Michael LangeAll talks

Open Source and the Volunteer Workforce

Presented at CascadiaJS 2018.

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This talk ends on the topic of diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. As such, there will be discussions of racism, sexism, and other exclusionary behaviors.

If you are not prepared to read about this right now, please save this for later. Alternatively, don't read past slide 116.

Hi I'm Michael

I'm terrible at talking about myself, so I made this cutesy collage as a form of deflection. When I'm not at my computer I try to get outside and stay active. This includes activities like backpacking and bouldering. Also photography, I took these.

But really, for the most part, I'm at my computer. By day I am a UI engineer at HashiCorp working on the Nomad product.

And I'm also a volunteer!

By night, I volunteer for CIVIC Software Foundation.

At CIVIC, our goal is to make public information public knowledge. A lot of information is locked up but not because it's private, but because making it public is hard. Furthermore, simply making information public doesn't make it knowledge. It needs to be synthesized, workable, digestable.

We're a registered 503c, not just some open source repos.

And there are only two people on payroll.

This is our process.

For six to nine months…

…100+ volunteers…

…work on 5 projects…

…each with an open API and web experience.

So for the 2018 project season, just like every season, we had five projects to work on.

Housing Affordability. Where we synthezied complex information to better understand affordable housing trends and policy dynamics.

Neighborhood Development. We examined local patterns, movement, and our sense of place.

Transportation Systems. Which focused on identifying opportunities for equitable mobility in cities.

Disaster Resilience. Assessing risk and prioritizing action to strengthen resilience in the face of a natural disaster.

Local Elections. Quantifying influence and understanding the impact of money in our political system.

Except using a numbered list here gives a sense of order, but no one project was prioritized over another.

A bulleted list helps, but this still makes it look like there was a sequence. We didn't do projects in serial, we had over 100 people working on these in parallel.

There we go. That's more fitting.

So you might immediately be thinking, "How in world? How do you pull this off? With volunteers? What? Who are these people?"

These are good questions, welcome to the talk!

I want to share my experiences with CIVIC Software Foundation and volunteering and open source as a set of lessons learned.

The first lesson is to have an org chart.

Maybe you don't think your organization or projects are serious business and therefore don't need an org chart. But org charts aren't just for business, they keep you and all contributors organized.

Hack Oregon has 132 repos, 232 team members, and 33 teams. Without some sense of structure, this is chaos.

Maybe you aren't coming from a non-profit that scales up to 100 or more volunteers. Maybe you have a project on the side you're trying to grow.

Org charts are helpful here too. As a community and a project grows, it makes sense to scale your organizational structure along with it.

I really like the way Ember.js handles this. They have a steering committee and a core team as well as a collection of focused teams for different aspects of the framework. Such as the CLI, Ember Data, and the website, guides, and additional learning materials.

This is important to do as you scale because people working together is a network. And networks are graphs.

Graph complexity is measured by the edges. Once we get to even 50 nodes in a graph, or 50 people working together, there are 1225 connections if everyone is working directly with everyone else.

This is clearly untenable.

So we introduce structure with an org chart. This reduces graph complexity by eliminating edges.

As you work through this exercise, please be warned that Conway's Law is very real.

It states that,

Organizations which design systems are constrainted to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.

— Melvin Conway

That's a bit of a mouthful. This is a JavaScript conference, let's look at what an implementation of Conway's Law might look like if it were written in JS.

const organization = new Organization();
let system = organization.produce();

// system has issues
system = system.changeThings();

// system still has issues

So we have an organization. That organization produces a system. When the system has issues, we attempt to change the system directly, but this is ineffective.

It's ineffective because the system is a product of the organization.

So if we want to change the system…

…we have to change the organization.

I know I'm being pretty heavy-handed here, but this bi-directionality is really important to understand.

I've been volunteering with CIVIC, formerly Hack Oregon, for a couple years now. Let's review how our org chart has changed and what led to those changes.

In 2016, we had a very flat structure. A single founder, Cat Nikolovski, running five teams. Each team was responsible for the complete development of their project.

This had great results! At the end of the season, there were five complete APIs and web experiences. Teams worked efficiently as units. Unfortunately, each project looked entirely different, as if five different organizations made five different projects. Furthermore, this put a heavy burden on the person in charge. It's a critical single point of failure.

So in 2017, we shook things up.

There was still a founder up top, Cat's not going anywhere, but in addition to the five project teams, there was an operations coordinator that could split the load with the founder. We also introduced a platform team this year. The Operations coordinator would work between the platform team and the project teams to get everyone using the same technologies, implementing consistent design patterns, and deploying to common infrastructure.

Did this help?

We had uniform results, so platform team was a good idea in this regard. We also had a good distribution of responsibilities. But there were inefficiencies to work out. If project teams had questions for the platform team, these could easily become blocking requests that required an answer before the team could move forward. And since the platform team was fairly thin and there were five teams that needed to ship code, heroes emerged and became single points of failure.

So just like before, we shook things up in 2018.

This time the founder had two reports: a CTO (yours truly) and a Smart Cities Coordinator.

Each of the five project teams still reported to the founder, but they also each had their own management structure. This included an

  1. Executive Producer: responsible for leading the project and managing partnerships and relationships with outside stakeholders.
  2. Project Manager: responsible for making sure every team member was on track to keep the project on schedule.
  3. Data Manager: responsible for taking ownership over the data for the project and expected to be the technical subject matter expert.

On the other side of the house, there were now three teams within the platform organization that reported to the CTO, each with a designated team lead.

  1. DevOps: responsible for managing infrastructure, site reliability, and security.
  2. Data Viz/Frontend: responsible for building our frontend component library, charting primitives, the final frontend experience, and all the data visualizations that came with it.
  3. Design: responsibile for the style guide and design system that drove all the visual design, interaction design, and accessibility of our product.

On paper this looked pretty good, but did it hold up?

We still had uniform results and a nice distribution of responsibilities. It's always nice to avoid backsliding. We were also more efficient. All those blocking requests were now load balanced since there were more people who had a wide view into different parts of the operation. A downside to this approach is there's a lot of management overhead. Maybe this is inevitable, but it makes one long for the days of 2016 when there was just a founder at the helm. Lastly, there was still repeated work being done on project teams. This was due to team siloing: since each team could more or less operate as an isolated unit, there was no incentive to see if other teams were doing the same work.

This is just how it goes. I'm sure we will review this and come up with some modifications for the 2019 project season.

Maybe I should back up. I bet a lot of you are in the audience nodding along with this but in the back of your head you're thinking, "But how did you even get that many volunteers?"

That leads us to lesson two. If you build it, they won't come.

We're surrounded by wildly popular projects that look like they were born this way, but projects don't start out like this.

I had to dig this old React web page out of the wayback machine from when I was first looking into it. First, the headline, "Why React?". The idea that React even has to explain itself anymore is amusing, but this Give it Five Minutes section is what's really great.

React challenges a lot of conventional wisdom, and at first glance some of the ideas may seem crazy.

That was true not too long ago, now it seems more absurd to not use React's ideas.

Even Bezos had to sell books before he could sell the mere promise of jobs to the City of New York for billions of dollars.

We all get caught up in the hindsight bias. We see success and assume that that's how it always was and that's how it was always meant to be.

Hindsight Bias. The inclination, after an event has occurred, to see the event as having been predictable, despite there having been little or no objective basis for predicting it.

It's also important to note that stars don't mean success. This is our frontend project at CIVIC. We have more contributors (41) than stars (39). As it turns out, it's possible to get people interested in your project without going viral.

The best marketing is a great product.

—Me (regrettably)

This used to be how I thought. The best products inevitably become successful, but this isn't true. A bad product can't be saved by excellent marketing, but you can't rely on word of mouth to get your message out.

When it comes to getting volunteers, it takes a special form of marketing. That form of marketing has its own word.


I want to talk briefly about some of the tactics CIVIC has for getting volunteers.

First, build your let work. We have a mailing list that we use to keep in touch with any one who has ever been so inclined to sign up.

You can also leverage existing networks. We had a Hack Oregon meetup that helped get a lot of new people interested in our organization. Meetup, like a lot of platforms, has a built in content recommendation engine that got our meetup in front of a lot of new faces.

Once someone is truly interested in being a team member, we try to gauge interest and skill level with a basic form.

Lastly, we interview and pitch to people who are both interested and look like a good fit.

And I really want to underline the pitch part because this is true of all job interviews. It's easy to get some tunnel-vision when interviewing candidates and forget that during an interview, a candidate is also evaluating you and the organization you represent. By pitching at the same time, you are going to get a candidate excited about the opportunities you offer.

Speaking of what you can offer, that's lesson three: ask what your community offers the members.

Dan Pink wrote a book called Drive that looked into human motivation. It concludes that there are three pillars to motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. As long as your job or role can satisfy these three constraints, you will stay motivated.

Something tells me Dan Pink is pretty well off, because it's been my experience that people will put up with a lot if they are being compensated well. Or if the alternative to this job is no income and hardships that come with that.

Volunteering is in a fascinating place because there is no money component. Where a company gets a degree of forgiveness when it comes to Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, volunteer positions do not.

Let's take another look at the org chart for 2018 again.

This year we made a dedicated frontend team. As mentioned, this is because we wanted a unified web experience for all five projects. It makes great sense as an organization, but it suffers when it comes to volunteer motivation.

Mastery? For apprentice engineers, sure. We're writing real, production code.

Autonomy? Depends on how well I and others wrote tickets and defined goals.

Purpose? Only indirectly. Working on React components is far removed from fixing Portland's civic issues.

So you put this all together and volunteering as a frontend developer at CIVIC begins to look a lot like work. Except it's work done after hours with no paycheck.

I don't have answers for this one. We saw a lot of attrition in our frontend team, so next year we will need to do better at providing purpose and autonomy to our frontend volunteers. This is also true for our develops team and any future team that is removed from our core projects.

I don't have any slick transition into the next lesson, so, uh, here are my cats.

Lesson five! Product management is for everyone.

Much like marketing, early in my career I thought product management was unnecessary. Engineering is the real work, product management is just pretending to be an engineer.

Turns out I was very wrong and product management is an expansive, difficult, and complex career path.

If you don't take product management seriously, you are likely to run into one of two walls.

The first wall is where things are just being added to your project haphazardly. This may be great for a sense of involvement among the community, but your vision gets lost and you will start to feel like you are losing control of what was once your baby.

The other wall is the opposite. You never let go of control, your voice is final, and your rationale devolves into things like "it feels right", "it's just not good for this project". This can alienate contributors. Remember that a benevolent dictator is still a dictator.

I ran head first into wall #2 this year when refactoring our frontend architecture. There was a plan in my head and I acted on it, but I didn't do a good job sharing my plan with others. Some people offered to help, but I rejected them saying that there was no place for anyone to help until I finished this initial refactor.

Ultimately, the refactor was well-received and we were able to collaborate after the fact, but it would be wrong to call this a flat out success. I opened a 20,000 line pull request with 90 commits with no documented issue of the problem beforehand.

I had a lot to say in the PR to defend my choices, but ultimately I left all the eager contributors in the dark while I coded away in a corner.

When discussing product management, people like to talk about roadmaps…

…and north stars. Lots of wayfinding metaphors.

The metaphor I like to use is a vanishing point.

Objects that are close should be very clear, detailed, and understood. This is what requires immediate attention and focus. And as objects get farther away, they become blurrier. There's a rough idea of what's ahead, and that idea is shared amongst teams, but it also needs to be understood that a lot can happen between here and there. Maybe what seems obvious from our vantage point is actually a mirage or a trick of the light.

My advice for how to embrace product management is to start off by spending time thinking about what it is you are building. Try to answer these questions.

  • What is right for your project?
  • What is wrong for your project?
  • What are the current priorities?
  • When is the timing right?
  • Why are these things true?

By doing this upfront thinking, you prevent Wall #1 by having a plan.

And you prevent Wall #2 by being able to articulate your reasons for rejecting ideas or prioritizing some projects before others.

Communication makes all the difference, and being able to articulate thoughts and motivations is key.

No talk is complete without a pop culture reference, so here's a scene from Bojack Horeseman. If you aren't familiar with the show, Bojack is the horse man, naturally. He's also a depressing alcoholic/washed-up tv star that the show focuses on. Todd is the unlikely friend who here is finally venting his frustrations.

You can't keep doing this! You can't keep doing s💩y things and feel bad about yourself like that makes it okay! YOU NEED TO BE BETTER!!


It's a super intense scene, if you have watched the show I'm sure you remember it. Particularly the line, "you need to be better" struck a chord with me. Mostly because it came from a friend. Our friends are our fans and our contributors are too. They want you and the project to succeed. Saying No isn't automatically a let down, but letting a project spiral or fizzle out is.

On that low note, lesson five: lower your expectations.

This sounds horrible, but I promise you it's not so bad. This is all about perspective.

When working on a project, especially when it's new and exciting, ideas are going to come much more rapidly than implementation. Over time, you'll have a massive backlog of ideas while your implementation steadily trails behind.

This is just how it goes, but how do you react?

The optimist will say we can do it all.

The pessimist will say there's no way it can all be done.

Neither of these outlooks are particularly productive. The optimist will ultimately be disappointed and the pessimist will achieve less than they are capable of while bringing down everyone around them.

There are other outlooks.

The realist takes a more practical approach. Speaks the truth while avoiding being negative.

The idealist stays positive but doesn't promise the world.

So here's an unscientific chart that I made that proves that I'm right. Feel free to share it with your colleagues.

Another aspect of lowering your expectations is to be realistic about what it means to be a volunteer. You need to stay tethered to the realities of an unpaid part-time gig.

I personally want to be 💯 at volunteering.

I also want to be 💯 at my day job.

And I want to be there for my friends. I want to be 💯 at my friendships.

Same story for with my family.

And my personal relationship.

And let's not forget about the general upkeep among the rest of it.

I simply can't be 💯 at all these things. No one can. There isn't enough time.

Instead, you have to be realistic about your ambitions, be mindful of the 24 hour day that we're all bound to, and take things at a healthy pace.

Never forget that when you overbook yourself, you are also impacting the lives of all the people around you.

This can be a hard pill to swallow. Who likes being told to slow down?

Despite our volunteers not committing all imaginable time to the cause, we were still able to correlate poverty rates and access to food.

We were able to share insights from publicly tracked campaign financing.

We analyzed TriMet ridership year over year with public yet closed-off data.

And we personalized maps for citizens based on data from the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries' Cascadia Subduction Zone research.

This is super obvious, but it needs to be said.

Slow and steady is so much faster than not moving at all.

There are also ways that we can work smarter instead of harder. One of those ways is to…

…write the docs. Lesson six.

An amazing effect of building on top of open source tools is we get to start projects with an incredible head start.

We use React and Redux for the CIVIC frontend.

And React and Redux both have amazing docs.

But the Redux docs will never answer CIVIC questions, so what do we do about that?

We write our own docs. This way we don't have to repeat explanations and volunteers don't have to rely on you to answer their questions. In-person explanations are also blocking requests while docs are asynchronous.

Computers scale much better than humans do.

So what do project-specific docs look like?

It can be as simple as committing markdown files to your repo.

As engineers, I think we are easily distracted by the machinery of docs and quickly end up in a rabbit hole of static site generators, templating options, and deployment pipelines. Argumnets about how my static site generator can beat up your static site generator are honestly a distraction.

We forget that the most important part of docs are the words. Writing good docs is already a hard task that doesn't need further complication on day one.

But, writing docs doesn't absolve you from your responsibilities as a mentor. Maybe your docs are bad, maybe your docs assume more expertise than a volunteer has. If books were all that were required to teach stuff, then we wouldn't need teachers.

And we need teachers.

Okay, Lesson Seven. Be Proactive with your diversity and inclusion. This isn't my area of expertise. Smarter people have said much more on this topic than I have the time or qualifications to do, but I do believe that the time is up for white men who assume this is someone else's problem.

So I'll try to talk through some of my thinking on the matter.

The first big question is why. Why even care about diversity and inclusion?

I hear a couple common excuses for not taking this seriously.

  1. If all people are truly equal, then every individual must be hot-swappable.
  2. I might be a white cis-het man, but I read about issues and I can be an ally for people with different backgrounds.

Excuse number 1 misses the point. People aren't identical. No one is saying that. We are all individuals with unique experiences and perspectives.

Equality means equal treatment and equal opportunities.

For the second excuse, you may be a fantastic ally, but everyone suffers from unknown unknowns. We are all always learning, and even when we try our hardest to stand up for people from different backgrounds, it's not the same as representation.

This chart is clearly unscientific, and it's not exactly possible to quantify how much we don't know we don't know, but there's plenty of evidence all around us.

For instance, how photo labs were calibrated without dark skin tones in mind, and how that calibration managed to be carried over into digital photography.

And this dark skin ton calibration problem keeps.


These aren't acceptable problems to have, and this is especially important in civic tech. Your startup product may have a niche target audience you can truly represent well, but civic tech needs to work for everyone.

If you don't have a great startup idea yet, maybe you should look into soap dispensers and hand dryers. There's clearly some room for disruption there.

It's also important to note that this isn't only an issue for white cis-het men. White cis-het men happen to be the dominant demographic, which means we carry the most power and therefore responsibility in driving social change.

Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court now, and it's not because women didn't try hard enough to keep him out. It's because the decision ultimately came down to a group that is majority white men.

Individually, no one is diverse.

A room full of white women will be biased towards women needs and white history.

The same is true for any one demographic.

A room of black men will also be biased in a different direction.

Diversity is a group phenomenon.

Only groups can be diverse, and this will change over time as the group grows or the composition changes.

Since diversity is a group phenomenon, that also means rejection on the grounds of diversity shouldn't be taken personally.

There's nothing wrong with you when this happens. The problem lies with what you add (or don't add) to a community.

On the flip-side, when determining if an individual makes your community more diverse…

…keep in mind that our differences are often invisible.

So with all of this in mind, how can we expect D&I to solve itself? Someone needs to be paying attention to the composition of your community.

And it's not enough to react once a community is homogenous. The issue compounds.

Consider Schelling's segregation model. It's a very simple model meant to see if segregation in the U.S. is potentially the result of slight preference rather than intense deep-seated racism. It ignores mounds of historical evidence and caveats, so it's not the most accurate explanation of American neighborhoods, but the emergent behavior is still interesting.

Over time, agents segregate based on just a slight preference.

In this image, blue squares/agents have a slight preference to be next to other blue squares/agents. If it has too many red neighbors or not enough blue neighbors, it moves. This small influence is enough to impact the system in such a large way that the group in the left state eventually settle in the right state.

The most fascinating observation to me is that nothing in the code says it has to be about race.

It can be any preference. People have reasons for their preferences. I've worked with plenty of women in tech who look for companies that already have a good number of women working there because they are sick of being the token woman who suffers from token woman problems. Big things like stunted career growth and an increase risk of sexual assault. And small things like being cold all the time, expecting to conform to the "one of the guys" attitude, and being the de facto dish washer.

I think this is a valid preference, and there are many like it, but the grand effect is that if you are already a decently sized homogenous culture, you have an uphill battle to fight for diversity.

You need to take D&I seriously on day one. Be proactive in recruiting individuals who will make your group more diverse.

To do this well, you need to have internalized why we even bother. It's not about having women on the team, it's about eliminating blind spots by having more representation.

Being proactive in recruiting will help with the pipeline problem, but pipes have two ends.

And we also have a D&I rentention issue in tech. Employee turnover is normal, and there is nothing inherently wrong with it, but in tech, turnover rates are higher among under-represented minorities.

This means that even if you do an outstanding job recruiting a diverse group of volunteers, you will end up with a mostly homogenous group over time by way of attrition.

You can be proactive about these skewed retention rates too.

Entire talks can be given on this subject, but here's a starter kit.

First, be open about your values. Culture add will usually mean something at a company, but if you can't articulate what it means, you are creating an opening for bias to creep in.

Second, write rubrics for all assessments beforehand. This can be for candidate assessments, performance reviews, code review, or anything else. If you don't have a framework for your judgments, bias will creep in.

Third, have one-on-one meetings with people and listen. The easiest way to get caught off-guard is to not pay attention. I know I personally like to avoid uncomfortable situations, so it's easy to not have these meetings because that's the path of lease resistance, but I assure you, that's a bad thing to do. It only leads to surprises, almost always bad ones.

Fourth, this is ongoing work. Taking an unconscious bias training is great, but it doesn't mean you are now impervious to any potential misstep. It's about putting in place processes and best practices to reduce as much risk of missteps as possible.

The last point I want to make on this subject is for my fellow white guys trying our best. I have talked to many white guys in tech who feel like they are walking on eggshells, constantly on edge and fearful of lady social justice coming down and smiting them into oblivion.

That's a bit dramatic, but I get it. There's a lot to be mindful of and so many ways to screw up, but I personally find salace in knowing that…

No one is asking you to be perfect! A micro-aggression isn't going to melt your coworker. It turns out underrepresented people in tech are seriously tough. They deal with this every day, and it's quite easy to tell the difference between an honest mistake and disinterest or adversarial protest.

This isn't to say, "do whatever you want without thinking first." There is so much you can learn about others by just spending a few hours on the internet. It's senseless to expect underrepresented people to correct you on things you could have looked up on your own.

But when you mess up, and you're going to mess up, here's a three step guide to recovery.

Apologize for your mistake. Reflect on why your mistake was taken the way it was. Use this new knowledge to be better in the future.

And although I called out white guys, this is good advice for everyone. We all have baggage and it's often invisible. We all benefit from taking the time to understand one another.

Okay, that was a lot of content in a short amount of time. To wrap things up, growing and managing a community is hard work, and it's easy to be blindsided by the responsibilities required when you're an engineer who just wants to write code and be helpful. But if you commit to these responsibilities, you will ultimately build something that is much more helpful than it would be if you went at it alone.