The Future of Project Teams Gatherings

Next week, OpenStack contributors will come together in Denver, Colorado at the Project Teams Gathering to discuss in-person the work coming up for the Stein release cycle. This regular face-to-face meeting time is critical: it allows us to address issues that are not easily fixed in virtual communications, like brainstorming solutions, agreeing on implementation details, or building up personal relationships. Since day 0 in OpenStack we have had such events, but their shape and form evolved with our community.

A brief history of contributor events

It started with the Austin Design Summit in July 2010, where the basics of the project were discussed. The second Design Summit in San Antonio at the end of 2010 introduced a parallel business track, which grew in importance as more organizations and potential users joined the fray. The contributors gathering slowly became a subevent happening at the same time as the main "Summit". By 2015, summits were 5-days events attracting 6000 people. It made for a very busy week, and very difficult for contributors to focus on the necessary discussions with the distractions and commitments of the main event going on at the same time.

Time was ripe for a change, and that is when we introduced the idea of a Project Teams Gathering (PTG). The PTG was a separate 5-day event for contributors to discuss in-person in a calmer, more productive setting. By the Austin Summit in 2016, it was pretty clear that was the only option to get productive gatherings again, and the decision was made to roll out our first PTG in February, 2017 in Atlanta. Attendees loved the small event feel and their restored productivity. Some said they got more done during that week than in all old Design Summits (combined), despite some challenges in navigating the event. We iterated on that formula in Denver and Dublin, creating tools to make the unstructured and dynamic event agenda more navigable, by making what is currently happening more discoverable. The format was extended to include other forms of contributor teams, like SIGs, workgroups, or Ops meetups. Feedback on the event by the attendees was extremely good.

The limits of the PTG model

While the feedback at the event was excellent, over the last year it became pretty clear that holding a separate PTG created a lot of tension. The most obvious tension was between PTG and Summit. The PTG was designed as an additional event, not a replacement. In particular, developers were still very much wanted at the main Summit event, to maintain the technical level of the event, to reach out to new contributors and users, to discuss with operators the future of the project at the Forum. But it is hard to justify traveling internationally 4 times per year to follow a mature project, so a lot of people ended up choosing one or the other. Smaller teams usually skipped the PTG, while a lot in larger teams would skip the Summit. That created community fragmentation between the ones who could attend 4 events per year and the ones who could not. And those who could not were on the rise: with the growth in OpenStack adoption in China, the number of contributors, team leaders and teams where most members are based in China increased significantly.

Beyond that, the base of contributors to OpenStack is changing: less and less vendor-driven and more and more user-driven. That is a generally good thing, but it means that we are slowly moving away from contributors who are 100% employed to work upstream (and therefore travel as many times a year as necessary to maximize that productivity) toward contributors that spend a couple of hours per week to help upstream (for which travel is at a premium). There are a lot of things OpenStack needs to change to be more friendly to this type of contributor, and the PTG format was not really helping in this transition.

Finally, over the last year it became clear that the days of the 5-day-long 5000-people events were gone. Once the initial curiosity and hype-driven attendance is passed, and people actually start to understand what OpenStack can be used for (or not used for), you end up with a less overwhelming event, with a more reasonable number of attendees and days. Most of the 2015-2016 reasons for a separate event are actually no longer applying.

Trying a different trade-off

We ran a number of surveys to evaluate our options -- across Foundation sponsors, across PTG attendees, across contributors at large. About 60% of contributors supported co-locating the PTG with the Summit. Even only considering past PTG attendees, 53% still support co-location. 85% of the 22 top contributing organizations also supported co-location, although some of the largest ones would prefer to keep it separate. Overall, it felt like enough of the environment changed that even for those who had benefited from the event in the past, the solution we had was no longer necessarily the optimal choice.

In Dublin, then in Vancouver, options were discussed with the Board, the Technical Committee and the User Committee, and the decision was made to relocate the Project Teams Gathering with the Summits in 2019. The current plan is to run the first Summit in 2019 from Monday to Wednesday, then a 3-day PTG from Thursday to Saturday. The Forum would still happen during the Summit days, so the more strategic discussions that happened at the PTG could move there.

Obviously, some of the gains of holding the PTG as a separate event will be lost. In particular, a separate event allowed to have strategic discussions (the Forum at the Summit) at a separate time in the development cycle as the more tactical discussions (the PTG). Some of the frustration of discussing both in the same week, when it's a bit late to influence the cycle focus, will be restored. The Summit will happen close to releases again, without giving that much time to vendors to build products on it, or deployers to try it, reducing the quality of the feedback we get at the Forum.

That said, the co-location will strive to keep as much as we can of what made the PTG unique and productive. In order to preserve the distinct productive feel of the event, the PTG will be organized as a completely separate event, with its own registration and branding. It will keep its unstructured content and dynamic schedule tools. In order to prevent the activities of the Summit from distracting PTG attendees with outside commitments, the co-located PTG will happen on entirely separate days, once the Summit is over. There are only so many days in a week though, so the trade-off here is to end the PTG on the Saturday.

This change is likely to anger or please you depending on where you stand. It is important to realize that there is no perfect solution here. Any solution we choose will be a trade-off between a large number of variables: including more contributors, maximizing attendee productivity, getting a critical mass of people present to our events, contain travel cost... We just hope that this new trade-off will strike a better balance for OpenStack in 2019, and the Foundation will continue adapt its event strategy to changing conditions in the future.