Collaboration: four lessons learned in the digital era

By David Barzilay
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14 October 2015

Since my early days as a Technical Translator working with online communities at Red Hat - in 2002 - I started sensing an increased value of personal skills in the workplace. As digital technologies allow faster interactions and shorten physical distances, learning how to collaborate among geographically dispersed and culturally diverse people became a must-have in the Digital Era.

The core of Red Hat’s operating system (the Fedora Project) was developed by a huge community of volunteer developers worldwide; people who gave away their intellectual property rights for the benefit of the wider community. My initial task at Red Hat was to understand why volunteer software developers were joining the Fedora Project and leaving other open source software communities. 

First lesson learned

Listening is the first step towards understanding. Listening was also the reason why more and more volunteers worldwide were hopping on the Fedora bandwagon - they felt their voices were heard and their standpoints taken into consideration in that community.

Unlike its rivals, Red Hat wasn’t charging licence fees, but charged customers for technical support, training, distributed updates and other services instead. A couple of months in the job, it finally hit me how amazing this story was. The company was pioneering an ingenious business model by kickstarting what we now call SaaS, software-as-a-service. Well then, if the volunteers gave away their intellectual property for free, we had to find a way of keeping them onboard and facilitating what they do best - collaborate. In my view, this was a crucial ingredient to guarantee the company survival.

After believing I understood the mechanics of this community, I started voicing some suggestions to initiate ‘grassroots marketing’ activities for the Fedora Project. Quick Note: I’m a marketer, not a developer.

Needless to say my first emails weren’t well received . Reactions like “Show us some code”, “Who the hell are you?” and “We don’t need any marketing” were among the most polite ones. I was trying to sell some ideas in an environment ruled by meritocracy, so these reactions were the norm towards a newcomer. First you need to collaborate, repeat it at least a few times to showcase the community what you are capable of, get some acknowledgement and then they’ll start listening to you. 

Second lesson learned

Start collaborating today. That was just the beginning of my ‘collaboration-learning’ experience. After the initial reactions, I decided stepping back and kept listening. Meanwhile, I continued with my daily job - localising the software graphical interface and documentation to Brazilian Portuguese. I also decided doing some extra translations on the side for the benefit of the community. As a result of this work, more Brazilian volunteers were attracted to the Fedora community. That got me thinking I stood a better chance of selling my grassroots marketing ideas initially to the Brazilian people, who acknowledged the value of my contributions.

A couple volunteers and I created the first Fedora Project website in a non-English language. It’s purpose was to promote the project and ways to contribute - coding, writing documentation, translating, and promoting the operating system in different ways including participating in free software events. Promoting that kind of ‘non-geeky contribution’ was our first grassroots marketing collaboration win, as the community volunteering efforts were mostly focused on software development and compiling until then. 

Third lesson learned

Partner with people who share the same values and the same vision. Collaboration was key to get individual recognition within the community and also to get the website project off the ground.

Six months later, that Brazilian project had grown considerably. Volunteers were promoting the operating system in virtually every free software event in the country. Next, I partnered with some Redhatters who were also involved with the community to create the Fedora Ambassadors Project - a global sub-project under the Fedora umbrella. We incrementally secured some budget to support these grassroots marketing activities in different regions. As a result, recognised Ambassadors no longer had to pay transport and accommodation out of their pockets to promote Fedora in free software events. They also relied on the distribution of installation media and Fedora-branded marketing materials - T-shirts, pull-up banners and stickers.

The success of the Brazilian Ambassadors project propelled the creation of other national projects in Latin America and Europe. By increasing the number of people using Fedora, Red Hat was improving the quality of the software (more users > more bugs found and reported > more bugs fixed > better quality), and also evangelising a worldwide legion of geeks in the operating system. This grassroots marketing tactics increased the likelihood of them selecting Red Hat’s enterprise version in their universities and workplaces as both operating systems share the same core. 

Fourth lesson learned

Facilitate collaboration by building a platform (or program) through which more people can work together. By bringing different skills together we can produce exponentially bigger and longer term results.

Fast forward nine years, I now find myself in a work environment similar to the early days of Red Hat - surrounded by very smart, talented people, who share the same values of personal skills and collaboration. At Outfit we freely share our collective knowledge internally and externally. This is a truly collaborative organisation challenging the status quo of marketing materials production.

Outfit is revolutionising brand management and delivering fast, on brand, marketing production by facilitating the collaboration of brand managers, designers, marketers and content authors. Red Hat is already experiencing big results with Outfit.

How do brand and marketing teams collaborate in your company or organisation? 

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About the Author

David is a hands-on marketer who started working and fell in love with the Internet since the late 1990’s while managing his first website projects at SKY Brazil. He then moved to Australia in 2001 to follow his passion and study a Master Degree of Digital Media at QUT. Since then, he played marketing and digital roles in different industries, including technology (Red Hat and Dell), energy, not-for-profit, digital agency and most recently eCommerce. His new passions are his daughter Alice and the Outfit platform.

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