On Visibility And Change

OK, before I begin, this is going to be a terribly presented ramble. I have written it, proof read it, and proof read it again, and it still sounds like a child with a crayon wrote it. This is because my thoughts are unstructured, but I am keen to share them anyway. Patience is appreciated, friends…

Recently I have been thinking about how my work as Ubuntu Community Manager balances out between the work I perform with volunteers in the community, and employees of Canonical who contribute to the community as well as other business units. The reason for these thoughts is that recently I have been feeling that I could do a better job of spending more time with our volunteers and supporting them with their goals. We have a tremendous, inspiring, hard-working and excitable community…and I have just been feeling like I could improve in how much “face time” I have with our active contributors.

So, I have been evaluating methods in which I can do this. As I thought more about it, I came to the realization that part of the limitations on my time these days is because my responsibilities today compared to my responsibilities when I started this role are two quite different places.

Just under four years ago when I joined Canonical as the Ubuntu Community Manager, life was a lot easier. Back then it was just me, I had no team, the company was a lot smaller, and not only were there no direct reports for me to manage, but there were far fewer other departments, units, teams, and other entities that needed input from me. When I started I had three primary high-level responsibilities:

  1. Provide leadership and guidance in a core set of community projects.
  2. Help to resolve and unblock issues and problems across the community.
  3. Provide inspiration and encouragement for the community to feel passionate about the problems we are trying to solve and the opportunities that we are seeking together.

The majority of time working on these goals was working with our volunteers. I certainly did have tasks and objectives within the company, but by and large the majority of my focus was with our volunteers. One might suggest I was “foot loose and fancy free”, if you can say that about someone who plays in a thrash metal band…

Today things are quite different. I now have four employees who report to me, I am now a platform manager (this means I am one of the managers on the Ubuntu team), and the company has grown significantly in size, which means far more departments, units, teams, projects, and other entities who have subsequently requested input and assistance from me. Of course, I myself have experienced this change and growth first-hand, and so have my colleagues, but I have also realized I have not done a very good job talking about this change with our community.

Today my role has evolved to include an additional three high-level sets of requirements:

  1. Provide leadership and guidance in a core set of community projects.
  2. Help to resolve and unblock issues and problems across the community.
  3. Provide inspiration and encouragement for the community to feel passionate about the problems we are trying to solve and the opportunities that we are seeking together.
  4. Manage a team to help them be successful in their own work and bring value to the community.
  5. Provide guidance to other teams and units inside Canonical.
  6. Provide a public face and representation for Ubuntu (and increasingly, Canonical).

The challenge that I have faced is that these latter three additions require a significant amount of work. As one such example, my team is very distributed — I am based in California, Jorge is in Detroit, Daniel is in Berlin, David is in València, and Ahmed is in Cairo. With us being so distributed, I consider 1-on-1 time with the guys as very important in helping them to be successful in their roles and feel a strong sense of team spirit and morale. As such, it is important to me that I have an hour each week with them on a voice call for 1-on-1 time. When we take those four hour-long calls and also add our team call, that already sucks up half a work day just for the team. When we then factor in all the other interaction between the team and the guidance the team rightly expects from me, “managing the team” takes up a significant amount of time. Of course, it is valuable time, and time well spent and important for our team, but it is also time in which I am primarily working with my colleagues as opposed to volunteers.

Another element has been the sheer growth of Canonical. We are much bigger than we were, and I see a core responsibility of my role and my team’s role is in helping those who join us, particularly those who don’t come from an Open Source background, to get a strong sense of our community values and commitments. This not only involves helping to on-board new team members, but with six times as many employees than when I started, it also significantly raises the number of instances in which such team members are looking for help and guidance to ensure that such community relations, which are so important to the company, are well executed. Again, this is important and valuable time well spent, but again time in which I am primarily working with the company and not volunteers.

Finally, Ubuntu has become a global phenomenon. It has become increasingly a house-hold name, a common sight in coffee shops and trains, and with this success has developed (a) a lot of press interest and requests for comment, and (b) an increasing level of critique and expectations from a wider demographic of users. As one of the more public personas associated with Ubuntu and Canonical, I am therefore often expected to provide input and commentary to the press and elsewhere, particularly with anything community-related (which is a pretty wide spectrum of content both actually within and often outside my domain). Again, important and valuable work, but time handling company responsibilities as opposed to working with volunteers.

Of course, while the scope of responsibility has increased with these additional three areas, my time available has not really increased (it increased a little as I work longer days now and I travel a lot less ever since I got married), and as such the additional areas of responsibility have naturally cut into the time that was originally devoted to the first three areas I outlined which were primarily volunteer-targeted. This is why some of you who have been following my work for a long time may have picked up that I am spending a little less time collaborating with our volunteers than I used to – I am basically knee deep in these other responsibilities.

Now, this is to be expected. I now have a team, and priority is my team and their success. Part and parcel of having a team grow up around you is that you end up spending more and more time being a manager and helping your team to enjoy a structured, safe, and enjoyable work environment. In traditional management, this is common and the manager becomes a little less visible to the team as she is focused on managing the team and the expectations of the team from key stakeholders in the company (and in our case, the community).

The problem is, I don’t want to be less visible.

I believe that having a close and hands-on relationship with the Ubuntu contributor community is important, and irrespective of whether it is “important” or not, I just enjoy spending time with our community; they are my friends, my peers, my colleagues, and in many cases people who inspire me.

So, after all this rambling I wanted this blog post to achieve two primary goals. Firstly, for those of you who have not seen me as much as you did a few years back, I hope this explains a little about why that is. Secondly, if you have any ideas and suggestions about techniques and approaches that I can use to continue to fulfill my expectations to my team and peers, but squeeze in more “face-time” time with our volunteers, I would love to hear. Oh, and before some smart arse suggests it…spending more hours in front of a computer is not really an option; I don’t want solve one problem (trying to find smarter ways of working to spend more time with our volunteers) and replace it with another (my wife get the hump that I am working too much).

Thanks for reading.

  • Brendan P

    Hi Jono,

    You in a tough spot, with so much of the time you spend on tasks really needing to be “you” and not others doing it.

    It should be everyone’s goal to “work” less and focus on things that make us happy and give us fulfilment. Not saying don’t work, just work smart, experiment and don’t follow the norm.

    Check out Tim Ferris’s blog/writing. He focuses on outsourcing absolute everything, the extreme I know, so that he can focus on doing the things that make him happy.

    Possibly you can find some inspiration from him to shift some of the work that does not need the “Jono” touch onto others, freeing you to focus on the things where you can make the most impact and that make you happy.

    He’s helped me make big changes to the way I work, hope it does the same for you.

    All the best Brendan

  • http://doctormo.org Martin Owens

    A nice blog post, thanks for explaining it all to me.

    The one thing I’ve noticed is that these items listed are a set of very large workloads which may benefit from being broken down further into smaller chunks. Once bite sized it might be possible to get a handle on delegation and perhaps asking for more resource is appropriate.

    Any help you need, let us know. Surely there is some of this communication and education lark that the community it’s self could handle. If only people in Canonical knew the right people to talk to.

    Aside: the part where you mention the community and “other business units” makes it seem like the community is a business unit of Canonical rather than a symbiotic whole other thing.

  • MAG

    Jono,

    Firstly, well done on this post. I think you’ve conveyed your thoughts much better than you think you have, and these are not uncommon thoughts for team leaders that care about the work that got them their role in the first place.

    I think the solution I’m about to suggest won’t be the one you want to hear, as you’ve spoken about your dedication to ALL your objectives passionately over the time I’ve been following your posts.

    Delegation.

    Apologies for the over simplified answer, but it’s the only one that makes sense to me. You are a finite resource, and an effective individual, dedicated as you are, should focus on the tasks that balance out the need for self-worth, against the greatest amount of “good” that can be accomplished. Prioritise the reaponsibilities than bring you the most personal gratification, then re-prioritise in order of which responsibilities achieve the greatest “good” – focus your energies on those that come high in both lists, and delegate those that are lower.

    I appreciate that this seems overly simplistic, and to a dedicated professional, this is also sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, but you are finite.

    I hope my feeble attempt to support is received well.

    MAG.

  • http://www.viviendoentrepinguinos.wordpress.com Pedro Piquero

    Do not worry about Mark’s new responsibilities. It is normal in any company begins to grow, and the truth is that Cannonical starting to take off. Ubuntu is becoming a distribution of GNU / Linux very important with a large number of users and of course, companies are attracted to this.

    Hence the new level of criticism in the press, if growth continues Ubuntu is having, and I continue, I think is more increased, could become the operating system, along with mac, most used.

    I give you my congratulations for your team and your time spent on development and Ubuntu.

    Sorry if the text is written here is not very legible, I take regular English, especially writing, so I had to use a translator.

  • http://www.foobacca.co.uk/ Hamish

    I wonder if there are any responsibilities you can move to other people. Reading the above, the press releases consultation sounds like something that doesn’t have to be you. Maybe one of your team of 4 could handle that job and only bring you in if it’s really tricky.

    Similarly, some of the announcements of new things that you write could be written by someone else.

    Also, maybe one of your team could be the first point of call for bringing Canonical staff up to speed with the community, or providing “help and guidance to ensure that such community relations … are well executed”.

    In short, think about which of your tasks really need to be done by you, and which could be delegated to someone else in your team. Maybe you need a team member who mainly faces into Canonical.

  • http://akgraner.com/ Amber Graner

    Jono,

    Great Post! I have to agree with MAG above you have expressed yourself better than you believe you have.

    I think it’s great you are looking at all these areas and how it relates to what you want to accomplish. I think it gives everyone a reality check – you’re human :-) and helps set some expectations. Thanks!

    You and your team reach many areas and when I go to conferences, linuxfests, conventions, etc it is never debated about how active and thriving the Ubuntu Community is. Thanks for all you and your team do.

    Here’s a pat on the back! And to echo what Martin said – Let us know what you need from us and though we individually may not be able to tackle the request we may know of people who are willing to help. :-)

    :D Cheers! Amber

  • http://interesting.co.nz Benjamin Humphrey

    Sounds like you need to delegate.. hire me as a community project liaison? :P

  • Fr33d0m

    If your direct reports cannot pick-up the slack when it comes to inspiring and enabling the community at large, perhaps you need someone who can. Just don’t be too ready to believe they cannot help. A little mentoring can go a long way. Personally I would think that the growth you’ve pointed to makes it all the more likely that the first set of responsibilities now needs more than one person to maintain synergy.

  • Jimbo

    “I don’t want to be less visible.”

    Well, there’s your problem. The job isn’t about you, it’s about the community. Your job is not to be the public face of Canonical, or Ubuntu, but it sounds like that’s what you want to be.

    Your job is to help other people get stuff done, and it doesn’t matter a jot if most people never directly see or hear from you at all. As long as you’re quietly making it possible for the stuff to get done.

  • Jimbo

    Jono,

    Sounds like you’re heading for a possible burnout mate. Do the following:

    1. Recoup 2 hours a week by cutting your one-on-ones in half. Either do 1/2 hour calls once a week, or a 1 hour call every two weeks. Your staff will be just fine getting a 1/2 hour of your time a week instead of a full hour.

    2. As mentioned before, you need to delegate more. You’ve hired these talented individuals to help you, so raise the bar for them and watch them jump over it.

    3. Cut the apron strings and tell the other units at Canonical to figure things out themselves. You’re the Community Leader, you’re not CIO, not the CTO, and you’re not the PR slob (unless Canonical doesn’t have a PR slob, in which case you probably are the PR slob and you need a title change).

    You’re talented, smart, charismatic, and a shredding guitarist, and I’m guessing it’s easy for people to just let you take over and lead out because you’re very good at it. It’s probably time to pull back and force others in your organization to take over some of that leadership.

    Good Luck, Jimbo

  • saulgoode

    It is indeed rather ironic that your presence in the Ubuntu Community Forums effectively ended once you became Ubuntu Community Manager.

  • http://sixgun.org Fab

    I’m with Benjamin on this one (in principle, at least). Sounds like you need someone to delegate to either on the company or the community side of things. That will also clear up the public-facing confusions about what your responsibilities are exactly.

  • http://mdzlog.alcor.net Matt Zimmerman

    Everyone has to come to terms with this as they take on management responsibilities. Your job becomes less about your individual contributions, and more about enabling the contributions of others.

    It’s possible, on a small scale, to balance individual contribution and management responsibilities, but difficult to do justice to both. Before too long, you’ll need to make a choice about which way you want to go in your career, based on the different opportunities and rewards they present.

    Nobody said it was going to be easy. :-)

  • http://flavors.me/dexter_greycells Abhishek S.

    Jono, You are already doing a fine job. The fact that you recognize the problem of not spending enough ‘face-time’ with the volunteers is in fact half the problem solved! The other half of the solution should come from volunteers who need to understand that you cannot allocate that same time to them as you used to do 4 years ago because of the way Ubuntu is spreading.

    From personal experience I can say that as you grow in your work you get to do a lot less of the actual work. It’s a catch-22 situation as they say… :-)