Industry without community is without heart and soul

Today we are announcing an update to our recently re-launched website. This update has been a long time coming. Years, in fact.

Over the last 7 years, Engine Yard has been a contributor to different open source projects and communities. While we’re not looking for accolades, it’s important to highlight contributions we have made, and the positive impact we feel it has had, as we hope to inspire other teams, organizations and companies to see how they can make a contribution of their own.

And so today we are launching the community section of our site, where you can find out about the events we’re supporting and speaking at, the open source projects we have contributed to both in terms of code and cash investments, and you can reach out to us to ask for help with organizing community events.

I’ve spent a long time thinking about community and what it means to Engine Yard. I’d like to share some of my thoughts.

What Does Community Even Mean?

Community. It is a word that is used by many tech companies these days to convey different things. To most, it seems like it’s just an umbrella term for “a group of people with a common interest.” But really, it means so much more than that.

Human beings have been doing community for a very, very long time. In fact, you could say it is one of the defining characteristics of our species. It is a system that has evolved with us, and has been a key to our survival. It comes with its own set of basic rules and structures that are universal, and are still true, even today, in our always-on world.

The most successful communities, be they real world and local, or virtual and distributed, all use these rules and structures that are their fundamental building blocks. There are many studies on the subject, but here is my take.

I’ve found that most communities can be described by a structure of:

  • core contributors
  • active contributors
  • passive contributors

I’ve also found that the most successful communities will have elements of:

  • vertical and horizontal movement
  • self regulation
  • leadership, not ownership
  • quid pro quo

Core Contributors

Every successful community has that one person or team of people who devote a large proportion of their waking lives to their community. These are the people who will coach the local kids football team or who are leading an open source project.

Without this group, there would be nothing for a community to form itself around.

But they can’t do it all by themselves.

Active Contributors

These are the people who take the hard work of the Core, and share it with the world. They are the people who turn up to support the local kids football team, or are the people who will be early adopters, advocates and meetup organisers of an open source project.

These are the people who help scale the hard work of the Core Contributors.

But they need someone to consume it.

Passive Contributors

These are the people who ultimately benefit from the work of the Core and Active Contributors. They are the majority. They are the hometown of the local kids football team and they get to be associated with the success of the team beating their bitter rivals. They are they people who use and benefit from open source.

Their contribution is mostly their number – a group of people is needed to consume and give meaning to the efforts of the core and active participants.


Well functioning communities enable people to move vertically up and down, through each of these layers. Giving supporters of the kids football team the chance to coach, and maybe even relieve one of the coaches for a period of time can be good for introducing new ideas and thinking. Same goes for open source… it’s not uncommon for someone at the core of a project to take a step back, while an active contributor steps up.

The most successful communities will also learn to adapt, by enabling people to horizontally move and join other communities when required, and in doing so bring new skills and experience to the community. Just like that time the local kids football team gets a new assistant coach who just moved from two towns over, or that time the open source language project benefited from a member of the open source database project building out database support in the language.

This kind of cross-pollination of DNA ensures sustainability by creating an environment for adaptation and innovation.

Self Regulation

The whole point of community activity is to ensure that the many benefit from the effort of the few. But it can’t be all give and no take. The healthiest communities understand that.

Successful communities evolve mechanisms for dealing with people who abuse the system. In order for the community to sustain itself, it must have the capability to make decisions that affect its overall well-being.

Sometimes this might mean alienating a segment of the community. And that’s ok, one of the great things about community is people are free to form their own. It’s not a coincidence that forking open source projects has become a well established convention.

Leadership, Not Ownership

It can be hard for people to not feel like they own a community, especially when they have invested so much of their time in creating, nurturing, growing and guiding it – but no one person or subset of people actually owns a community.

A community is owned by the people in it, by the sum total of the Core, Active and Passive participants.

The best community leaders know when it’s time to step back and let others have a go, they know when sometimes decisions need to be made that they may not agree with, and they need to be ok with letting go, so that the overall community benefits.

Quid Pro Quo, or “Something for Something”, is the most basic rule of successful community building. Simply having a common interest is not enough. For a community to work, there must be an exchange of something. Time, experience, knowledge, network. Something.

This is the most fundamental building block of successful communities. People need to feel secure in the understanding that what they contribute will ultimately be repaid, at some point, in some shape or form. It might not happen immediately, but it will in time.

And sometimes that repayment is simply: satisfaction. And that is ok.

The coach who retired 10 years ago, who still goes to the local kids football team to cheer on the kids of the kids he once coached, sits in the bleachers savouring the victory his team has just secured, building upon his legacy.

The open source contributor who once was a consumer, then a documentor, then a tester, then a package maintainer, then an author and leader, sits quietly at a table at a conference, watching a young woman give a talk about how this project changed her life, and how the project she forked has brought a brand new community together… building upon his legacy.

An industry without community, is one without heart and soul.

Modern businesses that use open source technologies every day, would not exist were it not for the hard work of open source communities around the world. The contributions that technical communities have made to the world we live in today cannot be overstated, particularly as some of those communities date back to the birth of computing and the Internet.

This is something that has been recognized at Engine Yard since our founding. Our founders held the same belief in the power of community contributions that we still have today. Our history of helping projects at an early stage of development grow to a level of stability and maturity, have enabled those communities, and indeed our customers and our company, to be the organizations they are today.

So, if you’ve made it this far (thank you!) I have a question: Which group of participants are you in? Core, Active or Passive. If you’re a Core Contributor to any community, thank you, I’m sure you are appreciated. If you are in one of the other two groups and want to do more, what other contributions can you make to improve your community for everyone?