The Apache Software Foundation Blog

Monday May 11, 2020

Success at Apache: Remote Collaboration in the Time of Coronavirus

by Marvin Humphrey

I "arrived" at the Apache Software Foundation in 2005, unreasonably angry about a bug in Apache Lucene.  By "arrived", I mean that I sent the first few emails among several thousand I would go on to send over the next 15 years — the ASF didn't have a physical office where I could show up to buttonhole and berate some unlucky customer service representative.  An unreasonably patient Lucene contributor named Doug Cutting talked me down.

Because the ASF has always been a virtual organization, the Coronavirus pandemic has had minimal impact on its day-to-day operations.  While individual contributors may be personally affected, at the collective level there's been no mad scramble to adapt.

Others have not been so fortunate.  All around the world organizations have been struggling to revamp their processes and infrastructure to comply with "social distancing" protocols.  Sadly, many have already laid off workers, or even closed their doors for good.

And yet, there is a huge pool of work which could conceivably be performed remotely but isn't yet — or which is suddenly being performed remotely but inefficiently.  If we can accelerate and streamline the transition to remote work, many jobs and businesses could be saved.  With some creativity, our interim "new normal" could be more propsperous, and perhaps sooner than we think!

Are you an Open Source contributor?  If so, you possess expertise in remote operations which is desperately needed in today's challenging economic environment.  Let's talk about what we know and how we can help.


The Internet Turns People Into Jerks

People type things at each other over the internet that they would never say to someone's face.  In person, we calibrate our language based on feedback we receive via facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.  But when all communication is written, the feedback loop is broken — and all too easily, vicious words fall out of our fingertips.

Suddenly-remote workers may find themselves exposed to this phenomenon as conversations that once took place in the office migrate to Slack, email, and other text-centric communication channels.  But it can be tricky learning to recognize when a conversation being conducted via a text channel has gotten overheated — it takes an intuitive leap of empathy, possibly aided by dramatic reading of intemperate material a la Celebrities Read Mean Tweets https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLs4hTtftqnlAkiQNdWn6bbKUr-P1wuSm0 on Jimmy Kimmel.

Open Source communities have grappled with incivility for as long as the movement has existed.  Over time, "ad hominem" personal attacks have gradually become taboo because of their insidious corrosive effect; there exists broad cultural consensus that you should attack the idea rather than person behind it.

Defenses have become increasingly formalized and sophisticated as more and more communities have adopted a "code of conduct".  While the primary purpose of such documents is guard gainst harassment and other serious misconduct, they often contain aspirational recommendations about how community members should treat each other — because serious misconduct is more likely to occur in an environment of constant low-grade incivility.

Regardless of whether your organization adopts a code of conduct, it won't hurt to raise awareness among remote team members of the suceptibility of text-based communications to incivility — so that they may identify and confront it in themselves and others and shunt everyone towards more constructive patterns of communication.


Keeping Everyone "In The Loop"

Coordination is a troublesome problem even when everyone works in the same office, but the difficulties are magnified in remote environments where it takes more effort to initiate and conduct conversations.  Teams can become fragmented and individuals can become isolated unless a culture is established of keeping everyone "in the loop".

At the ASF, the problem is especially acute because its virtual communities are spread out across the globe.  Due to time zone differences, it is typically infeasible to get all stakeholders together for a meeting — even a virtual meeting held via conference call or videochat.  Additionally, many stakeholders in ASF communities do not have the availability to participate in real-time conversations regularly because they are not employed to to work on projects full-time.

"Synchronous" communication channels like face-to-face, videochat, phone, text chat, and so on are good for rapid-fire iteration and refinement of ideas, but they effectively exclude anyone who isn't following along in real-time.  Even if conversations are captured, such as with AV-recorded live meetings or logged text chats, it is inefficient and often confusing to review how things went down after the fact.

The solution that the ASF has adopted is to require that all meaningful project decisions be made in a single, asynchronous communication channel.

  • The channel must be canonical so that all participants can have confidence that if they at least skim everything that goes by in that one channel, they will not miss anything crucial.
  • The channel must be asynchronous to avoid excluding stakeholders with limited availability.

Synchronous conversations will still happen outside this canonical channel —and they should, because again, synchronous conversations are efficient for iterating on ideas!  However, the expectation is that a summary of any such offline conversation must be written up and posted to the canonical channel, allowing all stakeholders the opportunity to have their say.

At the ASF, the canonical channel must be an email list, but for other organizations different tools might be more appropriate: a non-technical task manager such as Asana, a wiki, even a spreadsheet (for a really small team). The precise technology doesn't matter: the point is that there are significant benefits which obtain if a channel exists which is 1) canonical, and 2) asynchronous.

Decision Making

In an office, decision makers can absorb a certain amount of information by osmosis — via overheard conversations, working lunches, impromptu collaborations, and so on.  That source of information goes disconcertingly dry on suddenly-remote teams, leaving only information siphoned through more deliberate action.

A canonical, asynchronous communication channel can compensate to some extent, providing transparency about what is being worked on and how well people are working together, and facilitating oversight even while most of the work gets done solo.  Because properly used asynchronous channels capture summaries rather than chaotic and verbose real-time exchanges, the information they provide is more easily consumed by observers watching from a distance.  The canonical channel also provides an arena for gauging consensus among stakeholders and for documenting signoff.

"Lazy consensus" is a particularly productive kind of signoff, where a proposal is posted to the canonical channel and if there are no objections within some time frame (72 hours at the ASF), the proposal is considered implicitly approved.  Provided that the channel is monitored actively enough that flawed proposals get flagged reliably, "lazy consensus" is a powerful tool for encouraging initiative — a precious quality in contributors collaborating remotely.

Conclusion

Organizations are adapting in myriad ways to the economic crisis brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic.  In the world of Open Source Software where countless projects have run over the internet for decades, we've accumulated a lot of hard-learned lessons about the possibilities and pitfalls of remote collaboration.  Perhaps our experiences can inform some of the suddenly-remote teams out there straining to find their way in these difficult times.  Let's help them to do their best!

Marvin Humphrey is a Member Emeritus of the ASF and a past VP Incubator, VP Legal Affairs, and member of the Board of Directors.  These days, he is focusing on family concerns and consulting part-time.

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"Success at Apache" is a monthly blog series that focuses on the processes behind why the ASF "just works" https://blogs.apache.org/foundation/category/SuccessAtApache  

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