Trip Report: Community Leadership Summit 2014


I had the opportunity to attend the Community Leadership Summit in Portland, Oregon this last weekend, held right before OSCON. This free event brings together all kinds of community leaders, not just technical communities, but anyone that is interested in growing and empowering a strong community. I know I usually write up trip reports of technical conferences, but this particular conference was such a refreshing experience for me I had to tell others about it here.

The lead organizer, Jono Bacon, is a true leader in community management. He was the Ubuntu Community Manager at Canonical for many years and has a ton of experience in open source software communities. He now works as Senior Director of Community at the XPRIZE Foundation. This event brings together leaders in community management to “discuss, debate and continue to refine the art of building an effective and capable community.

CLS has an open, unconference style where everyone who attends is encouraged to lead discussions and contribute sessions on whatever topic they find relevant. These discussions happen in a circle of chairs where everyone can participate freely. There are also more structured 5 and 15 minute presentations that leaders in the field present in an area of their expertise. Of course, the best part of any conference is the networking opportunities.

Here are some of my favorite parts of CLS.

Unconference-style format. Planning each day’s sessions. Capturing learnings.

I’ve been to a couple unconferences before but I think this one was the most organized. The basic idea of an unconference is that the attendees themselves propose topics and sign up to lead the discussions. CLS was held in a couple (large) rooms at the Oregon Convention Center. Those rooms (plus the wide hallway) were broken up into 10 areas with chairs organized in a circle. Signs above each area designated the session number (Session 1, … Session 10).

Each session was an hour with 30 minute breaks in between and an hour lunch break. So the schedule board reflected that. In order to fill the schedule, the organizers made session cards available where you could write down the topic you wanted to lead. I’d say over a third of the attendees proposed sessions!

To kick it off, Jono spoke to everyone on the importance of community management and set the tone for the entire conference. Then it was up to us, the attendees, to create content. It took about an hour to fill the schedule for the day. Here’s how it worked.

  • Those interested in leading discussions wrote their topic on a session card.
  • Those people then lined up in front of a mic and quickly introduced themselves and their topic to the audience (about 1-2 minutes per person).
  • Jono then took just those folks over to the schedule board and similar topics were combined and figured out timing. That way if one leader wanted to attend another discussion at the same time they could fix that.
  • When finished, all the attendees are invited to the schedule board to figure out the sessions they want to go to.


Most of the sessions were ad-hoc discussions around the topic but some leaders had more structured activities like post-it note brainstorming sessions. 15 minutes before the end of the hour, the organizers rang a bell to signal wrap-up and then rang it again when the hour was up.

Another session format that you could sign up for were 15 minute plenaries and 5 minute “lightning talks”. The hour after lunch was reserved for these talks which could include a presentation. (I find it amazing that only one projector was needed for the entire conference!)

In order to capture notes and learnings from each session, we simply added notes to – the forum Jono created before the conference. I encourage you to take a look at the notes and ask questions.

I think for this particular conference this format worked extremely well because it was all about discussing best practices and being excellent to each other. If you’re interested in running a CLS conference in your local area, Jono announced the CLSx local event format and was hoping to get at least 5 volunteers. Turns out there were more than 15! If you’re interested in organizing one, see 

Learning about community challenges in Open Source projects.

Content-wise I think the connection with folks running OSS communities was really helpful for me. It seems that most community leaders of OSS projects struggle with similar issues – number one being attracting and retaining contributors. (This actually extends to any community that relies on volunteers.) Rewards and recognition is an important part of that retention as well as a solid set of expectations for achievements. Recognizing any contribution, large or small, from code contributions to a simple bug report, is very important. 

Visibility is also challenging because most people contributing to an OSS project are busy developers that don’t necessarily want to worry about (or have time for) “marketing” their project. This is why many projects are backed by companies or Foundations which can help a lot here.

There are also a slew of tactical things to do like setting up a smooth development infrastructure so that you can make it as easy as possible for people to contribute. Another interesting debate was around contributor license agreements and how there seems to be a movement away from them to lower the bar and make it as simple as possible for people to contribute. It’s an interesting, complicated, legal & social debate for sure.

Check out some of these session notes and ask questions on the forum.

Amazing people.

I met a ton of people at CLS. I tended to gravitate toward the technical folks, but I did have a couple very interesting chats with community leaders of inner city volunteer programs as well. It was definitely the people at this conference that made it so unique for me. There were a ton of small startups and OSS project leaders, but there we’re also some big companies like Oracle and Adobe there (and some good people working in communities there too). I got to meet the person behind @Java, Tori, which was pretty cool. She proposed a session called “Working at the Deathstar – Managing communities for large companies”. I can relate! :-)

I think I was the only person from Microsoft there. Now THAT was different. I introduced myself as “Beth Massi, Microsoft Developer Division” and I had a couple stares like “what the hell is Microsoft doing here?”. I explained that we’re doing a lot with OSS these days (i.e. .NET Foundation) and I was here to learn more about those communities. After that, everyone was extremely supportive and a few people even congratulated Microsoft for our participation in OSS and our long time sponsorship of OSCON. A gentleman from Mozilla even walked up to me as I was heading to a session and shook my hand and said “Thank you Microsoft for your work in Open Source. Please keep it up!”

That was awesome.

Of course, a conference isn’t complete without social activities! I chatted with some awesome people from Chef, Meteor, Mozilla, Neo4j, OpenStack and many others at the evening event on Friday. I even went dancing with Jono and company – he’s a good dancer but not as good as me ;-).


Thanks to everyone, particularly Jono Bacon, for a great summit! Here’s to new friendships! See you next time.