Friday, November 08, 2013

Two risks when working as employee in Free Software communities

I would like to point two risks that I have experienced myself and as manager throughout the last few years working in open environments (Free Software Communities) or projects involving interactions with them.

1.- In any community, there is so much to do...., so many interesting and innovative areas, so many disruptive ideas that can make a difference. There are so many projects that, with a little extra effort and some knowledge, could improve so much....everybody would notice the change, the difference, the impact.

When working as employee or as sponsored contributor you interact with so many people that needs help, that deserves to be helped, that you can learn from... that if you are not strong enough, after a while, without noticing, a significant part of your agenda is somehow determined by those who you help. But although you work on the same project that they do, share principles and environment, they not necessarily share your goals, your responsibilities, your duties, your motivations.

Spreading the energy through different areas, working under demand instead of having a clear control of your agenda, focusing on short term results instead of mid term ones, becoming a pillar for everybody else work in detriment of your own goals, of your own results, is a common syndrome I have suffered myself for a while, specially when working remotely from home, and I have experienced as manager of teams and projects.

What makes the action of any team (or professional) significant in any environment, and particularly in a open ecosystem like a Free Software community, is their ability to maintain during a long period of time a sustained effort focusing its energy in a single point. Only when the plan is achieved or after a proper analysis, jumping to another one is the right thing to do (in normal conditions, obviously).

The effect is even bigger when those points of focus are linked, serving a mid/long term purpose, aligned in a concrete direction. Then the impact is multiplied by the alignment of other people around you.

A key toward success is selecting targets with high impact, spreading its positive effect through the entire project. This multiplying effect requires a high amount of energy in early stages (activation energy).  The chances to create a significant and direct impact in several areas of any project at once are very low unless your team is big... and many not even then.

So the first risk is the loose of focus and its consequence is a reduced impact of the work done.

2.- Working in a Free Software community is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my life. I feel appreciated. My contributions counts. Many people is aware of them. I can work to make them more noticeable. The more popular my contributions become, the more people express me gratitude. The more relevant I become, the more people listen and interact with me...

This process is a spiral that you can learn how to climb in an effective way after some years. We end up learning how to play the game.

When you are a long term contributor and you are in charge of a key part of a project this is exactly what might happen. You arrive to the top of the pyramid, which is a comfortable zone. Too comfortable sometimes. If internal and external balanced forces are not applied, like competition, an adequate professional environment, external pressure/challenges... even the best professional can become too pleasant.

Reward can become a strong drug. It might elevate you in a bubble that, in the mid term, might have a direct and negative impact in the quality of the work you deliver. This is specially true for engineers/contributors that lead significant areas of a community project in which there are not enough contributors to create quality assurance procedures. Or are not applied to the leaders.

The second risk is the lose of "self demand" and its consequence is the reduction of quality of your work.

In my case, changing responsibilities and working environments every few years have helped me. I am not sure to what extend though. Others should judge it, I assume.
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