The Changelog

BONUS – Sustain Summit 2018

with Allen "Gunner" Gunn

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In this special bonus call, Adam and Jerod talk with Allen “Gunner” Gunn about the Sustain Summit. They talk about what it is, the kind of conversations that happen there, issues the open source community are facing right now, and how Sustain stands out from traditional “unconferences.”

Sustain 2017 was a big hit, and this year’s event should be even better. Join us!

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Transcript

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Alright, we’re joined with Allen Gunner Gunn. Do we call you Allen, do we call you Gunner? What’s your favorite?

Most folks that I’m not married to call me Gunner. My mom and my wife have Allen as a preference, but I’m user-configurable.

Very good. Well, Gunner is so fun to say… I think we’ll just stick with that then.

I only knew it was Gunner. I’m sorry. I’m gonna call you Gunner, even if you didn’t like it. It’s sort of like a thing I do… Right, Jerod?

That’s right.

If you give your nickname, we’re calling you your nickname.

That’s right. Sustain Summit 2018… Gunner, you are the facilitator, you are a core organizer of this; we were at Sustain last year, and we’ll have a presence at Sustain this year… I just wanna get the word out for people that this is a thing that’s happening, it’s an important event. October 25th, over the pond, this year, in London.

First, let’s go back to last year, because you were a facilitator. I was there, it was a lot of fun… I’ll tell you what - I wasn’t really expecting what I got. Whenever you have kind of a conference or a meetup style event, you think it’s gonna be very, very laid back, but you facilitated, and it was very structured and organized, and it was a blast. Tell us about Sustain 2017 from your angle.

I would agree with you, it was a blast. It was a great group of people, and I think it benefitted from being timely. I think Sustain is going at a lot of questions that a lot of people are asking, at a lot of levels. Sustainability of free and open source software projects has been a perpetual unsolved problem, but as they become more foundational elements of critical infrastructure and also critical human rights technology, questions of “What’s gonna help them stick around?” and “What’s gonna help them thrive?” have gotten more and more central in a lot of the discussions that we find ourselves in.

I think a lot of people there, if I were to frame it this way, were playing for more like… keeps than you are at an average conference, and they were actually looking for answers, they were actually looking for insights on what sustainability looks like, and I really appreciated working with the other organizers - Open Collective, and Sticker Mule, and everybody else - because I think they apply such a broad interpretation of sustainability in a very healthy way. It ain’t just about the money; it’s about the community, it’s about the overall health of your individual contributors, it’s about the organizational health, no matter what type of organization might be shepherding your open source project.

I just feel like the energy stemmed, in many ways, from both the timeliness and the urgency of the topic.

So the pitch for Sustain is it’s a one-day event for open source sustainers, the people you’ve been telling us about. There’s no keynotes, there’s no slides, there’s no expo halls… It’s not a conference, it’s a get-together. Tell people what they can expect in terms of what will actually happen, maybe in the context of what happened last year. Will that change, or will it be very similar? What’s your perspective?

Sure. We model these events – I’m a chronic frequent flier, and we often say that we model agendas to be somewhat like airplane flights. There’s a sort of taxing and take-off phase, we try to spend as much of our time at cruising altitude as we can, and then we try to “Bring it in for a landing.”

What we did last year, first thing out in the morning was really try and explore some foundational topics, and let people sort of move between a bunch of conversations, at their own pace, in their own sequencing, to sort of understand different facets of sustainability, different analyses of sustainability, and just really start to build some shared understanding.

[00:04:10.14] The bulk of the day was spent in participant-driven sessions. What we mean by participant-driven sessions - we ask folks when they register “Hey, what do you actually want to get out of the event?” and we build a soft agenda slate from those topic suggestions, and then at the event we try to get folks in real-time to come up with additional topics that they would like to see addressed.

We don’t use terms like “unconference.” Those terms are sadly overused and have taken on less and less meaning over time, as everything has been called an unconference. What we try to do is say that it is participant-driven, in that we try to source the material from participants, and we prioritize – if you will indulge the notion that these events are knowledge markets, we’re focused on the knowledge consumers, not the knowledge producers.

Many conferences have what I call a “rich get richer” paradigm. Keynoters keep on keynoting, panelists keep on paneling… It’s the usual suspects class hierarchy. What we try to do at these events is identify where the learning needs are, the growth needs, and the folks that have ideas they could use some help building out, and try to resource those conversations.

We try to bring loving supply from knowledge supply-side, toward those that are looking for answers around sustainability, around project growth and maintenance and governance. In doing it that way, we try to setup sessions that are themselves outcome-oriented. Part of why we say “no slides” is slides are a fail before they start, because they assume the so-called presenter knows what those in the room want to hear… And once in a while, they might get it right. But most of the time, they tend to over-share, over-deliver, over-saturate brains.

We try to set up sessions formats that are more transactional and that are more question-driven, where we orient facilitators, we give them some basic ground rules, so that they feel empowered and understanding the plan, but we try to emphasize to them the need to, first off, find out why people came to your session, find out what they really wanna know, and try to center the session focus around what they came for, not what you think they should get. That fundamentally transforms participant experience.

It sounds a lot like really interactive schooling, where the pupil and the teacher sort of come to a similar level, and it’s really about what does the students or participants need to get, versus “Here’s what I wanna give them.

I would say that is correct. It is one of several different formats. I would say there’s maybe… if you taxonomize it there’s four categories of what you’ve just described as one. There’s the interactive school, there’s the (we call it) “around the world” or “choose your adventure” learning format, where it’s basically the ability to drop in and just listen, so I think that’s slightly different… But the two other formats – the stuff I’ve just described is what we often call “first half of event format”, where you’re building shared language, you’re building connections, you’re getting people aware who else is in the room…

The two other categories of session formats that we run at these events - one are actual problem-solving sessions. Instead of a sort of supply-side knowledge/consumer-side paradigm, we try to get people who are motivated to address a common problem or a common opportunity, try to get them into a session format with some framework that allows them to be generative around both characterizing the problem, but also putting forth one or more ideas for how to move that forward. What are believable ways to handle burnout? What are believable ways to take payments without selling out, or supporting any particular corporate infrastructure that you don’t particularly find yourself in solidarity with? That category is the most compelling at these events. Once you’ve got the shared language, can we build some stuff together? Can we solve some stuff together?

[00:07:48.14] In the last format type, which we try to do, even at these one-day events, is what we call “post-event focus sessions.” Talk is cheap. It’s great to be in a room and drink a lot of coffee and meet some good people, but we try to have a set of sessions on the agenda called “Where from here?” that focus on “Are there conversations you would participate in after today?” and if not, that’s cool; this was a good, little diversion from your regular reality, good on ya. But if we can set you up to signal other people that you’d like to keep talking about business models, or you’d like to keep talking about community governance, we can see if that next conversation can be made to happen by identifying one person who’s committing to actually say “I’ll send out a calendar or an e-mail” or “I will announce a time and a place.” So it’s in trying to put that arc together, from discovery and learning, to generative problem-solving, and then trying to turn it into something other than just a wave that crests on a metaphorical event beach, and lead to supposed big collaboration.

At the end of the day, what it’s all about is the long-term impact, not just the feel-good of sitting in a room, in rectangular chairs, looking at a bunch of other wonderful, bright, passionate folks.

I love that so much, the next steps… Because when you walk away from an event, it’s always kind of “Now what?”, and like you said, there is that crescendo, there is that – you get a bit of a buzz of energy at least, or maybe even inspiration to go out and do something afterwards. But if that’s unorganized, it dissipates pretty quickly. Maybe by the time you get off the plane and get back to your house, that’s worn off… But with actionable next steps that people can team up on and move forward, it seems like you’re actually making real progress.

Now, I know last year one of the big things that came out as a result or as an output of this event was a report put out by the organizers… There’s a 2017 report on the website, and it kind of summarizes a lot of what’s been going on, and a lot of the things that everybody came to… What are some other things that people at least rose their hand, or – I know there were those big pieces of paper, you sign up… What were some other things people were moving forward with? You may not know if they did or did not, but just to give an idea of the actionable things that were happening at the end of the day.

Sure. I’m not looking at my list of outcomes, so I’ll try and freestyle… But one that I’ve found really compelling, and I wouldn’t claim this event led to this outcome, but it’s something that was discussed at the event, and has continued to enjoy some very strong leadership… There’s a couple of funders - Ford Foundation and Sloan Foundation, that are really thinking holistically about what they call public interest infrastructure. Open source software, in their parlance, is a critical component of public interest infrastructure, and they’ve continued to commission resources and commission research and also to allocate resources to really make sure that we’re continuing to have this conversation with a research-driven lens, and really trying to characterize that which is and that which needs to be.

I really salute them for the leadership they’ve shown, both in supporting participation in these meetings - they actually help us buy some plane tickets - but they and their larger program work are driving this dialogue with this research lens and trying to make sure that we don’t treat this as a per-codebase, per-GitHub project type of paradigm, but instead think at systems levels around how open source supports critical internet infrastructure, critical public infrastructure and critical community infrastructure.

Some of the other interesting conversations that have gone forward - I have the privilege of facilitating and organizing a lot of events focused on free and open source, so there are a number of ongoing conversations about sustainability that I think got wind in their sales at that event. Again, I’m not saying they started there, but I think they certainly found springboard moments in there, if you’ll indulge me that metaphor.

One project that wasn’t there, and we’re still trying to get them to this year’s event - folks like the Reproducible Builds project. I don’t know if folks are familiar with that… I think it’s one of the most important free and open source projects going. It’s a bunch of folks, many of them from the Debian community, that are trying to figure out “How can we build software that we know at a deterministic level is matching the source code we think it came from?” This matters for security, it matters for integrity, it matters for all kinds of code quality and code reliability reasons.

[00:11:57.14] We’ve been working close to them over the past year. I think their approaches to sustainability are brilliant, because they are trying to do a multi-faceted model where they earn some money, fundraise some money, and otherwise sort of allow folks to contribute in kind… And I’ve seen a lot of communities doing that kind of hybrid sustainability models, and I think a lot of those conversations that happened last year have just given people food for thought, have given people ideas on trying “more than one thing.” Because if I were to offer a loving critique of mini free and open source projects, they tend to be a single revenue stream paradigm. Rare is the free and open source project that really intentionally thinks about a basket of individual donations, large donors, grant funding, earned income… And there are other options, depending on your religion, including sponsorship and investment. But yeah, I think that’s the kind of stuff that came up that I’ve found very gratifying.

I think the other conversations that have been ongoing are the complex dynamics of the ecosystem. Some of these free and open source projects are tied to large for-profit corporations, and that is neither a good or a bad thing, it is a complicated thing, because values and priorities do not always align. What I find compelling about those dynamics is how resilient having free and open licenses makes that paradigm… And that is to say, with free and open source, you are always able to fork or go in a different direction if you are feeling that the way a project is going is not consistent with what you wanna be working on. But I think those are problems that we’ll continue to discuss. How do we have free and open source projects enjoy the support of large companies, but also maintain autonomy and vitality independent of any one particular source of sustainability?

Long-time listeners of The Changelog will know that we did talk to Chris Lamb on Reproducible Builds, early in 2017; this is February 3rd, 2017 in terms of the published date of that show. We’ll link that up in the show notes, but… Totally agree with you on the multi-revenue stream or sustainable streams of not just funding, but just support of a project. All to often do we see the focus simply being on money or the stigma of sustaining open source being just about funds or money, and I believe there’s lots of different ways that the community can be involved, whether it’s corporate community, enterprise community (which is kind of community) or anyone else getting involved.

I think it’s really important to give maintainers a new lens to see sustaining their projects and their communities, because all too often do we only focus on the money, or only focus on the grants, or only focus on one in particular, where you really need to think about it like a business might think about it, which is “If we only got money from this one client or this one customer and they failed to pay us next month, or their relationship with us changed, where does that leave us?” And it also doesn’t allow multiple voices into the community.

Having that polyglot thought around where sustaining comes from opens up the door for a much more diverse and much more rich experience when it comes to that community or that project.

Exactly. And I think, to build on that, another tension that I think bears discussing - and I’ve certainly lived this many times - there’s a tension, to your point, about people sort of having discomfort with money topics… There’s also an interesting - I call it a false dichotomy, around volunteer contributions versus money flowing in a project. There are what I lovingly call “true believer” projects that don’t ever wanna go beyond volunteer labor, because there is magic in the fact that everyone is just contributing with their time and nothing else… And more power to any project that can roll that way. I’m not throwing any shade on projects that are 100% volunteer-led, but I don’t believe that’s a 100% universal realistic model, and in particular there are people who have to pay rent, and feed family, and so forth…

[00:16:01.28] So I think the false dichotomy that comes up is “Does introducing financial sustainability into a free and open source community compromise the volunteer magic?”, and it’s gotta be done right. I’ve seen it done wrong over the years. I’ve seen projects that got a big chunk of money and were not thoughtful or intentional about who got it, and that leads to an inside-the-wall/outside-the-wall badness… But I think done well, you see communities that make the transition elegantly.

We’ve been working with OpenStreetMap U.S. (the U.S. version of the OpenStreetMap, global chapter community) and they are just this week announcing their first ever paid executive director, and it’s been beautiful to see the way that they have, with their community, told the community this was coming, really worked with the community to understand what was gonna change and what was not gonna change, and have sort of gotten out ahead of that “Wait, hold it - now that somebody’s paid, does that change anything about all us volunteer mappers, and are we less valuable and respected?”

It’s been really cool to see it done well as they have, because they have really been an open and transparent board. It’s a volunteer-led board of that non-profit. They’ve just done a brilliant job of trying to get out ahead of the community’s concerns and make sure the community felt part of the process. In the transition to both hiring paid staff, but also trying to scale fundraising and communications, which is what the new executive director will be asked to do, it’s really compelling to see it done well.

There’s just certain roles in an organization - since you’ve said religion a couple of times, you could look at literal churches, or you could look at non-profits or ministry-based non-profits and look at their corporate or organizational structures, and there’s some roles that just need to paid placements, simply because they have the expertise, or the experience and the time involved needs to be such that it’s either very much part-time, or three-quarters times, or even full-time… If that’s their sole focus, when we just break down life, we do need to earn an income to move along and to do our life together; those individuals need to be paid somehow, someway, and I like how you said they’re preparing their communities for that, so that there’s no uprising and everyone can share their feelings about how that impacts the project or the funds available to keep moving forward.

Exactly. And let me give you a +1 on those facets - accountability. I love volunteer projects, but how many times have I seen the compellingly talented tech lead who is volunteering not hit deadlines, not come through on commitments, and their attitude is “Hey, come on, I’m volunteering. Back off.” And that’s legit, you are volunteering, and we need to back off, because you can’t force a volunteer to do anything, but I think part of the beauty of paid roles is it puts an accountability structure in place that is pretty universally understood. They’re getting paid to do stuff, per an agreement.

Yeah. Especially the executive director roles.

Exactly.

Those come with such experience from different – they transplant knowledge from places… They may have been in industrial manufacturing, and they bring all this expertise of processes and in hierarchy that’s just necessary, or whatever might be the case, I’m just spitballing here… But the point is they’ve brought some level of – very similar to the way enterprises seek out, headhunt and find CEOs or CFOs, is because they’ve got some level of credibility and a discipline that can be used in the organization’s need to move forward, and I think a community vetting that person, and even understanding that that person has a full-time role, and how they get paid, how important that might be, and even what that salary might be, or even having some sort of understanding of like not just simply the funds, but like you had said, the accountability back to that person… What do they bring? What do we get from this person being involved? And they may have been a player already in the community, and they’re just graduating to that role. It doesn’t mean they have to be transplanted from somewhere else.

Exactly.

I like that.

[00:20:01.28] To build on that, I think the other place where a lot of open source projects have room to grow - and again, I say this with intense respect - I think most open source projects have what I call a single-generational frame of reference, as in “We’ve got these folks who are on this project. We’re gonna code, and code, and code”, or whatever verbs are associated (design, design, design; test, test, test; support, support, support). And I think that part of what events like Sustain try to help us with is thinking multi-generational. What does it look like for founders to actually peace out of a project, or become advisors, as opposed to primary drivers. What does it look like, as open source becomes more of a given in our universe? There are those who say it’s been a give for 30 years, or others that are just finding out about it this week… But I think the intergenerational/multigenerational view - there’s so much value in those conversations, because people don’t have enough succession discussions. They don’t have enough inter-generational governance discussions.

There’s certain open source projects of the highest profile, that have recently experienced some turbulence in leadership, and it was interesting to see that in those situations there were well-defined succession paths, so that lieutenants could step up and become interim directors or interim leads. So to me, that’s the other half of this - to look beyond a chapter, across multiple chapters of the project’s evolution.

We see that with languages quite readily. We’ve got some interesting things happening right now; you’ve got some backlash in the Linux community, from essentially BDFLs either departing, or having controversy, and just changing leadership. You see this lifecycle in languages in particular, in our current landscape of open source, so I think it’s interesting to have that perspective, because all too often do we think about now, versus tomorrow, or the next day, or ten years from now.

Not every project is ten years from now projects or communities, but if necessary, I think it really makes sense to have that kind of lens. Sometimes we’re just so focused on today, and surviving, that we forget to plan for the future.

I totally agree. If I were to shout out, I think one of the real leaders of the Sustain community - I would presume to claim her as a member of the community; she can decide whether or not she self-identifies in the same way… But if you’ve seen Nadia Eghbal’s report - I think it’s called “Roads and Bridges”, she’s done a real analysis of the infrastructural view of what you were just describing, and tried to take a long-game view of what it looks like moving forward. If you haven’t seen that report, I just think that is probably some of the most holistic thinking. That report now is a couple years old, but it has aged well, because it really tried to look at a systemic view of these projects and what it looks like, to figure out which of them need to be fit for purpose for the long-term, versus which of them are a little bit more ephemeral or modular in their critical in the ecosystem or systems.

Well, I’m sitting here, feeling like I’m being teleported back to GitHub headquarters last year, because these are the kinds of conversations that we were having at Sustain, and these are the kind of conversations that we’ll continue forward at Sustain 2018. Let’s turn our focus on that event, coming up October 25th. There’s tickets available, it’s in London… Gunner, tell us about the switch - we switched continents now; I’m sure that was an intentional move, so tell us about Sustain 2018 upcoming - why it’s in London and what people can expect there.

I will confess to not a massive amount of strategic thinking around the location. We knew we wanted to get out of the U.S. and try to invite more of the community, and I think we would still like to go further South in future Sustain instantiations… But London was a wonderful situation, where we had some fine folks that were able to help us out with resources. We just continue to enjoy a lot of love and support from Google and a number of other event sponsors; I can’t say enough nice things about Cat Allman and her leadership over years and years, and all kinds of – I lose count of how many events that Cat has made possible, and herself realized…

[00:24:05.29] There was a convergence around and ability to take advantage of some resources being provided in that town. We are co-situated with the Mozilla Festival, and by that I mean we’re not formally linked MozFest. I’m also a co-organizer of the Mozilla Festival, but we just figured that timing-wise it just made a ton of sense to do it in London, the same week as Mozilla Festival, because a lot of the communities and values and passions of the larger Mozilla Festival week and the Sustain overlap. So we just felt live it made too much sense… And there was just a confluence other logistical factors that made it the right place to be.

One of the things that we’re making clear to our community at this event and moving forward is we welcome the community to tell us where they think we should take this event in the future… And there’s also been talk about federating it. Do we need to have one big event, or what does it look like to encourage people to organize slightly less resource-intensive local or regional versions of this event… But let’s just say that we’re grateful that London presented itself as a compelling option and a place to have the next round of conversations.

Yeah, I had major FOMO as a person who, unfortunately, due to schedule, cannot attend this year. I’ve always wanted to go to MozFest, and this back-to-back event is the perfect – two-for-the-price-of-one in terms of the people who are doing heavy travel… It’s just a very good idea.

Right on.

I’ll echo the FOMO, that’s all I’ll say. I’m super-bummed I can’t be there.

Dude, I’ll send you all kinds of selfies and stuff just to make it feel really poignant.

You will be there in spirit. I think the voice you all provide is so critical, and I just think the bridge you create with inviting folks like me to share thoughts like this on a podcast - you can claim some credit for some of the energy that’s gonna be in that room. We’re really grateful for you all being that voice, sense-making and guidance within this larger journey around the planet, the event-to-event itinerant reality.

We appreciate that. We are working towards having some presence there. Tim Smith, our senior producer - we’re working on those logistics now, literally; right now it’s still unknown and questionable, but we think it’s gonna work out… So we may still have a presence there, just not Jerod and myself being there… But Tim is a great proxy for our organization, well-trusted, great person to be there for us in our stead.

At the same time, it’s just such an honor to be able to serve the community. We’ve said this over the years - we like to shine a spotlight in the places in this community, whether it’s in the actual software, knee-deep, getting nerdy, or at the macro level, looking at culture and community and how we all interweave… Because in the end, it’s people.

Yeah, exactly.

It’s Gunner on the other side of that Submit button, it’s Adam on the other side of the database, looking at things, or whatever. So it’s people, in the end. It’s about relationships, it’s a very interpersonal community, and we’re just proud to be part of it.

So the details are SustainOSS.org, October 25th in London. There are tickets available. There’s free tickets for scholarship situations, so if you have that circumstance, definitely check it out. Tickets are $100. You can also do a pay-it-forward ticket, take a friend with you… Check that out.

Gunner, any final words for us before we hang up on you?

Just to encourage folks to be in touch if you can’t make it. There’s ways to sign up and be in contact on the website. We’re really trying to raise our game on making this an ongoing dialogue, not just a once-a-year fun party to be at. So if these are topics that resonate with you, please do head over to the SustainOSS site.

There are multiple ways to be in touch - social media channels, there might even be an e-mail address buried somewhere on the About page… But get in touch with us, and if you’re interested in the topics, we welcome knowing about what you’re doing, especially if you’re doing things that you think are worth sharing. If you’ve got approaches to sustainability - and again, we mean that financially, interpersonally, community, governance… You tell us. We really welcome people that are passionate about sustainability topics to be in touch, whether or not you can join us in London, because this is a global movement; this is a critical part of fueling the ongoing impact that free and open source software has in giving us control of our long-term technology destiny. So if it resonates with you, be in touch; we’d love to keep you in the loop.

[00:28:23.01] Excellent. One more plug, because we do have Slack, and there is some community organization behind the scenes here that you can get involved in in real-time… And forgive me if I’m repeating this, but Changelog.com/community - a huge invitation; everyone is welcome, you are not an impostor. No matter where you’re at in your developer path, this is a place to come and call home, but in particular for Sustain, we do have a channel for Sustain, so if you wanna be involved in some of these pre-conversations, or post-conversations, or what you had said before, Gunner, which is the “Where from here?” If you wanna sustain that part of it (to keep the metaphor rolling), then you can. So I would encourage anyone listening to this - we’ll put it in the show notes, of course, but Changelog.com/community. You’re invited, you’re welcome. It does not cost you anything, it’s free, so just go and do it, and get involved, if that’s what is cool for you. It’s good to be home, as we say. And thats got dollar sign in front of it and its all caps so it’s super accurate.

[laughs]

Nice. Alright, Gunner, thanks so much for the call, and hey, have a great event. We’re happy to help support it.

Excellent. We are grateful for your support, and we look forward to continuing the conversation with you. Thank you both so much.

Changelog

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