Open Source Mentoring: Your Path to Immortality


Rich Bowen is omnipresent at any Open Source conference. He wears many hats. He has been doing Open Source for 20+ years, and has worked on dozens of different projects during that time. He’s a board member of the Apache Software Foundation, and is active on the Apache HTTPd project. He works at Red Hat, where he’s a community manager on the OpenStack and CentOS projects.

At Open Source Summit North America, Bowen will be delivering a talk titled “Mentoring: Your Path to Immortality.” We talked to Bowen to know more about the secret of immortality and successful open source projects. What was the inspiration behind your talk?

Rich Bowen: My involvement in open source is 100 percent the result of people who mentored me, encouraged me to participate, and cheered me on as I worked. In recent years, as I have lost steam on some of these projects. I’ve turned my attention to encouraging younger people to step in and fill my space. This has been every bit as rewarding as participating myself, and I wanted to share some of this joy. Have you seen projects that died because their creators left?

Bowen: Oh, sure. Dozens of them. And many of them were projects that had a passionate user community, but no active developers. I tend to think of these projects as not really open source. It’s not enough to have your code public, or even under an open source license. You have to actually have a collaborative community in order for your project to be truly open and sustainable. When we talk about immortality of a project and changing leadership, there can be many factors — documentation, adapting processes, sustainability. What do you think are some of the factors that ensure immortality?

Bowen: Come to my talk and find out! Seriously, the most important thing — the thing that I want people to take away from my talk — is that you be willing to step out of your comfort zone and ask someone to help out. Be willing to relinquish control, and let someone else do something that you could probably do letter. Or, maybe you couldn’t. There’s only one way to find out. Can you give an example of some of the projects that followed the model and have never faced issues with changing guard?

Bowen: I would have to point to the Apache Web server. The project is 23 years old, and there’s only one person involved now who was involved at the beginning. The rest of the people working on it come and go, based on their interests and availability. The culture of handing out commit rights to all interested parties has been sustained over the years, and all the people on the project are treated as equals.

Other interesting examples include projects like Linux, Perl, or Python, which have very strong project leaders who, while they remain the public face of the project, in reality, delegate a lot of their power to the community. These projects all have strong cultures of mentors reaching out to new contributors and helping them with their first contributions. How important are people and processes in the open source world or is it all about technology?

Bowen: We have a saying at Apache: Community > Code. 

Obviously, our communities are based around code, but it’s the community, not the code, that the Apache board looks at when it evaluates whether a project is running in a sustainable way.

I would assert that open source is all about people — people who happen to like technology. The open source mindset, and everything that I talk about in my presentation, are equally applicable to any discipline where people create in a collaborative way — academia is one obvious example, but there are lots of other places like government, business coalitions, music, and so on.

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