The Apache Software Foundation Blog

Monday December 03, 2018

Success at Apache: Cookie Monster

by Isabel Drost-Fromm

As a researcher interested in machine learning, Web- and social graphs I joined the Nutch mailing lists back in 2005 when the project was still on SourceForge. I started tinkering with Nutch Writeables to store the data I needed for my analysis – something that today some may know as Hadoop Writeables – the Nutch wiki still has a link to the material that I could get published out of those experiments: https://wiki.apache.org/nutch/AcademicArticles

After leaving academia I remained on the Nutch and Lucene mailing lists - until one day I saw the idea of an "Apache Text" project mentioned: https://lists.apache.org/thread.html/ac22faddbef946b66d544e590fe1b2a54b60215c98cc38a2f995ee06@1176254016@%3Cdev.lucene.apache.org%3E ... I got in touch with Grant Ingersoll, over the course of half a year that vague idea was turned into a plan to have a scalable machine learning project at Apache: Scalable in terms of community, dataset size but also commercially friendly when it comes to licensing – Apache Mahout was created.

Some ideas turn into something with a life on its own. The story I'm going to tell has little to do with great technical or economic achievements that were made with software developed at The Apache Software Foundation. However it has a lot to do with the kind of cross community links that exist between projects at Apache. It also has a lot to do with the fact that there are people active in Apache projects for whom the project is more than merely a day job.

But let's start at the beginning: Little over a year ago, in April or May 2017 Stefan Rudnitzki, one of my then-new colleagues at Europace AG was showing me around the office – mentioning in particular that there's space for meetups of 100 up to 200 people. It was the year when it was unclear whether or not there would be an ApacheCon EU. The combination of those two pieces of information put  an interesting idea in our heads: Why not pull ASF interested people to Berlin and have them discuss cross-community, behind-the-scenes, OSS economics, decentralized project management, coordination of work without discretionary power topics?

In a first step we ran a rough version of the idea past a handful of friends at Apache – and received encouragement. The idea got bigger, new aspects were added and we thought "Let's get more specific!".

In a working backwards model the next thing that was written was a press release (in big, bold, red letters marked as "draft, imaginary, DO NOT PUBLISH!!!!!!!") describing a conference on all things open source behind the scenes. The format helped identify important open question marks – like: 

  • "We don't have a name for the event yet!"
  • "We need to decide on a date."
  • "We need to come up with a clearer list of topics to cover."
  • "What's our target audience?"
  • "If this is a full day event – what will we do about catering?"

What helped me personally was having learnt from Sally in her ASF media training what a real press release actually should look like. 

As for the name that was found missing in the initial press release draft:  After weeks of trying several approaches to come up with a catchy name, I went to pick up my child from kindergarten. What caught my eye was a poster announcing a beneficial concert to collect donations for better equipment and toys – an *a capella* concert: .oO(FOSS A Capella?) .oO(FOSS Backstage?)

The press release formatted version of the vision was first run by Europace – though people here are fairly regularly running after hours meetups, hosting an entire full-day conference is a slightly different scale. After the idea had been met with approval here, it was run by the Apache Community Development mailing list – which we used to keep current planning status transparent and public. 

With the idea out in the open it grew beyond something that can easily be run as a small side project. Years ago to create Berlin Buzzwords I had been working together with an event agency called newthinking communications GmbH. They were founded in 2003 by Andreas Gebhard and Markus Beckedahl in the spirit to create a network on the interface between digital technologies and society. Today, the focus lies in the organisation of events such as Berlin Buzzwords and FOSS Backstage as well as content management services (based on Drupal) for NGOs and political parties as well the conferences named above. So I got in touch with newthinking – and was delighted to receive "Sure, we are going to help out" as an answer. 

So, what about the cookies? One of the first offers I received after publishing that we were to run a FOSS Backstage full day Micro Summit in November 2017 was: "If you need support with providing cookies for the coffee break – I'm happy  to bake some, if there's no more than 40 attendees." Half jokingly I responded that I would add another 40 cookies, lest someone sends me a 3D model of an ASF feather cookie cutter. Lo and behold  the next thing I know is that someone sends me a model file for an ASF cookie cutter (which by now even made it to the then VP trademarks – who was interested in putting it to good use himself). Just a few weeks later I attended Open Source Summit in Prague. Guess what happened? Someone who knew I'd be there brought some printed cookie cutters with him from Australia.

In the meantime we had a one day / two tracks FOSS Backstage Micro Summit in November 2017 kindly hosted by Europace AG. I was able to talk several people into baking ASF cookies (including sugar coatings in the appropriate colours). In addition with the support of both, Newthinking communications GmbH, the ASF planners, and the ASF community development PMC an Apache Roadshow was co-located with the actual FOSS Backstage in June this year – a two day, multiple tracks event featuring Danese Cooper and Shane Coughlan for keynotes, a host of speakers with all sorts of relevant and inspiring stories to share, as well as fishbowl discussions on topics like Open Source monetization. One of the loveliest feedback we received: "This doesn't feel like an inaugural conference, given the professional organisation. You surely did manage to successfully invite people from a great variety of FOSS projects and foundations."

Having a press release draft ready was helpful when starting to drum up interest for the real event: With all details filled in, the "Draft/ Do not share"-warning removed it ended up getting sent to the press and published for real.

We started with a scope of all things FOSS economics, decentralised organisation, cross-cultural team-building, volunteer motivation, licensing and legal. In 2019 we want to align these aspects towards InnerSource, work collaboration principles and modern work models so that teams, companies and organisations can learn from the experiences we all make while working on Open Source projects. We are glad to have the event backed by newthinking GmbH next year again.


Isabel Drost-Fromm is (currently board-) member of the Apache Software Foundation, co-founder of Apache Mahout and mentored several incubating projects. Interested in all things search and text mining with a thorough background in open source project management and open collaboration she is working Europace AG as Open Source Strategist. True to the nature of people living in Berlin she loves having friends fly in for a brief visit –- as a result she co-founded and is still one the creative heads behind both, Berlin Buzzwords, a tech conference on all things search, scale and storage as well as FOSS Backstage, a conference on all things Free and Open Source behind the scenes and how it interrelates with business and InnerSource.

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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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