DECODED Profiles: developer evangelist Tessa Mero on building open source communities
Developer evangelist, volunteer addict, global speaker, and mentor Tessa Mero visited the Microsoft office in Berlin earlier this year to chat with DECODED about building open source communities.
DECODED chats is an added bonus spun from the Microsoft DECODED Show, hosted by John Shewchuk and produced by Dave Mendlen. The chats feature interviews with some of the brightest minds on open source within the developer community.
Here we have transcribed (and edited for length) one such chat with Senior Program Manager Developer Experience and Evangelism at Microsoft Chris Heilmann questioning Tessa Mero on how to build open source communities and make commercial companies embrace developer outreach. You may find the complete 30 minute chat on video or audio here.
How did you get into community building in Open Source?
It all started in about 2010 or 2011. I discovered content management systems and I finished college for web application development, and I wanted to find a quick way to build a website and discover Joomla. I started contributing to open source for the first time, going to conferences, and ended up joining the board of directors and I’m helping with the production leadership team.
So, I did that for a very long time and ended up joining the PHP community and meeting the Seattle PHP Meetup. I’ve been doing that for many years, and I’m on my third year running the PHP Seattle Conference. Now I’m building a new community called the Seattle API Meetup; it’s called APIs and IPAs, which was founded by one of my co-workers, so we just started a chapter in San Francisco, and we’re starting a chapter in Seattle.
How did you manage to move that quickly up in a community to get onto the board of directors in a short amount of time?
So, that was all my contributions — I used to be addicted to volunteering. I do so much of it, I’ve cut back on it — it was just too much for too many years. For my job, I was a web developer for a few years and then I moved into teaching college.
So, I did that, and the feedback was great, and then they brought me in part-time, which moved into a full-time job, and I did that for over three years. Then I decided, “I think it is time to become a developer evangelist.”
Do you consider teaching an essential skill for community builders and developer evangelists?
Yes! Oh, my goodness. I can’t even tell you how much that has helped. I have learned how to rephrase things in a way that anybody can understand, and when someone tells me they still don’t understand what I’m explaining, I’ll explain it in a completely different way and kind of adjust to what their learning style is to help them understand.
One thing is never to explain things too technical unless that’s the type of person they are, and they’re expecting that kind of explanation, so the easier the better.
If you don’t understand something, don’t try to act like you do.
I simply let people know that it’s not an area that I fully understand, but I can gather more resources and I’ll get their information or email them later about it.
Working hours for developer evangelists and community builders can be pretty taxing. How do you balance being available for the community and your own social life?
I’m too honest about this. I don’t balance it very well. I put career before everything, and that’s not an answer that people want to hear me say, but it’s something I love doing.
Whenever I have a job, I put my life and everything into it.
It’s a 24-hour a day job. It’s not like eight hours and you clock out and you’re done. I still get involved in work conversations even at 2AM, and throughout the day I’m going nonstop.
I feel like that’s part of my role in what they’re expecting without anyone saying anything, and I enjoy it. I don’t have to do any of that, but I choose it.
How do you get support from a very commercial company as an open source advocate? How do you explain that it doesn’t mean giving everything for free?
Since I am so used to always being in open source events, and then all of a sudden I’m like a face of a corporate company, it’s completely different. I always calm the situation down. As soon as I start speaking I let people know I’m not here trying to sell stuff […] We’re here to give back to the developer community. We want to provide you guys ways of learning and all types of developer tools to help you with your work.
I try to make it clear that I’m not a ‘corporatey’ person with a business suit on trying to take everyone’s money.
How do you deal with outrageous demands by developers and communities? It seems the bigger a company gets, the more people expect to get for free.
I believe nothing is free. Of course things are going to be free to develop on […] The company needs to make money in some way or another. If we just let everyone use all the things for free, then how are we going to support that product. The employees need to get paid in some way, so be supportive!
How do you explain the difference between free and open source?
Open source is like a software that you change the code; you can distribute it, and sometimes you have to pay for it. And then there’s the free and open source where you can download it for free, and you can still edit it and are free to distribute it.
How do we battle the issue of innovation that happens too fast and older, more stable and proven open source products being discarded for the new and shiny?
I can’t even tell you how many debates I’ve seen. This is almost a daily basis where I hear or see debates somewhere on the internet where a group of people or an individual will say, “Oh, this tool is better. This program language is better,” but really it all depends on your project and what you’re working on. And I think to stab at other languages is just like comparing Adidas to Nike, or apples to oranges. It all really depends on your taste and what you’re trying to do.
So, stop comparing and saying what’s better than the other. It’s all about what you are comfortable with using. What’s going to make your project work? What does your project need to have?
What can community leaders do to encourage good behavior and prevent harassment and overly aggressive communication patterns in the community?
Instead of yelling back at people saying, “No! You’re wrong,” stop telling people that they’re wrong and provide facts and provide proof […] I always try to agree with people to some extent to show them that I understand their perspective and I understand what they’re trying to tell me, but I never instantly disagree or get upset at someone because we all view things in a different way.
Do you think there is a danger of communities becoming too insular and introspective? Do you think we should be mingling more?
This is why I think every open source community needs to have a developer evangelist. Their job is to break the silo between communities and join other communities and let people know, “We’re not afraid of you. We want you all to join our communities.”
I think we’re evolving to the point where communities are accepting different skills and different types of other communities. Well, it better be that way!
This interview was hosted by Microsoft’s Chris Heilmann. To watch the full interview visit here.