On Volunteering for Tech Community Work

This is my attempt to distill what I’ve learned over the past two years of contributing to maintaining and improving the local DevOps community in Boston. As in all cases, what we think we “know” at a point in time can/may/should change as our journey progresses. Rather than prescriptive, this article is descriptive of my current approach.

TL;DR

  • do it for ‘right’ reasons that align with community values
  • really know what you’re getting into and commit proportionally
  • be prepared to spend time and energy, particularly on personal adaptation
  • manage your life work-in-process limit carefully
  • expect something unexpected out of it

A True Community is Tangible

There are many definitions of “community”, but here’s mine at this point:

A group of people dedicated to sharing and improving along with each other.

– me, provisionally as of 2019

If helping to do this sounds easy, it is not. Dedication means graciously and humbly collaborating with other organizers, diligently following up with a million little details, listening and understanding where people in the community are coming from, actively seeking personal improvement and synthesizing into volunteer work, responding quickly to important issues in the community and of course, making/taking time from your personal and professional life to do these things reliably.

For an organizer, these things are very tangible because they cost us what we can never get back: time. For other community members, the value comes from elements like knowledge sharing, conversations, job opportunities, or even a sense of simply being part of a community. Showing up at a meetup event or a casual coffee chat is the first step, and understanding why you enjoyed brings you back.

One of the most concrete, tangible outcomes of being part of the community I work in is that there’s always an opportunity to learn something new and useful, which by definition you can’t predict. The more you give, the more you get. The more you’re open-minded, the more mindful and receptive to good ideas you become. The more you listen, the more you hear.

Fostering Unity and Diversity at the Same Time

We all come to the table with a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. This is the true strength of a healthy community. Balancing time constraints and the distribution curve of appetites for themes is tricky, but doable when facilitators are dedicated and have the interests of each other (including the whole community) in mind.

There’s usually a unifying set of core topics and themes related to some common interests (such as learning new tech or how to deal with office culture or professional improvements). Straying too far outside this focus often contributes to our “variety” getting in the way of sharing and improving, though sometimes including topics seemingly unrelated to the tech side of the conversation can provide opportunities for divergent thinking and new knowledge.

An Organizer’s Roles and Responsibilities in the Community

At a small scale, this may happen organically, but as the group scales, this doesn’t happen without organizers. A community organizer is someone who:

  • looks out for the best interests of all members of the community
  • is dedicated to creating more value than they capture [1]
  • ensures that underrepresented perspectives have a voice
  • deals with the logistics of shared spaces (events, chats)
  • ensures that the values and principles in the Code of Conduct are respected
  • develops a plan of succession and redundancy in organizing responsibilities
  • insulates the community from negative or unwanted solicitations

I’ve had to great privilege to work with a bunch of other organizers and volunteers, and one of the key things I see make up for the aggregation of individual intents and sometimes dysfunctions is the willingness to come back and do/be better.

One thing that’s always a challenge is to maintain a pool of organizers greater than one or two active individuals. Think of it as resiliency engineering, a topic close to my personal wheelhouse. The more trustworthy and reliable individuals are involved, the more trustworthy and reliable the outcome.

Thrash vs. Progress

Everyone brings their own personal interests into a group equation. When the guiding principles include alignment and responsibility, it works really well for everyone. When someone puts their personal interests above the common good, all is not lost, but causes a lot of “thrash”. I define thrash as work which ultimately does not progress and improve the common good.

Some folks need to thrash around with new ideas and values, and this is okay too. Healthy synthesis of new ideas and values is important. Provided that there’s room for people to bring these ideas to the table and that progress on existing values is in play, we all win.

Getting Ahead of Toxicisity

I’ve worked in a number of places and communities where behavior is sub-par. When something is introduced which causes a body (or community) to make a backward motion towards it’s shared and the common good, particularly on a repeated basis, I would call this “toxic”. In a DevOps mindset, this can happen too, where anti-patterns such as burnout and distrust crop up because little details aren’t being addressed.

In DevOps communities, many are familiar with the Westrum model of organizational culture: pathological, bureaucratic, and generative. Though often misused to label groups and people at an aggregate level, the most useful employment of this lens IMO is around behaviors and activities. Those can be changed, those can be provided guidance where people have specific decisions to make.

Two examples from our local meetup come to mind: use of alcohol and meritocratic rhetoric. Though innocuous in small amounts, both quickly detract from community spirit and sense of safety in our culture.

In one thread, someone suggested that we bring our own bottles of scotch. I love my happy hours the same as warm-blood, but immediately before that, I witnessed and heard from a number of other community members that an unannounced and unplanned open bar at a meetup detracted from fostering a safe space. I quickly hopped on this, making sure that we all consider how this idea contributes to values in our Code of Conduct. Call me the culture cop, but after collaborating with other organizers on the approach, it was clear that we wanted to get ahead of where it was going and pivot the conversation back to the purpose of the community.

In another backchannel thread with community members, we discussed the rising trend of conversations assuming that everyone had the same opportunities leading to a notion that all people would be rewarded based on the merit of their works. In the current tech culture, meritocracy is rampant, most notably due to open-source mainstays such as the Linux Code of Conduct and revulsion of GNU founder R.M.S after a career of misogynistic and belligerent behavior. Not everyone can just walk up to a table and be valued by those there. As a common good of our community, we do our best to steer away from the ‘meritocracy lens’ and bring conversations back to a place that is useful for all members of the community.

Improvement Means Earning and Granting Trust

One of my biggest goals is to find someone better than me at these things that not only fulfills above bulleted organizer requirements but that I can trust to improve and grow the community in ways I can’t. Knowing that I probably won’t be able to keep up the same level of commitment to our community indefinitely, succeeding myself with other trustworthy individuals is not a zero-effort endeavor in the slightest. Nothing happens overnight, and the best time to do something truly good is always ‘now’.

It’s definitely been interesting to co-organize the meetup, facilitating events and threads, hopefully earning an amount of trust in our community about why I’m spending my time and energies on it. What I’ve learned is that granting someone trust is a very different proposition than earning it. One thing suggested to me in a backchannel was that “ally is a term someone uses on you, not something you “. After bouncing this around in the back of my mind for months, I’ve realized that I don’t need to focus on wait for people to ascribe community members (especially organizers) trust, we just need to do the best we can and demonstrate trustworthy behavior.

As one of 6 organizers of the yearly DevOpsDays Boston event, I was in a place to understand that forging an initial relationship with the Inclusive Tech Lab and Resilient Coders communities was a great direction (most props go to Laura Stone, another co-organizer of the meetup and event). The heart and spirit of these other groups align with the values and demonstrated levels of commitment that I know are required to drive the community forward.

Listening to and Integrating Feedback

Imagine all the times that someone spoke words that you didn’t understand…thing you weren’t in a place to receive. What a shame. What do you do about that?

Mostly always looking to get better, but one thing I’ve realized is that the moments my mouth is open should be marginal compared to time I spend hearing what others have to share. If doing it right, the times I speak should be guided by three questions:

  • does this have to be said (and why)?
  • does this have to be said by me?
  • does this have to be said right now?

Though everyone suffers from subjectivity (implicit in the above bullets), listening and empathizing with what you know about someone’s perspective increases the “you AND them” funnel for new and important ideas. Also, reading or listening to lots of books and blogs also widens perspective.

Get Involved, Be Good

Though not a requirement to attending, I’m surprised at the number of regular attendees who haven’t actually read the Code of Conduct but still naturally adhere to the values and principles within. I take this as a sign of common interest in the community but don’t take for granted the responsibility to make sure behaviors are inline.

If you’re thinking of helping, definitely reach out. If not, still, leave comments. I appreciate feedback and engagement on approach to facilitating in the community, always.