Cultivating Community by Working in the Open

Back when new versions of Firefox were released every year or so, many of Mozilla’s paid contributors came from the volunteer base or other open-source communities. Mozillians not only had the time, but the natural inclination to engage with volunteer contributors.

Today, new versions of Firefox are released every six weeks, and many new products exist that didn’t before; products that require working with partners historically outside of Mozilla’s comfort zone. Firefox Marketplace is one of them.

Marketplace faces several community-building challenges. Not only does it push new code every week, but release schedules are often driven by business contracts. Managers are under pressure to deliver on deadlines with limited resources, leaving very little time to engage with volunteers. Deadline-driven work is also harder for people to contribute to in their spare time.

The team’s rapid growth means former volunteer contributors are now in the minority. With fewer paid contributors from the open-source world naturally inclined to cultivate relationships with the community, and more from the business world uncertain of the community’s role in meeting deadlines, phrases like “Leverage the community,” and “Line up contributors to help,” begin cropping up in meetings.

Mozilla couldn’t have been built without the people who believe so passionately in its mission. People who code, document, translate, and evangelize—often in the free time between leaving their day jobs (or schools) and getting into bed—because they care. Because they’ve created bonds with other Mozillians. They are anything but free labor—they are partners in the mission.

So how do we continue nurturing and cultivating our community in light of our current realities? One way is to embrace a culture of working in the open.

Working in the open means structuring your work in a way that is discoverable and transparent to anyone interested in contributing. It doesn’t require a lot of extra work on top of what you do, as much as it requires a certain mindset.

If you’re a developer, are you designing your project so that it’s easy for someone to take a piece of it and work on it? If a non-technical contributor shows up looking for ways to help (as I did, in 2009), are you ready with a list of opportunities and simple steps for getting started? Are you holding public meetings and posting public status updates?

It’s about making your work inviting and accessible to people who want to join the fray. When they do jump in, making yourself available to guide them increases the likelihood that they will become engaged. Engaged contributors become leaders who will cultivate the next generation of leaders.

Working openly and transparently doesn’t take much extra effort, and it is not only essential, but a minimum requirement, to keeping our community healthy.