The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) gets many things right: its governance model for open source development has served hundreds of projects well. The Apache Software License (ASL) is one of the most successful open source licenses, well-liked by many contributors. But the ASF is not perfect, and it has a few areas where serious improvement is needed.
One of the areas is promoting the ASF and its Top-Level Projects (TlPs). The ASF has more than 150 TLPs, but the odds are most people in the tech industry have only heard of a few of them. The ASF itself is fairly conservative about telling its own story, and most of its TLPs are content to send out the occasional release announcement to their announce@ mailing list – with the barest of details, usually not even noting what the project does – and with no effort to reach out to the larger community via social media or by pitching press. (A wire release is not the same as actually pitching most tech press.)
Why It Matters
What’s the point in making software and then not telling anyone about it? It’s rare indeed for a project to be so mind-bogglingly good and relevant to users immediate needs that word-of-mouth alone can carry it to the full audience that would benefit from it. And, possibly, contribute to it.
It’s the contribute to it that really interests me. You see, Apache is voluunteers. Oh, sure, people get paid to work on Apache projects – but not by Apache. They get paid by IBM, Citrix, SUSE, Red Hat, Microsoft, and hundreds of other companies. Which means that when their $dayjob means not working on Apache software, they almost inevitably slow down contributions – if not stop entirely.
Volunteer contributions ebb and flow. The contributor who put in the most patches for the last release may not have time when she finishes her university studies and has to get a full-time job. The release manager for the current release is going to run out of time in a few weeks when he moves to a new job that doesn’t have anything to do with Apache software. The best contributor you’ve ever had hasn’t sent in a single patch yet, because she’s never heard of your project. You get the point – you need new users to become new contributors to become new committers to become PMC members, and eventually ASF members.
It also matters when it comes to finding donations for the foundation. Apache keeps growing, and the needs of its projects continue to grow. A few years ago a few mailing lists, a Subversion repository, and a Web site were enough to call it good. Now projects want Jenkins, code signing, git repositories (and migrations from Subversion), etc. Storage requirements grow every day. The number of commits grows every day. The number of tickets to Apache Infra – which is not entirely staffed by volunteers – will also increase.
It also matters because Apache does not only need to attract more contributors, but more diverse contributors. That’s a lot more than just publicity, but it’s an important consideration here.
Finally, we need to be promoting The Apache Way rather than becoming complacent. “Open source” (for certain values of “open source”) may have “won,” but The Apache Way certainly hasn’t. Throwing code over the wall on GitHub is no way to grow a community. There’s a lot more to it than that, which projects tend to find if they gather any sort of popularity and start hitting growing pains.
Apache provides quite a few services, including some press/marketing help – but we have one contractor for the ASF’s 150+ projects.
We need to think about how we assist projects in promoting themselves and the foundation.
Another problem: Right now, most of the ASF’s projects are silos. There’s damn little communication between projects, with some notable exceptions (e.g. the Hadoop family of projects). Sure, the ASF members from various projects communicate on some of the private lists, but there’s damn little collaboration between PMCs and committers.
We can do better, and we need to do better.
One of the top things we need to do as a foundation is start focusing on publicity overall, and that means actually communicating. Right now, only three of the 150+ TLPs have a marketing list: CouchDB, CloudStack, OpenOffice. I’d wager than only a few actually recognize non-code contributions like marketing assistance as “merit” towards becoming a committern/PMC member.
A few weeks ago, I asked Infra to create a marketing@apache mailing list. There’s a press@ mailing list, but it’s private – only for folks working on marketing for the foundation, or members who’d like to join.
Press@ is needed for things that should be confidential, but there’s a whole host of conversations that can happen in the open. My hope is that folks interested in promoting Apache projects will join and start talking about how their projects can improve their promotional efforts and how projects can work together.
I also have a lot of ideas and suggestions how projects can improve their promotional efforts, but I’ll save that for another post later this week.
The slides from my talk at ApacheCon Europe are below. Have comments? Ping me on Twitter @jzb, or send me a note to my Apache.org email (also “jzb”).