This past September 22-25, NumFOCUS key stakeholders came together for 4 days of intensive work around questions of sustainability for our open source scientific computing projects: the annual NumFOCUS Summit.
Representatives from nearly all of our sponsored projects were in attendance, in addition to members of the Board (both outgoing and incoming), Advisory Council, Staff, representatives from our Corporate Sponsors, and other interested companies and organizations.
Attendees participated in lively conversations about a variety of core topics for OSS sustainability:
Conversations about roadmaps addressed key questions such as: What is a roadmap, exactly? Why might your project need a roadmap other than the technical roadmap? (Spoiler: to help non-technical folks understand the direction of your project, such as potential funders!) Is it advisable or inadvisable to include target dates on your roadmap? Who writes the roadmap for a project? Where should your roadmap(s) be hosted?
Many projects expressed enthusiasm for working on their roadmaps. nteract did a great deal of work over the course of the Summit on theirs — you can view it here.
Our projects take a variety of approaches to open source governance. During the Summit, we discussed issues such as: How do you bootstrap governance or governance documentation from nothing? What’s the difference between “big” versus “small” governance? What are the pros and cons of different governance structures? How can you tell if there’s been a failure of governance? What plans should be in place to ensure continuity of governance in the event of catastrophe?
Many projects recognized that they lack formal governance documentation and made commitments to get started by recording how governance decisions are currently made. Some participants began drafting a sample governance template that, once completed, will be shared as a resource for projects who wish to start documenting their governance practices.
Fundraising and Grant Writing
Asked what our projects need most, the answer is often “funding.” At the Summit, project representatives were invited to dig deeper and explore exactly what funding might be used to accomplish. In addition to more “obvious” answers like paid development time for key features and code improvements, participants were encouraged to brainstorm creative uses of funding that would solve a pain point or create a benefit to the project. There was also lively conversation around the question of how getting money changes the nature of the expectations on a project.
Example needs that project representatives identified (other than paid developer time) include money for:
- Grant writer/technical writer
- Documentation — getting people to write great examples to show off the project
- A paid position to support Diversity & Inclusion efforts
- QA teams
- hosting costs
- AWS demo sites
- Paying for Travis CI
- More robust testing
- Face-to-face developer meetings and conference travel
Culture and Conduct
Project representatives also had the opportunity to engage in candid conversations about open source community culture and conduct. How can the leaders of projects promote and ensure friendly and positive interactions for everyone in their project community? What are key features of an effective code of conduct? What are some of the concrete ways projects can expand their communities to reach folks who aren’t commonly included?
A variety of ideas were spawned from these conversations, often with an eye towards the global nature of our open source communities and the need to create more opportunities for access outside of the United States and Western Europe.
Approximately 80% of participants surveyed agreed that their takeaways from the Sustainability Workshop will make a positive impact on their project over the next year. (The other 20% were neutral or not sure.)
Now that NumFOCUS has 25 sponsored projects, we increasingly experience that they have different needs depending on many factors, such as the nature of their user-base, the size/age/complexity of the project, funding needs, and growth trajectory. Reactions to the conversations at the Summit reflected this diversity. We asked what the most valuable takeaway was from the Sustainability Workshop. Answers included:
- “The ability to talk directly with maintainers of other projects who had already gone through several of the stages that I see upcoming for my project, and get their perspective on how to handle them.”
- “Spur to write down/document more information.”
- “Dedicated time to thinking about bigger issues.”
- “Meeting all the leaders and different projects, hear their thoughts on governance models and funding challenges.”
- “Presentations and discussions about what road maps are, why we should write them, and what they should look like.”
- “It was an opportunity to talk to others about the issues they’re facing in their community.”
NumFOCUS tried two new initiatives at this year’s Summit: the NumFOCUS Awards Dinner and the Project Forum.
To learn about our NumFOCUS Awards recipients, please see our blog post about them.
At the Project Forum, we confirmed that corporate users at present have limited visibility into the challenges facing projects. A big takeaway from the Forum is that many projects are excited to work on roadmaps to help create some of that visibility for their users. Currently, 50% of NumFOCUS sponsored projects have a roadmap, and 50% of those have one that is up-to-date. We expect those numbers to rise substantially over the course of the next year!
Another takeaway from the Project Forum was that open source communities are comprised largely of technical experts, whereas enterprise companies tend more often to directly interface with product managers and others in non-technical roles. Therefore, one of the biggest barriers to effective communication between projects and their corporate users is that it’s difficult to get the right people talking with one another. While there is plenty of focus and energy around technical features of projects, more emphasis is needed on community-building, educational, and inclusion resources.
Finally, another major topic of conversation was the differing expectations and capabilities of corporate users and project leaders. For example, users have a big pain-point around managing deprecations, which leads to questions like: What is the “contract” between the open source project developer and the user and when does it end? How does a project indicate when their responsibility for maintenance and backwards compatibility is over? NumFOCUS is exploring ways to help on this issue and provide more guidance to the community to help users understand when things are changing and help projects learn how to better communicate with their users.
The Work Ahead for NumFOCUS
NumFOCUS took away a variety of requests for resources and help on the main themes of the Summit. Plans are in the works to help connect project leaders with various experts (training on roadmaps and governance, code of conduct and culture, and leadership), provide fundraising support (editorial and design help on materials, help identifying opportunities for funding), and put in place shared infrastructure support (continuous integration, chat systems, video conferencing, testing tools).
To follow along on our progress, you may subscribe to our newsletter and keep an eye on this blog for future updates.