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Diving into how and why they build community at the open-source collaboration tool company ownCloud.

How ownCloud’s community has changed over time

Jonathan Reimer
Jonathan Reimer
Founder & CEO

In this “The Rise of Community” interview, Katrin and Klaas make a deep dive into how and why they build community at the open-source collaboration tool company ownCloud. You will learn more about their new community program, how other communities helped them grow, why there is now competition among open source projects, and much much more. Have fun with this extensive interview!

Jonathan (@jonathimer): Hi, do you want to shortly introduce yourself?

Katrin: Hi, I am Katrin and I joined ownCloud a few months ago to manage community relations and be a point of contact for the community. I have been a community manager all of my professional life - however, in different fields, mostly in IT, though. What I really like about ownCloud are the colleagues, what they believe in and what their underlying motivation is: offering users and customers an alternative with regards to the big tech companies when it comes to collaboration software. This belief, that a user or an organization should have a choice, has really impressed me here, in my short time at ownCloud.  

Klaas: Hello, I am Klaas. I am an open source developer by heart and joined the ownCloud project right after it was announced more than ten years ago. Back then I was very interested in creating the file synchronization part of the project, and I built a very first version of an ownCloud sync client. I happily joined the ownCloud company later to start building the desktop client with the strong ownCloud community. It is a central component of the ownCloud solution stack to this day. The project and the company have evolved over the last decade, and about a year ago I took the position as CTO at ownCloud.

Jonathan: Do want to give us a short overview of what ownCloud is doing?

Katrin: ownCloud is an open-source file sync and share tool for content collaboration. It enables teams to work on data from anywhere, on any device. Users can collaborate efficiently and easily whilst having control over their data and keeping their data safe and GDPR compliant at all times.

However, that's not all. As we speak, our engineers are working on an entirely new product: ownCloud Infinite Scale, which is currently at technical preview stage. This is an all-new generation collaboration platform. It varies from ownCloud 10 as it is built on a whole new technology stack. It is written in Go, using microservices. Klaas can tell you a bit more about the technical side of things.  

Klaas: Yes, the first vision around ownCloud was to provide a system that allows individuals and groups to store and share unstructured data such as documents, but also structured data like calendar appointments without having to use data centers of big companies with unclear privacy regulations. This idea and the project have evolved over the years towards a much broader solution, but the basic idea of digital sovereignty has always remained central: The users, nowadays not only individuals but also companies and large organizations, will stay in control of who has access to their data.

Based on the experience with the solution we decided to start a new project called ownCloud Infinite Scale. Following the idea that scalability has to be a design paradigm, we chose golang to build a new platform following the microservices architecture idea. That gives us the benefits of a modern development framework to build the future proof backend for ownCloud that can literally serve infinite scaling and performance benefits that the new cloud native world is offering. And while we were at it, we also came up with a completely reworked web frontend called ownCloud Web to use up-to-date web technologies in our central client.

ownCloud Infinite Scale is still in Tech Preview, but it will be released in 2022 and we are confident that this will be a new generation of data platforms with astonishing new ways to collaborate over data in a scalable and fresh way that will allow the whole community to reach out for new ideas based on the platform.

Jonathan: Can you describe ownCloud's approach to developer community building?

Katrin: First of all, ownCloud encourages its employees to engage in the community. Most of our staff is already active in the community space, some are only starting to get engaged. We launched the ownCloud community program a few weeks ago to give our community engagement approach a framework and structure. Especially with ownCloud Infinite Scale, anyone who wants to find out more, attend dedicated meetings and events, and interact with us on a technical basis, can opt-in by joining this program and getting in touch with us. It is also a means for us to express our appreciation to the community contributors for everything they do and a way to give back.  

Klaas: ownCloud is a very diverse community that is not only open and friendly to developers but to all who want to contribute in their preferred way, be it code, documentation, bug reports, reviews, whatever. Many employees of the company have come to ownCloud while/after they were active in other communities such as openSUSE, openStack, KDE or GNOME. All these communities work to bring the benefits of an open source development process to enterprises, and as a result, there is a lot of experience with that in ownCloud. This underlines our focus on enterprise use cases that we have been following for a few years.

To approach developer communities we are following the best practices of the open source development models which we believe in such as transparency by good documentation (see for example ownCloud.dev), open by default, good code quality, and appealing tech stack to talk to the most vibrant communities, and having an interesting product roadmap.

Jonathan: What has been the biggest challenge in building your community so far?

Katrin: Seeing as ownCloud Infinite Scale is being built on a whole new technology stack, this means a lot of change not only for us internally but also for the community and our users in general. And this will be a balancing act with regards to our community engagement, as we want to make sure that everyone feels heard - the community that has existed for many years but also the new evolving community.

One challenge in the recent past was definitely that there was a lot of focus on the development of ownCloud Infinite Scale and therefore not as much time dedicated to the community as we would have liked. We really want to engage more in the technical community, as we know how valuable this is, in order to get product feedback and raise awareness for our new collaboration platform that we are building. With ownCloud Infinite Scale currently being at Tech Preview stage we see a great opportunity to work closely with community. We already have an Early Adopter Program in place where the technical exchange is excellent and everyone who is part of the regular meetings learns a lot by joining other partners who are already working with ownCloud Infinite Scale.

Klaas: ownCloud saw a fork a few years ago, and as you might know, forks are always bad for community and projects. The reason for that is that in fork situations often the focus shifts away from the technical topics towards way less interesting areas as marketing and such, which only benefits the competition to open source solutions. That has not been different here, and that has harmed the projects considerably. I think we do not have to deny that we pulled the shorter bit in terms of community right after the fork. But that does not mean too much, as there is always a way to regain the interest of the broader community by delivering interesting topics, technology, and solutions and ramping up the discussion. And that is what we have been doing with ownCloud Infinite Scale for some time now, and it is looking very promising.

Jonathan: Can you share 3 learnings, you have made so far, working with developers?

Katrin: For one, I have found that every single developer I have ever spoken to has always understood - without the blink of an eye - what community is about. There is no explanation needed. Number two: as a non-techie listening to a bunch of developers getting carried away in an in-depth technical discussion impresses me every single time: the joint passion for a technical project always leaves me thinking: 'Wow'!  Number three: Yes, it is true: Developers are humans! And they are very helpful, eager to share their knowledge, and also lots of fun to hang out with.

Klaas: If we agree to rephrase the question a bit to "... working with open source developers?" I can answer that. From the beginning of my engagement with open source more than 25 years ago, I was always totally fascinated by how work was done in the open source space. The open way of collaboration, the will to learn by having others looking at your work, the big innovation power, and the fun and fulfillment that results from a successful team effort is something that is very special. This "ease of work" that we had in the open source projects, in the beginning, was very different to how commercial software development was done. Meanwhile, many things like remote teams, to some degree agile management, etc., which were influenced by the open source scene, are very important tools in the entire software industry today. That is a great success, not only open source software is everywhere nowadays, also the development processes are.

Jonathan: What's your favorite resource on community building?

Katrin: I am not sure I have a favorite resource on community building as in a book or video as such. I think the best 'resource' to have as a community manager is having a genuine interest in the community and the people who contribute to it. Being a natural 'relationship manager' comes in handy as well as being authentic and trustworthy. Understanding why people are contributing to a project, their motivation, and how that can be built upon by connecting people with each other, that's probably the most important ingredient for community building in my point of view. Of course, offering a (or multiple) platform(s) for exchange - online and offline - is a given, as the conversations that need to take place in order to build a community cannot be one-sided. Community building also does not happen from one day to the next, it takes time, extra effort, dedication, and patience.

Jonathan: Looking into the future, what do you think will be the role of the community for developer-focused companies and products?

Klaas: For ownCloud, the community is traditionally very important as it was growing on the shoulders of different, strong communities. It is still very important today, however, now with the companies’ focus on enterprise use cases, the community has changed slightly towards a community of professional users and admins. That does not mean that we want to be exclusive in any way, but things evolve, and we see this change in our community as well.

For me, community is mostly about inspiration. We learn so much about our product, its use cases, its benefits, and downsides, and we are eager to pick up on that information. The more diverse the community is, the more relevant the product will be in the future, and that is the most important aspect. In earlier days, communities’ focus was often more on concrete contributions in code, translations, bug reports, and so on, and that still is appreciated and important, but the inspiration to improve the project is key for me.

However, nowadays there is huge competition between projects. There are so many interesting projects around, and all are looking for attention and contributors. That means that if a project wants to be relevant and interesting, it needs to follow a high standard in terms of transparency, documentation, development of best practices, and so forth. Unfortunately, nowadays marketing seems to be way more relevant for community buzz than good engineering, and companies like ownCloud who are proud of their engineering excellence, need to learn how to deal with that even more.

Katrin: I agree with Klaas, however, I also believe that in the long run, when it comes to influencing the product development, the community, and with that the adoption and usage of a product, it is the developers who are key. Marketing may seem very important for creating a buzz in the community, however, it is much more short-lived. Developers create, develop, test, and maintain – and they are an audience that is not susceptible to marketing. In my point of view, the developers will be much more in the driver’s seat, they are the influencers of the future.

On a more general level, I believe that community will become even more important than it already is today. The digital world is becoming more and more complex, and this community will play an even bigger role. People will seek additional information to orientate themselves in this complex world. Here, the aspect of time plays a vital role - people will have less and less time at their disposal and they will need to invest this selectively and wisely. They will most likely invest this valuable time in projects they thoroughly believe in, where they can learn, engage and maybe even contribute to a better world. Discussions, interactions, and the exchange in the communities, online as well as offline, will become even more important for the individual in the future - for the technical contributors as well as for non-technical community contributors to get some orientation in this fast-changing world.

Jonathan: Thanks a lot for this interview!

About "The Rise of Community"

Community is moving more and more into the focus of the software industry and beyond. Traditional marketing approaches are coming to an end with more of our (professional) lives taking place online. Therefore, companies are relying on building communities now more than ever. This is especially reasonable for products that rely on a bottom-up approach such as open-source or API. But how do these new, community-driven organizations work? What are their tips and tricks? And how will the future of communities look like? In the interview series “The Rise of Community”, you will read about the world's best community builders, including founders, DevRels, developer marketers, and community managers.

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