What is the difference between Contributor Experience and Community Management?


Melissa Mendonça, Inessa Pawson, Noa Tamir


March 8, 2023

While the role of community manager is established in the open source ecosystem, the role of a Contributor Experience lead is not yet well defined. Even though there is prior work in contributor experience (for example, the Contributor Experience working group within the Kubernetes community), our team has been working to develop an understanding of what this work means in our communities. In this post, we will explain our perceptions and the differences between contributor experience and community management.

To be clear, there is indeed a bit of overlap. Many of the activities that these roles involve are currently not owned by anyone in particular in most open-source projects; they are being done by overworked, overstretched developers and maintainers who just want to see more people get involved with their projects. That is also the case for the projects we are working on - except for Matplotlib, none of them have a community manager role. This makes us sometimes fill two positions, which is indeed a lot!

Due to the undefined nature of roles in most open-source projects, we often see many different roles being shared by community members instead of concentrated on one person. This is not necessarily bad - in fact, for small open-source projects this may be the only reasonable way to operate. But defining responsibilities and tasks within the project may help organize the work and open new pathways for contributions beyond code.

Focus on contributors

One big difference between what we think of as community managers and a contributor experience team member is that it is common to think of the community manager as someone that will bring new users or do promotion for the project, raising awareness of its existence and only maybe down the line indirectly attract new contributors. For the contributor experience team, the focus is primarily on the contributor community, onboarding and providing better tools and workflows for new contributors, as well as supporting maintainers in their interactions with the contributor community.

The “T” word

While this work involves a lot of social interaction and engagement, a contributor experience role requires reasonable technical skills to help onboard newcomers, provide tooling and automation, and Developer Experience improvements to the project. These are typically not required of community managers but are critical to the contributor experience work.

Advocates for new contributors

If this role had one job, it would be to ensure new contributors are adequately onboarded into an open-source project and that they see a clear pathway into long-term collaboration and contribution to the community. This could involve defining new and diverse roles in the community, documentation of current pathways, and better workflows to support engagement in the project. But this also involves some human connection - understanding why people want to contribute, how they want to engage, and how we can make that experience better for them.

Governance and change management

Another focus point of our contributor experience work is ensuring governance, and internal decisions are well-documented and well-defined. This is particularly important to create a culture of equal participation and inclusion. This can also involve some change management to help the community through necessary transitions. In this sense, the contributor experience lead has a position that is independent of maintainer status or leadership involvement.

Collaboration with Community Managers

We see the Contributor Experience and Community Management areas as complimentary; while the former focuses on contributions and internal processes, the latter can focus on communications, outreach, social media, and program development for the larger community. Receiving feedback and understanding what users expect of an open-source project can also help define roadmaps and priorities for contribution.

What do you think?

We would love to hear from you - what do you think could be involved in this work?

We hope to create a community of practice around the contributor experience work and to open a more extensive discussion about the place this work has in existing (and new) open-source projects. If you want to talk about it, we host weekly community calls on Zoom. Anyone is welcome to join, chat, or just listen. Hope to see you around!