Members matter: A discussion with Lauren Sarno, Member Programs at Symbian Foundation

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Any open source project lives or dies by its members, whether those members are active contributors to the code base or provide support in other ways. The Symbian Foundation is no different. The responsibility for building and maintaining membership of the Symbian Foundation falls on the shoulders of Lauren Sarno.

Richard: How does your role as head of the members program relate to a traditional company’s marketing or account management roles?

Lauren: We’re working very hard to communicate that the Symbian Foundation bears almost no resemblance to the former Symbian Software Ltd. We are a very small organisation, compared to our predecessor, and will remain that way. In addition, because we are creating an open source product, we are member led. This means that the foundation has very few of the roles a company might normally have in its marketing department. In fact, among the 90 or so employees of the foundation, the largest team by far is Technology and Delivery: working with contributors, quality assuring contributions, validating their compatibility, and developing the features roadmap.

Of those not directly involved in the technology, we have a two-person legal team and what we call the community engagement team, which in a for-profit company would equate to the marketing department. Within the community engagement team, many of the staff are web developers, who create and maintain or So, when you come down to the “marketing” roles there are very few of us.

The membership team is just two people, myself and Roelof Kotze. Roelof is responsible for the CRM system, membership application processing, and he is also the person who answers emails or enquiries lodged via the online contact form.

My role has two aspects: acquiring new members and providing member services. These two activities feed one another: the more value I can offer members through services, the more justification I can offer potential members for joining the foundation.

Richard: Given there are only two of you, how do you deliver services to members?

Lauren: In a traditional company the services we are offering and developing would have been delivered by account managers. In an open source environment, it is the members who actually provide many services, we simply enable them to do so. This means that almost all our services are web based and populated or managed by the members. For example, by the time we roll out our new community site at SEE (the Symbian Exchange & Exposition) members will be able to post a company profile (and update it everyday if they want to), post product and service information, events and webinars, or Camtasia demos of their products.

Let me give you an example of how our members are leading development of the foundation’s services. We have recently opened an office in Japan and another will formally open in China in the fourth quarter, although we already have people in China. To support these offices, our first planned localisations of the wiki were to be into Japanese and Chinese. However, some of our members decided that they wanted a Russian translation of the wiki and so they simply went about translating it. This resulted in a staff member coming to me and saying “hey, why did you guys decide to do Russian first, even before Japanese and Chinese?” I was able to say that we didn’t, the members did. The person then asked, as he’s Spanish-speaking, if we could translate the wiki into Spanish. So I said to him “go for it”. He is now tweeting and blogging to see if he can encourage Symbian developers to do a Spanish translation.

One of the concerns some have with this process is how we deal with errors in translation. I believe the community will fix them, because the entire Spanish, Russian, or whatever communities have an interest in ensuring the information is correct.

Richard: However a wiki is almost a given in any community these days, what about other member services?

Lauren: True, however, the wiki would not exist if we had not set up the infrastructure to support it. But this is essentially what we do, create the infrastructure.

The services page is perhaps a good example of a new service. I attended the recent Towel Day in Finland and spoke to several members there who were Symbian services providers. They all mentioned that visibility was important: being able to see what other members do and for other members to see what they do.

This resulted in the services pages, where any member can have their company listed under specific service categories. Now, members and casual visitors to the site can see which members offer particular services. The companies can then be contacted directly or visitors can fill out the on-page request form, which is then sent to every company listed in that section.

So every program comes from members saying they want to achieve a specific goal. We have then done the work to figure out how to achieve this goal and implemented the infrastructure to support it.

Richard: With the content of these pages being led by members, how do you prevent companies using something like the services pages to market themselves speculatively, by listing themselves in categories they are not really set up to address?

Lauren: We would not do anything to prevent this, but again I believe the community will be self policing. Our community members interact all the time: they follow each other on Twitter, they blog, and they discuss in the forums. A company that claims capability they don’t really have runs the risk of getting the community talking and devaluing its reputation. So it would be kind of dumb to do anything like that.

That having been said, there are clearly mechanisms that can make this information more valuable, for example by including a “rate this vendor” option on the page. This is something we are exploring. It is however important to make sure we do it right, so the process is transparent and the ratings have value.

Richard: What about events, the forthcoming SEE would surely be an example of something where the foundation should be taking the lead?

Lauren: This year, yes, because we need to get the ball rolling. Our hope and intention is that in the future, Symbian events will be led by members. Unlike a typical marketing department, we don’t have a single employee responsible for events. If one of our members or staff thinks the foundation should be participating in an event, it becomes their event to manage.

Richard: It sounds as though there is still much about how the foundation will operate that is still being worked out.

Lauren: There is an element of truth in that. We are new to open source, but many of our members have been working in open source for years. We are still doing a lot of listening to figure out how to make it work best for the entire Symbian community. 

It’s not just about the foundation listening, many of our members are new to open source, too.

I’ve been putting together a set of sessions at SEE on open source business models; how to make money by using open source software to develop your product or by creating open source software. The latter is clearly a real challenge, how do you make money when you give away your software. And we have some really good sessions in this track, because it’s very much in the interest of those companies who have figured out how to use open source for profit to share that knowledge and build a vibrant, successful community.

Richard: How is membership growing?

Lauren: As of today, we have 135 members and, by the time all the pending applications have been processed, I expect that number to grow to about 160. On top of this, the number of new applications per week is still steady. I certainly don’t believe we’re close to a stable number yet.

Richard: Access to source code was something many smaller developers wanted during the existence of Symbian Software Limited. However, they felt they could not join the Platinum Partner program because of the legal costs. Has this been overcome with the Symbian Foundation?

Lauren: I think if you look at our membership you can see that it has been. What makes things easier is that the membership documents cannot be modified – by our membership rules, all members must sign the same agreement. So, if a company’s attorneys say they cannot sign, that is the end of the story. In addition, if a company does not want to contribute code modifications back to the foundation, they are not obliged to do so by the Deed of Adherence: There is a separate contribution agreement they can sign if they want to contribute, which is entirely voluntary.

The only real complication comes when subsidiary companies want to join the foundation. Because subsidiaries, companies owned fifty percent or more by a parent, usually vest their intellectual property in the parent company, it is the parent company that needs to join the foundation or co-sign the Deed of Adherence. This can cause issues where the parent company may not want to be directly associated with the foundation, because of the scope of their other activities. So far, however, this has only been an issue in a few cases and all of them have been resolved. 

Richard: Do think the membership might change when the platform is fully open sourced and you don’t actually have to be a member to access the code?

Lauren: It certainly could happen, but it’s my job to make sure that it doesn’t. Building a set of valuable member services is part of the strategy to ensure it doesn’t. There are many reasons why companies will want to be members of the foundation, beyond being able to access the source code.

For many, having the ability to influence the future direction of the platform by being on the Councils or the working groups will be an important reason for membership. For device manufacturers, having access to the Symbian Foundation License (SFL), which grants patent rights when modifications to the code are combined with a device, will be key.

For some companies, the other services we provide will be the motivation, including the ability to be seen as active, valued, and trusted members of the community.

Finally, I think it’s possible that for some, hard business reasons won’t be the driving force. A good analogy here is National Public Radio in the US. Anyone can listen to NPR stations for free, but those who value the service contribute to its funding all the same. There may well be companies who will contribute their $1500 membership fee for similar reasons: Because they value the goals and aspirations of the foundation and want it to continue its work.