Open-source Projects: Potentially the Best Potluck Experience Ever

Have you ever been to a neighborhood potluck that overwhelmed you with some of the best food you’d ever had? Where you tried to track down the recipe for the most amazing fried chicken – a food which had defeated all previous attempts in your household to create? Or when you’re planning it, and you know your neighbor up the road makes chocolate chip cookies to die for, so you send an explicit invitation for them to bring themselves — and their cookies — to the party? When you’re working on a brilliantly collaborative open-source project, that’s exactly what it’s like.


A really good open-source project makes an effort to bring in a wealth of experience. The organizers give some thought to what’s missing and find people to fill the gaps. Sometimes, the holes are pretty obvious: if the group consists only of the people developing the product, and none of the people using the product, that’s a problem. But the gaps are not always quite that clear. 

It’s so easy to hyper-focus on the development effort itself. It seems so clear cut! But, like a potluck party, it can’t be successful if all you have is potato salad … or just a codebase. A scenario where only the developers are at the table means you also have a scenario where potential economic challenges aren’t covered, or where internationalization issues in the user interface aren’t handled, or where local privacy regulations make your product illegal in some regions.

I’m not suggesting that every conference call needs to have every stakeholder represented! For one thing, if you’re covering a specific topic about what code library you need to use, a policymaker is unlikely to be interested or have suggestions. Or if you’re trying to drill down into whether the User Interface (UI) element needs to be red, or maybe another red, or perhaps three pixels over, that’s not going to be something for the whole team to engage in. (Seriously. Please. Don’t make me sit in on detailed UI conversations. They drive me insane.)

What you do need, however, is a clear line of communication between the stakeholders. Make sure the policymakers are aware of the development roadmap. Make sure the UI people are aware of relevant privacy regulations that might impact their design. Make sure the developers have the APIs necessary that the UI team can work with to create a reasonable interface. And make sure you are prepared to ask end-users what really works for them. 

While I’m often that person working to keep lines of communication open (let me know if you need help!), this doesn’t have to be a role for a single person. Assign someone in each stakeholder group to be the point of contact. Have the different points of contact meet regularly to make sure they know what the other groups are doing. And, at the end of the day, make sure you have more than twelve different kinds of potato salad at your potluck.

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