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Hiring Your First Open Source Community Manager

jj profile image JJ ・4 min read

After hiring your founding/core engineering team, the most in-demand role/function that every early-stage COSS startup wants to solve for is that amazing 🦄 "open source community manager".

Hiring for this role is probably as difficult as finding a co-founder for your company. For many reasons: Contextual Skill Scarcity, Alignment Sensitivity, Empathy and the highly Undefined Nature of the role itself!

I am personally contacted >10x/week by COSS founders asking "Can you intro me to the best open source community manager you know?".

Before digging into tips, let's explore what this open source community manager (OSCM) role entails:

OSCM's sit at the intersection of Developer Relations, Evangelism, Marketing, Engagement and Advocacy... in fact, most of these roles significantly overlap, and blend together as to be effectively indistinguishable from each other.

Across ALL functions (engineering, product, sales, marketing, etc), COSS companies have to strike a harmonious balance across engaging and nurturing MANY diverse ecosystem stakeholders in their respective open source communities also (contributors, users, fans, maintainers, etc) and many stakeholders in their customer base community (accounts, competitors, partners, distributors, etc).

There is also a great deal of overlap between these two stakeholder ecosystems (users vs. customers). Often, many users become customers... and many customers decide to stop paying and just become users, exclusively.

As a consequence, OSCMs are, in many ways, "mini-CEOs" of the COSS company they work for... meaning that this should almost always be considered a very strategic and critical hire.

So, how do you go about finding this person and convincing them to join your company? Here's a few ways to search for and discover the best hire for your COSS startup:

  • First, establish and carefully consider + decide on the temporal intentionality (structure always evolves over time) that specifically influences the kind of open source community you are actually building... NOT all open source communities are created equal. Some open source communities care a great deal about driving external contribution (many do not), some care a great deal about engaging technical developers in different areas of the stack (many do not, and instead focus on business/analyst/security-oriented users, with different behavioral expectations vs. DevOps communities).

  • Second, you must have a very clear understanding of the different kinds of key stakeholders you care most about maximizing love and engagement with. Reflect on the fundamental nature of this role that requires balancing many stakeholder expectations and interests. Once this is clear, you can best scope the job description for the OSCM that best suits your specific needs.

  • Third, consider the following: if you already have an open source project that is growing in popularity, adoption, excitement, etc... ask your team and yourself: how did we get here? What specifically did we do to make this happen? Part of becoming very clear on your requirements for hiring a great OSCM is to contextualize the "what worked and what didn't work" learnings from your journey so far, and ensuring you have a strong understanding of what to optimize and what to minimize as this role is shaped and clarified for your company and community.

  • Lastly, many of your founding engineers may actually already be doing some OSCM already. Consider structuring an incentive model that encourages and drives more positive behavior from your core engineering team that balances contribution across product/IP and open source R&D. This could be a great low-hanging-fruit way to organically discover the best roles from within.

Here are some abstract tips for what some of the best OSCM leaders in the industry have embodied:

Authenticity and Empathy: For open source in particular, ensuring your OSCM has a high degree of authentic experience and human empathy (which translates to excellent communication skills across many levels) is extremely critical. Even with precise intentionality and expectation setting, due to the historically philosophical and ideological nature of open source, OSCMs must ideally possess a high level genuine interest and concern for teaching others, engaging a range of stakeholders and balancing tensions as they arise. OSCMs are a kind of "conduit" to the nervous system of your community.

Dedication and Passion: OSCMs must exhibit tremendous passion for the communities they serve. Dedication is also critical. These are very hard, if not impossible, elements to contrive/fake. Dedication refers to the commitment that a given OSCM has to the technology, trends and positive impact to the world that their community promises to make. One red flag to watch out for is "transient" OSCMs... they exist, and they are likely to be the least effective at growing and nurturing your community. Building trust in communities compounds slowly over many years. Be very sensitive to this.

Technical Credibility: Naturally, since one of the primary interfaces that OSCMs will be actively engaged with is your source code base and the many stakeholders involved in it, having a comprehensive understanding of core fundamentals of your technology, roadmap and even dependency graph is important for increasing/maximizing technical credibility. Be careful to not over-rotate on this dimension, though. OSCMs who are too opinionated about a given technical design or direction may harm more than help your objectives.

Generosity and Education: Kelsey Hightower is probably the epitome of what boundless generosity and a desire to educate others looks like. Obviously, everyone wants to hire Kelsey, but that isn't really an option. Consider learning from Kelsey and following him over the course of a few weeks to learn more about why these traits are critical.

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