” than to leave an enthusiastic first time contributor hanging for six days. Examples of such standards documents (that have open source licenses) include Google’s style guide, or for a more simple example, Rudder’s technical guidelines.

These contribution guidelines obviously tie into lowering the barrier to entry to your project too (see previous section). The underlying goal is to facilitate collaboration by avoiding pointless debates about which indentation style to use, when the project could be accepting contributions and moving forwards. There are no hard and fast rules governing the content or structure here, but as a general rule the idea is to be concise - use clear, brief language that expresses the core principles accurately.

Similar guidelines can, and should, be drawn out for social interaction. Don’t fall into the trap of defining complex rules that are hard to follow and, most importantly, assume good intentions by default. Great relationships are built on trust, and the best way to get trust is to give it in the first place. There is really no one-size-fits-all set of rules and each community will grow around the shared values that have particular meaning to them; however, it is very important to point out what is not OK. Again, exact details here depend on who you are as a community but make sure that as a bare minimum you explicitly forbid any kind of discriminatory behaviour or harassment.

Last but not least, remember that as one of your community’s leaders - however big or small that community is - you should be setting the example through action. Respect your own conventions. Welcome newcomers. Communicate clearly, consistently, and often. Be mindful that your words carry weight, and choose them deliberately and carefully when you write every email, blog post, or README.


The web is full of resources about community management - if you’re curious to learn more, some good starting points (for system administrators) include the Producing Open Source Software book, Eric S. Raymond’s The Cathedral and The Bazaar, and The Mozilla Manifesto. Dawn Foster’s blog also has some great insight on managing a community from a sysadmin perspective.

No comments :