Managing Casual Contributors – Ann Barcomb, University of Limerick

Ann researches how to manage contributors in open source projects. Before that she worked as a developer and as a community manager. This presentation is a summary of research results on casual contributors.

Casual contributors are important to a project because they are often the majority of contributions. Also non-patch contributions: testing, help at a conference, … They increase innovation and software quality. But they also diffuse knowledge about the project to their social network.

Casual is not a good word, because they are often committed. They’re not necessarily one-off.  Also they are often habitual contributors in other communities. Perhaps “Episodic” is a better term.

Many of the community management techniques also apply to casual contributors. But without a strategy, how do you know you’re managing them effectively? If you’re only looking at converting drive-by contributors to habitual contributors, you miss the valuable episodic contributors that also remain committed to your project.

Five factors influence the intention to remain (intention to remain is used as a predictor for actually remaining, turns out to be the best one). Motives: enjoyment, socialising, personal benefit (this is a negative motive, once the itch has been scratched there is no reason to stay). Technical barriers discourage enjoyment and socialising and are affecting episodic contributors more.

Social norms: how a contributor perceives the response of their social network to their participation (peer pressure). For open source contributions, the social network often knows less of the involvement than in other volunteer work so it is less relevant. However, they are responsive to personal invitations – this is true for volunteers in general and also for OSS contributors. Especially for non-code contributors.

Psychological sense of community: do they feel welcome? Inclusivity is often mentioned as an important factor.

Satisfaction: did the experience match the expectation? This is one of the strongest factors towards intent to remain.

Organisational commitment: identify with the community, feel part of something bigger. People who talk about their involvement with family and friends are more likely to remain (not a causal relation).

Create a strategy for episodic contributions:

  • Decide objectives: understand them, get more of them, retain them, get them to do more useful work, …
  • Identify appropriate tasks for episodic contributors: small, focused, small learning curve. There are also specialised contributors, who have skills that others in the community don’t have. For them, you want to separate their domain knowledge from the details of your project.
  • Practices to support the goals:
    • Guided introductory events, mentoring: reduce the technical barriers and offer social interaction. Appeals to social motives.
    • Encourage all contributors to talk about their participation in their network. Enable this by creating content. Why?
      • way for recruitment
      • correlation with intent to remain
    • Recognize non-coding activities
      • sense of community: they fit in
      • satisfaction
    • Awareness of contributors’ expertise, to identify specialist knowledge and to recognize their skills
    • Time-based releases in any process so people can easily plan their involvement.
  • Measure results: big research in itself so not expanded on here.





[Note: slides that are online have a lot more text than what was presented at the conference, so it should be quite readable.]


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