Interview: What are the grounds of a successful Open Source project ?

Alexandra Labudda 1 December 2006

David Molliere is a freelance webdesigner living in Paris. He runs his personal site david-molliere.net, and is currently heading the marketing effort for MODx, an open source CMS and php application framework. David likes to cook and is quite an amateur wine buff (not only French wine!). His main hobby is digital photography, which tags along well with a taste for travelling and long weekends. He is a big reader of thrillers, a ravenous watcher of US TV shows, and goes to the movies at least twice a week.

Q. David, you are member of the MODx team and have been around Textpattern CMS too, translating, building the French board, and part of the official online documentation called Textbook back in 2004. How important is it for you to belong to a well working OS community?

My first involvement with open source communities dates back to 2001, when I first started to use the French CMS SPIP. But it’s when I joined the Textpattern community in 2004 that I really experienced the power of a “well working open source community”.

To me open source communities are about sharing. It all starts with the core team, which shares a vision of what they want to achieve with an open source software. Then with the early adopters, who share the belief that the application is either filling a gap, or doing better than existing solutions. When there are enough people gathering around an application, there’s dynamics (contributions are regular and significant) and continuity (long term commitment from enough people) : you can talk about a community.

I believe I was an early adopter when I joined Textpattern. It was still gamma 1.16 at the time. I had been looking for a solution better than SPIP for my website and I had tested dozens of OS CMS, but Textpattern stood out immediately. Not only did I like the vision behind it (simplicity and elegance) and the app’s flexibility, but a look at the forums really finished convincing me. There was talent and passion there: smart dedicated people, and a fun leader (Dean). Even if Textpattern was not nearly as known as it is now, it was obvious to me that it was a very promising application supported by a great community. When for various reasons I decided to jump on board @MODx, it felt just like home: Open, vibrant, passionate and talented community !

I have met great people, and learned half of what I know in various boards of open source communities, and even went freelance into webdesign thanks to my txp experience so Yes!, I’d say it has become quite essential to me to belong to an OS community. Today I keep on learning every day : that is, not only by getting answers but also providing them, it’s a very educating process. Participating in OS communities has also been a continuous incentive to push the envelope: first by really learning to master XHTML and CSS, and now really get down to learn PHP (I signed up for a one week intensive training program) and hopefully finally contribute some code!

Q. Since Firefox´s overwhelming success 2004/2005 it became more than obvious that the success of an OS projects relies strongly on a highly motivated community. Is a well driven community something that just happens or is it `work`?

Actually, I do believe it’s a little of both. You can’t make it happen, no matter how hard you’ll work at it : a community does not thrive on the single impulse of its leader (though the leader’s personality is certainly a key factor). But you can’t expect it to emerge with no impulse either, it’s not a spontaneous phenomenon.

What you can do, as a leader or a core member of an OS community, is help set the right conditions to make it emerge :

  • Write an application with people in mind : Of course, OS communities exist only because there is an application to begin with. Obviously, there is little chance that you’ll raise enough interest from users, designers or coders if you build an application with neither in mind. Communities raise out of needs being met. In the case of Textpattern, it was the designers’ needs that were particularly fulfilled. Few if any application at the time was able to offer such flexible templating, and clean standard compliant code. With MODx, I found an application which added another layer of flexibility, namely the ability to build websites with custom data structure. Each application which meets the needs of a given individual or/and a given kind of web project, has a great chance of succeeding at gathering people around it.
  • Set the goals for your project : Without goals, you can’t achieve anything. The challenge with a project is to set the goals high enough to motivate people, but realistic enough not to discourage them or discredit yourself. What drew me to Textpattern and then to MODx is that I felt the goals were realistic yet ambitious enough, and more importantly, I recognized myself in them. It’s the first step toward getting involved, IMHO.
  • Gather the means to get and keep things rolling : Once you have your goals set, you need to get the ball rolling : it usually starts with a website to communicate (about your goals, vision, activities), a forum to enable contribution and discussion, a wiki to start writing doc, a bug report system, a SVN repository… whatever is needed. As the project grows, it can quickly require bigger means. A one-man project becomes a team, a shared hosting becomes a dedicated box… It’s the responsibility of the leaders to ensure that the community has everything (and more importantly everyone) it needs to keep things rolling. It’s also part of my job to help find funds to finance those needs. Of course, things are way easier when you work with people who think ahead :) This being said, keeping the ball rolling is not only a matter of larger team, bigger and better tools. It’s easy to loose the early days “spirit” if you’re not careful to nurture it, which brings me to the next item.
  • Set the mood to enable knowledge sharing and build/strengthen involvement : It’s common place to say that people will share knowledge more easily if they feel they can ask questions without being ridiculed, and that they’ll get have more chance of getting involved if their suggestions are taken into account. This last part has really struck me as outstanding at MODx, devs who actually listen. Of course not every suggestion gets answered but most if not all of them is taken into consideration and if there is a way to do it given the current architecture I’d be surprised not to see it added. How many core mods or add-ons have been born out a user’s suggestion ? Lots !
  • Have fun ! : I really do believe that an open source community needs a good share of fun. It’s like oil in the motor, if you don’t have it, the motor just breaks. I have seen it at Textpattern (Dean’s daily pictures of his dog Oliver, the whole cheese phenomenon are good examples), and I see it at MODx : the mood is good, it’s a fun place to be. That’s key when you don’t hand out pay-checks to people who (sometimes heavily) contribute…

Thanks David for sharing your opinions!