Mono or multilingual community?

Multilingual communityTwo months ago there was a discussion in our forum proposing to make it English-only (it was mostly English, but there were two small Spanish and Portuguese sections). Almost at the same time, there was a petition to open a Dutch-speaking board. Which decision should we take?

Both options had good convincing reasons. If we standardized to English-only, we could avoid dispersion of information and isolation of groups of users in language-specific islands. Every comment, suggestion, solution and improvement could be shared equally for everyone in a common language. And Zentyal users need to have some level in English anyway, because no one can work in IT nowadays without understanding Shakespeare’s language.

However, even if people can understand written English, interacting in a forum is a different matter. Many users would feel more comfortable if they could do so in their mother tongue. So, forcing everyone in English might make us actually lose many interactions from potential users who can then start their own Zentyal forum elsewhere in their own language. The result would be eventually similar with either option, except that with an English-only forum, users interactions would be scattered in different sites, instead of different boards in the same forum.

With this rationale we eventually opted for a multilingual forum. We can open as many language-specific boards as required, with three conditions:

  1. The main forum language will remain English
  2. A board needs to have at least one person responsible for its moderation and maintenance
  3. Every useful contribution will be translated and shared in the English sections and/or in the community documentation

So, once we set these minimal rules, and once mmullenders kindly offered his help, we launched the Dutch board. The results have been very positive: the board started to get alive and during the 7 weeks since launch, it has accounted for some 5% of all the forum posts during the same time. More importantly, the number of Dutch forum member has increased by an astonishing 40%!!! Which means that either there were many Dutch who did not feel comfortable writing English, or that our SEO in Dutch has improved and we have been found by many new users searching in their mother tongue. That is easy to prove: take the words “VPN achter een proxy server” (VPN behind firewall), one of the topics started during the past 7 weeks. Now google them and the first result is our forum 😎 Proost Nederland!

Encouraged with these results, this week we launched the French board, again after a petition from the community and with a responsible for it (christian, one of our Forum Moderators, who happens to be from France). The results are even better: in just two days the number of posts in French have surpassed the total number in Dutch, and a google search of a topic started yesterday, with such a generic title as “Comment envoyer et recevoir des mails” (How to send and receive emails) is on the top 10 results!!! All I can say is: Mes fĂ©licitations Ă  la communautĂ© francophone! :-)

Now, when will we have boards in German and Italian? 😉

July 21st, 2011

7 tips on open-sourcing a project

CommunityOpen source is an attractive badge that most software vendors are eager to wear, especially in times when customers’ budgets are being tightened and their ears are keen to hear about cost cutting. However, many vendors’ approach on open source are filled with myths and false expectations, most probably because they did not experienced it by themselves.

During the last 10 years I have being deeply involved with open source business almost non-stop and from multiple points of view (system integrator, business association, software vendor, etc) and I have had the chance to discuss about it with many different people (customers, vendors, VARs, public sector, contributors, users, etc). So, I will try to sum up what I have learned in the way in just 7 tips, hoping to do my bit in understanding how software vendors can sensibly embrace open source.

  1. Know why you do it: once you open-source a product there is no way back, so you better know why you are doing it. There are many reasons why it would make sense for a company to open-source its technology. For example to improve the quality/functionality of its products, to grow its user base, to gain visibility, to prepare for international expansion, etc. However, open-sourcing will have a profound effect in many of the operations, from sales to marketing, business development and, of course, R&D. Have a very clear understanding of why you are doing so and communicate it internally before going forward.
  2. Make it useful: it seems an obvious tip, but I found several vendors planning to open-source their core product, but keeping an essential part under a commercial license. The result would be a useless piece of software, with no way whatsoever of doing anything unless you pay for the license. Needless to say it is impossible to develop a user community around a useless product. In addition, making a product difficult to install or undocumented will turn it almost equally useless.
  3. Be active: when a potential contributor stumbles upon your project, one of the first things he/she will decide is whether spending a few hours testing and learning about it will be worth his/her precious time. That is, does the project seem active enough and thus guarantee some continuity to make use of initial investments of time. If you just publish it and “let them come and code for free” (sic) you are very much mistaken. You need to show commitment with your own project, by fixing bugs, releasing new versions or answering questions in the forum, especially in the beginning regardless nobody is downloading it. Otherwise, you will not find valuable contributors
  4. Get ready for different kinds of contributions: many vendors have the wrong perception that the main contribution they might receive are “free programmers”. However, the value received from the community will probably have very different forms. To start with, testing and debugging is a cumbersome task that usually consumes around half of the total R&D resources in a product’s life cycle. A large community, by trying it in very different scenarios and by very different users, can hunt the most hidden bug. Moreover, localization, a costly task acting often as an important barrier for internationalization, can be another benefit that the community can bring to the table. User requirements, documentation, expert suggestions and, eventually, code can be some other valuable contributions as well. However, you need to make it easy for users to contribute and be ready to receive and process these contributions in an orderly way
  5. Plan ahead: to outsiders it might seem that communities spring out around any project like magic and that “build it and they will come” is the way to go. But that is far from reality. Developing a community requires a continuous effort in communication and promotion, as well as investing much energy in providing technical support and documentation for free. You might also want to open up your community governance to externals, which will require a careful design of rules and a plan to make it happen. All these tasks mean precious time and resources that should be reserved in advance
  6. Hunt the community champions: members in a community do not behave uniformly. In fact, a year ago I had a look at the behavior of Zentyal forum members and the results were enlightening: just like in Pareto principle, 20% of members were responsible for 80% of posts in the forum. That means that a community will very likely have a small core of enthusiasts, surrounded by a bulk of occasional contributors and users. You need to spot your champions and focus your energies on them
  7. Be patient: developing a community is a complex and long process of engaging in a conversation, creating trust, educating your users, sharing common goals and developing in common. It is not something that you can build in one day, but it will probably take a few years before you can call it a community

April 25th, 2011




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