In most work spaces, individuals are at least partially motivated by their salary to contribute to the project for which they are assigned. Leaders may possess various and commendable attributes in this scenario but they have the ability to leverage salary to motivate others. What happens when the salary isn’t there and how does it change the attributes of effective project managers?
I’m a fan of open source software development and have been following some projects for several years through various iterations of development. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview two of the project managers prominent in the open source community. The first was Martin Wimpress who manages the Ubuntu MATE project and Frank Karlitschek now the project manager for NextCloud. In both interviews, I got a peek at the attributes that have helped make these individuals successful project managers of a nearly all volunteer workforce. I’d like to share three that are often overlooked for projects that rely heavily on volunteers.
Technical competency is certainly key but being individual competency doesn’t directly correlate to inspiring a workforce. Instead, both Martin and Frank appear to use their technical competency for more than just code production. They use it to build trust among those who would be volunteers. During my time with Frank, he talked about how for his project it was difficult to create a singular shared understanding for NextCloud among his diverse volunteers and so instead he retooled his software to serve as a platform that others with different visions could build from and tie into without being formally adopted under the umbrella of his project. He understood his project’s scope and made clear lines to where it ends. To him, every line of code is a line that has to be maintained and long-term success is dependent upon code maintenance. Knowing the boundaries of a project contribute to trust because they help establish the predictability necessary for success. With NextCloud’s rapid expansion, it’s obviously working.
Volunteers often work for both philanthropic and selfish reasons. For example, contributing to FreeBSD and having your code approved can translate to a career-building resume bullet (nearly ⅓ of the world’s internet traffic runs on FreeBSD). While not every contribution translates into a resume bullet, volunteers generally contribute more of their talents when their contributions are recognized. Martin takes great pride in publicly sharing information about how he gives back to his volunteers in the form of reasonably-sized monetary gifts. He remarked to me how one gift bought a programmer a new chair. While it may not seem like much, the contribution made a significant difference to that person’s sense of value to the project. Martin noticed that since the chair arrived the change requests for Ubuntu MATE that come from that programmer with the happy hind quarters seem to become his highest priority and Martin generally gets the changes in short order.
Sometimes things don’t go as planned or on schedule. Volunteers don’t always prioritize their contributions to your project the same way the project manager does. This can put the project at risk for missing published deadlines or making deadlines, but having the quality called into question. Martin’s risk comes in the form of scheduled release cycles (every six months), whereas Frank’s is more iterative. He controls the release schedule, but has direct competition that requires him to develop at a faster pace to stay competitive. In both cases, each project manager reduces their risk by actively seeking out new talent and assistance. They are frequent guests on open source oriented programs presenting their projects as professionally run groups happy to welcome like minded contributors. This campaign helps to retain interest of current members and encourages new ones to join. Many open source projects reduce the risk of ineffective full time employees by selecting employees from the pool of already contributing volunteers.
While there may be many attributes of an effective project manager, I believe there are also different skill requirements based on the project management environment. An organization run by volunteers requires different leadership skills to ensure its long-term viability. The three I’ve chosen to focus on here are certainly worth highlighting though the list is not conclusive. Building Trust, Gratitude, and Accepting Risk are certainly a part of the equation. Would you suggest recording these or is there something you feel was left off the list? Let me know in the comments.