The Apache Software Foundation Blog

Monday November 05, 2018

Success at Apache: Wearing Small Hats

by Rich Bowen

Within The Apache Software Foundation, many of us have different roles. I am a committer on the Apache httpd project, and also a PMC member on that project. I am the Vice President, Conferences. I am a board member. And I’m a member of the Foundation. I'm also an employee of Red Hat, and may, at times, be perceived to be speaking for my employer.

I am a father, husband, brother, son, employee, and so on. How I interact with my daughter is very different from how I interact with my manager. I use different language, wield different authority, and expect different results.


Ten years ago at ApacheCon in Oakland, Bertrand Delacretaz gave a talk about hats. We all laughed a lot. But he was making a serious point. At the Apache Software Foundation –indeed, in life– we all wear many different hats.

However, whereas it's pretty clear, in real life, whether I’m addressing my daughter or my manager, on Apache mailing lists it's seldom, if ever, clear which hat I'm wearing in any given situation.

I like to operate on the following principle when communicating in the Apache community: Wear the smallest hat possible for the situation, but assume that everyone is seeing the biggest hat possible.

So, what does that mean?

In the list above of my Apache hats (Committer, PMC Member, Foundation Member, V.P. Conferences, Director), there are various levels of authority. As a project committer, I can make code changes, but as a PMC member, I can reject other people’s changes. As a Foundation Member, I can express an opinion, but as a Director, I can state the official position of the Foundation.

The difficulty comes when, on a mailing list, I say something, intending it to be my personal opinion (i.e., Foundation Member hat) and someone reads it as the official position of the Foundation (i.e., Foundation Director hat).

Thus, in any given situation, I have an obligation to wield the smallest stick I possibly can, appropriate to the situation. Also, to clearly communicate how I am speaking, if there’s any chance of confusion, by saying things like "speaking as a member, and expressing my private opinion …", or "It is the opinion of the Board of Directors that …"  And, since there’s always a chance of confusion, due to many factors, it’s worthwhile to make this clarification almost every time, if you’re in a position where you do, in fact, wear multiple hats.

By wearing the smallest hat possible i.e., speaking with the voice with the least authority you allow other people to be free to express their own dissenting opinions without feeling that they have already been overruled. This is in line with our culture of providing a level playing field, where all voices are equal, and all opinions are weighed the same.

Rich Bowen has been doing open source-y stuff since about 1995, and has been a member of the Apache Software Foundation since 2002. He currently serves on the ASF Board of Directors. By day, he's the CentOS Community Manager, working for Red Hat.

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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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