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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Jono Bacon on Building Community and Remote Collaboration

Jono Bacon on Building Community and Remote Collaboration

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Jono Bacon about building communities, the value of community when suddenly working remotely and remote collaboration.

Key Takeaways

  • In the suddenly remote environment caused by COVID-19, community becomes even more important than when teams were mainly collocated
  • Every business has got an internal community to a degree, often somewhat accidental in nature, but when you become remote you need to lean on that sense of connectedness with your colleagues a lot more
  • One of the things that unify communities more than anything else is a sense of purpose
  • There are three types of communities in the world - consumer, champion and collaborator
  • When working remotely it’s very important to be intentional about maintaining the relationships with your colleagues

Show Notes

  • 00:00 Shane: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast.  I'm sitting down remotely with Jono Bacon. Jono, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.
  • 00:17 Jono: Thanks, Shane. It's good to be here. I appreciate you having me on.
  • 00:19 Shane: We met a few moments ago, but you have quite a wide profile.  Would you be so kind as to tell us a little bit about yourself please?
  • 00:27 Jono: Yeah. In a nutshell, I help companies to build communities. I'm really passionate about the value you can get when you plug people together and you give them a sense of meaning and practical things that they can do and the results can be pretty powerful.
  • 00:41 I'm a consultant. Working with companies now. I started doing that about four years ago, but before that I used to lead community at Canonical, which is the company that makes Ubuntu, GitHub and X-Prize. And I just put out a new book recently called People Powered: how communities can supercharge your business brand and teams.  Which essentially provides a good overview of the value of communities and how you go about putting one together.
  • 01:03 Shane: We are suddenly remote. We are early April. The world is chaotic around us and most of our audience are going to be listening to this, not on their daily commute, but probably sitting at home, maybe locked in.  What does community look like in the age of coronavirus and right in the midst of this.
  • 01:26 Jono: I think there's two angles to this.
  • 01:29 There's a lot of kind of public community stories that are happening. One of the things that unifies communities more than anything is a sense of purpose. And a good example of this is, you know, I read a story a few days ago of a grocery store somewhere in the US I think it was, and they didn't have enough staff to clean the store and to sanitize it.
  • 01:45 And they had a large elderly population nearby and were going to have to close the grocery store down. And 70 local residents have been going there every day to help clean the store. There's many, many examples of this forming around the world. But I think what's also happening is people are really starting to collaborate together inside of businesses and build their own internal communities.
  • 02:03 And every business has got an internal community to a degree, somewhat accidental in nature, but when you become remote, you kind of lean on that sense of connectedness with your colleagues a lot more. Because you know, when you're at the office, you can go and have lunch, you can grab a coffee and you can hang around the water cooler. I don't know if anyone actually does that, actually literally stands around water coolers talking, but you can conceivably do that. So what's interesting is that communities, I think, are naturally manifesting, and I think people are realizing just how much potential is wrapped up in all of that.
  • 02:33 Shane: If we want it to be a little bit more deliberate rather than just let it emerge. What can leaders in organizations do? And also maybe we can explore what individuals can do to create this community?
  • 02:46 Jono: I mean, it's a great question. I think the first thing is that communities can sometimes turn into a big collection of variables. If you think about the trappings of what you usually think about when it comes to, especially online communities with platforms and social media and content and all of this stuff. To me, everything has got to start with value. Like what do you want to get out of it? And this varies from organization to organization, you know?
  • 03:09 So just give you a couple of examples of popular communities. Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, they've all built communities of over a million members where they get together to run events and create content and provide support to each other. You know, I'm sure many of your listeners have typed a question into Google and ended up in a forum somewhere and got the answer that they needed.
  • 03:27 But you've also got, for example, engineering communities. I mean, the open source community is probably the finest example of that, where, you know, most of the technology that's running infrastructure these days is open source. And that's all built by people collaborating, a lot of those people to pay to collaborate together, but they often work for competing companies.
  • 03:42 You know, Kubernetes is good example of that. But I think we need to look at, you know, what kind of community do you want? And there's three types of communities in the world. I call it consumer, champion and collaborator. So consumers are where you get together, cause you have a common interest such as Star Trek funds in a forum and you hang out with each other and it feels good to meet your clan. You know, that's one of the reasons why they thrive.
  • 04:02 The second is called champion, which is where people go the extra mile and they create content, they organize events, they provide support and guidance to each other. These are the most popular types of communities, and lots of people build communities like that around their products.
  • 04:15 So a good example of that will be Fitbit. Many of us have got one of these Fitbit bands on, and if you go to their community, people aren't just asking questions about their devices, but they're asking, how do I swim better? Should I do intermitent fasting? What kind of exercise equipment should I be buying? Things like that.
  • 04:31 And then the collaborator communities are people who work together on the same thing. Such as open source as an example,
  • 04:36 But I think what you do is you focus on, okay, what do we want to get out of this and what do we want our potential members to get out of this? Because if you can't define the value, you will not build something that's interesting enough to pierce through all of the noise in the world, right?
  • 04:49 Whether it's people watching the Tiger King or whether it's people, you know, people playing games or music or whatever else we need to get through that to bring people in. And then essentially what you do is you define the value and then you pick your target audiences.
  • 05:01 So let's say we're within the context of engineering. Let's say you want people to be able to provide support for your product, and you want people to maybe build technology together., such as write code together and an open source project. I would then define your two target audiences such as that, and then you make it really simple for them to onboard into your community and do something that's valuable.
  • 05:21 So, for example, for someone who provides support, it could be posting a question and getting an answer, or it could be providing an answer to someone else's question.  Or for an engineering persona, it could be fixing a bug and getting accepted into the project. And what happens is we need to focus on the onboarding critically first, because you can do all of the outreach and awareness in the world that you like, but if it's too difficult for people to get started, they'll give up. And what happens then is once they've generated that first piece of value they go through three phases.
  • 05:49 They start out as casual members, then they become regulars, and then they become core. We want to build a habit. You want them coming back to your community every day for at least two months, because that's when it builds a habit, it takes two months to build a habit psychologically, and the way in which we build that habit is through incentives and great information, great discussions and great content. And then before you know it, you've got someone in your community who's just there,  they're providing a lot of value, they're getting a lot of value, and then it grows, you know, they recommend it to more people, and that's how you build a lot of growth.
  • 06:18 Shane: So lthat's s structure a process for doing this.  Why would I bother; there so many already there?
  • 06:25 Jono: It's a great question. The simple answer is, unless you can see a real reason to do this, don't. Because frankly, communities are no silver bullet, they take time, they take resources to work.
  • 06:37 I think there are many reasons to do so though.
  • 06:39 There's kind of a broader strategic view, and then there's a more narrow pragmatic view. The narrow pragmatic view is there are many individual types of value you can get. So such as, there are many examples of companies who have built communities, and it makes it easier for them to get their brand to break into new markets, into new industries.
  • 06:57 Because you essentially build an army of advocates who love what you do. You can lower your support costs significantly by encouraging your community members to provide answers to each other. And what that also does is that will also index that on Google. So that means that people will go to Google and search for a question and it brings them in, and then that's the first step in building a relationship with them.
  • 07:17 There's often a lot of lead generation that comes from communities. People will often use communities and browse forums and content before they buy, and then they can enter into a lead generation pipeline. A ton of technology development as being built. So there's lots of really practical value.
  • 07:31 But, really the real value in my mind is more strategic in nature, and there's two pieces to this. One is the build a real relationship with your audience. If you join a community, you essentially become a bit of a power user and you love what that company's doing. You get more value out of the product that you're using and it gives you a greater sense of retention and a great level of referrals for other people to come in.
  • 07:54 But the other even more zoomed out element of this is that the relationship between people and brands is changing for you and I, Shane, we grew up in a time when there wasn't the internet and the internet has manifested since then. The commoditization of technology has happened since then. Millennials today, they've growing up with Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, and that changes the relationship between people and brands.
  • 08:15 So. I don't think a lot of companies can operate without having an ecosystem, because that's going to be part and parcel. It's going to be an expectation and that there's more and more of a demand for it than ever before.
  • 08:27 So I think you can get great retention, really practical value, and it's just a change in generational requirement, I think as well.
  • 08:34 Shane: 08:34 That's a good why for an organization. Let's go a little bit closer to maybe inside and organization.  We're in the coronavirus world, we're sitting in a state where suddenly people who did work together on a day to day basis, they're  scattered they're at home, their means of connection is Zoom or a Microsoft Teams call, if you're lucky.  There's a slew of emails, 120 new Slack channels.  why, help!?
  • 09:07 Jono: Yes, exactly. You know, that's a good point. One of the problems I think especially as people are thrust into more of a remote working environment, is people are looking at this as a technology problem, they're saying, okay, well what tools do we need?
  • 09:19 We need to make sure we get Slack sets up. And you know, the examples that you just gave Shane, and I don't think it is a technology problem. It is a culture problem because when you take away the computers and the screens and the Slack and everything else, we tend to forget that we're animals and we have a very, frankly, simplistic set of needs and concerns.
  • 09:38 And one of the most critical things I think we need to bear in mind is that when people don't have the right kind of information available to them, they tend to jump to conclusions and then make stuff up. So one of the problems that a lot of companies face when they go remote working is they don't have a regular drip feed of information to their staff.
  • 09:54 So people get paranoid and weirded out, and that's where all kinds of problems can manifest. So the first thing I think a company needs to do is make sure you have a regular information wire to your employees. Some of the best companies in the world do this. Like Github is a good example. When I used to work there, they've got a service called Teams.
  • 10:11 Our Team, I think it's called the blog, where the material every day about just what's going on at Github and it's a company expectation that people post updates and information that keeps people glued in.
  • 10:20 But the other element to this as well is as human beings we need meaning, right? We need to do things that we think of making a difference.
  • 10:27 There are very few people who are quite happy to just go through and you know, work through their checklist and be happy. You know, we need to feel like what we're doing has got a broader purpose and you need to be intentional about delivering that to your employees as well. So that's another piece.
  • 10:40 But one of the things that bothers me about the current discussion about remote working is we assume that everybody has the same remote working experience. What you need to do. Is you need to make it the best experience, then everybody will have the best experience. It just doesn't work that way.
  • 10:54 There are some people, you can give them the best remote working environment in the world. They just need the social structure of an office. They need a desk. Like a friend of mine who sells life insurance here in California, he is climbing the walls right now because he needs that social structure of an office.
  • 11:08 So I think we need to make sure that we're aware of that and that people go through waves. I've worked from home almost my entire career. Some days I just don't care about work. You just show up  work you show up to the office, you're just not in the mood. We go through waves where we're motivated. We go through waves where we're de-motivated.
  • 11:24 So I think the more companies can put in place a regular information flow, good training and guidance for how people can react to these situations. Like if you're distracted, teach people how to go into private browsing mode and move the distraction away. Teach people how to have a closed door environment where they can work without being distracted by their families. That kind of guidance, I think is really critical on top of the technology pieces that you put there.
  • 11:46 Shane: As the individual, what are some of these practical things?   There were a couple in there, what are some others?
  • 11:53 Jono: Let's say one of your audience members has been asked to work from home. Couple of very practical things I would recommend.
  • 11:58 The first thing is to make sure you actually have an office as best you can, and you can lock the door. Now, this is difficult for people, if you live in a little apartment, you may have to work in the kitchen, but as best you can, make sure you've got your computer setup, you've got a desk where you can put your  papers and everything. You have a comfortable ergonomic chair, otherwise you're going to get some back problems. And ideally a separate monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. You need a place to go and work. And people are getting creative right now with Coronavirus. They're having like portions of their living room or whatever. If you can't have the ability to close the door, and you live with people such as roommates or family members, make it clear that when you're working during the day, you can't be disturbed. This is one thing that a lot of people struggle with and causes marital problems when that conversation hasn't been had, and you gotta be very explicit about that.
  • 12:43 I think the other thing is you've got to create a schedule and a routine and stick to it. One of the problems with a lot of modern businesses, and I think especially in tech, is that people are so glued in with Slack and email on their phones that they feel like they always need to be at work. And that there's an unwritten expectation that if you don't respond in the evening, then you're somehow a bit of a slacker.
  • 13:01 So set your schedule. Let's say it's 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM and be clear with your colleagues and be clear with your manager about that, that you know, it doesn't mean you can't work in the evenings, but it's your choice about whether you do that.
  • 13:12 And I think the other element here is you've gotta be intentional about managing these distractions. One of the big problems with people working from home is they get super distracted.  So close down browser tabs that you don't need to look at. Make sure that you put your phone on silent if you need to do some work, carve out time. Like one thing I do for example, with my assistant is I generally only have calls in the mornings and I leave my afternoons open so I can actually do work. Otherwise you're on the phone all day.
  • 13:36 The other element that I would recommend here is to be intentional about maintaining the relationships with your colleagues. So let's say you're on Slack. It's easy when you work from home to just descend into your world., Your email and stuff that you need to do.
  • 13:49 Well, carve out time to just drop someone, a note, an email, or a Slack message, and just say, Hey, how are things going? How's this project going? Or how's the family doing? Most of us are pretty bad at this and we forget to do it. So set reminders where you can do that.
  • 14:02 And I think those practical things will help to alleviate a lot of the stresses.
  • 14:06 Shane: 14:06 So harking back to your experience in the open source community. I'm sure you've got some interesting stories. Let's hear some of the horror stories and some of the things that worked.
  • 14:16 Jono: 14:16 It's been really interesting because I got into open source in 1998 where it was pretty early in the evolution of open source, and I was 18 when I started, and things have changed enormously over the years.
  • 14:28 We've been through a few different eras, I think, in how open sources evolved. You know, today in the enterprise spaces, it's extremely dominant. You know, if you look at Linux and Kubernetes and TensorFlow and all these projects, they're used by thousands of companies around the world, major cloud infrastructure is running on open source, but it took a while to get there.
  • 14:47 I think in the earlier days of open source, we didn't have an identity. We didn't know what we were doing. So there was experimentation around building system administration tools such as the Canoe tools, but there was a lot of experimentation around the desktop and client consumer devices. When I was at Canonical working on Ubuntu, we became the most popular Linux desktop because I think we were one of the few organizations that did it right. It just tended to work, which in the Linux world was not a common thing back then. But one of the things I think that we discovered through that, and you know, with Ubuntu, the desktop was very popular. And then we went to build a phone and a tablet and all of these other pieces from this kind of converged code base.
  • 15:25 But we discovered, I think that there was a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of excitement in the enthusiast community around the consumer side, but there wasn't a lot of money. You know, companies weren't necessarily willing to pay for that because the competing ecosystems such as Windows and Google and Apple were so entrenched with apps that it was very difficult to move people away from that.
  • 15:45 Whereas with the infrastructure and the enterprise software. It was something that companies were already putting into action and using. It wasn't as much of a ecosystem play on them. And I think as we went through those early phases of open source as part of that identity, there were lots of kinds of in-fights.  There was infighting between people who were more on the ethical free software side and people who were more on the open source pragmatism side.
  • 16:06 But as a general rule, I think we've just been learning how to do this. And in retrospect, it seems so obvious that today businesses build value around certification and training and Open Core, which is where you have a proprietary product that sits on top of an open source project.
  • 16:22 Those things are tending to work, but back then there was five or 10 different business models people tried that just didn't work out.
  • 16:28 So I think we've reached a kind of a level field now. I think the new challenge is going to be the balance between proprietary products and open source projects, which is Open Core, which is a very controversial topic right now.
  • 16:40 But also there's a lot of stress right now around, you know, you have an open source project and the company that builds it, and then you can take someone like Amazon or Microsoft that can go and take that project and bundle it into their cloud service and then suck out all of the revenue. So people are coming up with interesting licensing approaches to deal with that. So, you know, it's an interesting evolution, but the core principles have remained largely the same, we've just been figuring out what works and what doesn't work.
  • 17:05 Shane: What are some of the examples of exceptional communities and what have they done right?
  • 17:11 Jono: I think there are lots of examples in very different ways.
  • 17:14 You know, I think one community that is really remarkable is GitLab, and I've gotta be careful here cause I used to work at GitHub and my wife is the Chief Operating Officer of GitHub. But I think GitLab have done amazing work in building a huge remote company and a huge community wrapped around building it.
  • 17:31 And they have really taken the notion of openness to the nth degree. To give you two examples, their entire company handbook is completely open. Anyone can read it, and it's really interesting. They're very, very open. But there's another example, and I often use this as an example when I'm doing talks. One time somebody made a mistake, an engineer made a mistake and GitLab went down and they tried like 10 backups and it would not come back up again.
  • 17:55 A lot of companies would batton down the hatches and tell the PR people to tell journalists to go away until they fixed it and then be a groveling apology. GitLab didn't do that. They created a Google doc and they invited that community to help debug it, and they had a live YouTube stream. While this was all going on.
  • 18:10 And it was remarkable. So I think they're are really phenomenal example of community don't, well.
  • 18:15 I think another great example is Harley Davidson. They built a really large community of local chapters all around the world. Holly Davidson people are lunatics when it comes to their bike. They're super obsessed and they've built a really nice community where people got a lot of identity at a local level.
  • 18:29 I mentioned Fitbit earlier on. I think they've done a really good job also because they've balanced a place where people can go and have conversations and also where people can go and be critical about their products. And you've gotta be okay with that when you build a community.
  • 18:42 And I think another one that is just an interesting story. Joseph Gordon Levitt, who's the Emmy award winning actor. I met him at a conference once. So you wrote a bit of content for my book, People Powered, and he told me about his community called Hit Record, where they've got 750,000 artists who write music, create storyboards, do graphics, and they come together to work on shared projects such as videos and movies. And a lot of those have been showcased at Sundance.
  • 19:08 So what's exciting to me is that there are all of these wonderful examples of communities. But there are so many things that we're going to see moving forward that we haven't seen yet. We're still discovering, we're in the stone age when it comes to communities. There's so much we can do as technology becomes more pervasive and people can collaborate in different ways.
  • 19:25 Shane: Jono, thanks very much. Really interesting stuff. You've mentioned a couple of books and articles.  We'll include the links to those in the show notes, but if people want to continue the conversation where do they find you?
  • 19:37 Jono: Probably a good place to go is my website, which is and something that may be relevant as well as I put together a little pack where people can go and grab a couple of free chapters of the book and some templates and some videos and that's at
  • 19:53 it's kind of a bit of a dip your toes in the water kind of thing.
  • 19:56 Shane: Thank you so much.
  • 19:57 Jono: Thank you, sir.


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