13 principles to build successful and vibrant communities

13 principles to build successful and vibrant communities
Photo by Shane Rounce / Unsplash

Lessons learnt from leading one of the most successful open source software projects

My colleague Kohsuke Kawaguchi, has built Jenkins, one of the most popular open source projects in the market. He has built a vibrant and thriving community (by conservative estimates, 2M+ people use Jenkins) that continues to grow 14+ years after it’s inception. I can confidently bet that Jenkins is behind at least a few applications that you are using in your daily lives.

I have worked closely with Kohsuke Kawaguchi for the last 12 years, 10 of them sharing an office space where we have had long conversations about elegantly built software projects, thriving communities, monetisable business models and building successful startups (cloudbees.com).

Through all of this, I have been his partner growing the Jenkins community.

Amongst others, I was the primary instigator who with a gang of 4 people started Jenkins World, a DevOps conference in 2011. Last week, Jenkins World was listed as the top #8 DevOps conference for 2018 (source: techgenix).

I have had a co-driver seat in helping build this community and have had tremendous joy in discovering these principles and enthused about sharing them.

These lessons are applicable to a wide spectrum of communities from personal brands, engineering projects and marketing departments. You can take these principles and apply to build small tribes or huge communities.

#1 Take joy in Making and Make all the time

The product or service is the bottom of the pyramid around which tribes are built. To get to the product, you have to show up and build something — day in and out.

Read that again.

After years of coding, I had lost my verve in building things. Watching Kohsuke excitedly walk in on every Monday morning with a new project he built over the weekend was inspiring.

I realised that building things isn’t hard work if you take joy in making. Move away from angling for success in every endeavour.

The enlightening part for me was that I truly understood one of the principles laid out in Bhagwad Gita by Krishna, which goes as —

Karma kar, phal ki chinta mat kar

Show up and do your work and don’t worry about the results

The motto thus becomes

Why do we make things? Because we can.

Finally, you build a lot of things because you don’t quite know what things will grip your community and take them by storm. The only way to discover it is to just do it.

#2 Make in different disciplines — get a hobby

Even the best get jaded, if they are doing the same thing repeatedly.

Pick a hobby that fulfils you and make that as your outlet away from work. I had given up art because I am a workaholic and this lesson was a life-saver. Picking a hobby was a fantastic outlet for me (my pictures, my art).

Interestingly enough, I easily experienced flow as I was making things during my hobby hours. Being in the flow state, left me fulfilled and energised for work. My idea levels, energy levels hit through the roof when I showed up at work the next morning. You can go build a community (or not) around your hobby too but remember it should not replace the joy of making.

If there is one thing you take away from this article — it is this — go get a hobby.

#3 Take joy in showing your work

When you show your work, people get inspired and their inner maker longs to shed the cocoon of passive consumption and the vacuum that follows along.

The wings of inspiration give flight to humans and people are looking to get inspired.

It took me a while to go, I am going to build my own interesting body of work and show it to the world but it does happen.

Austen Kleon in his short and lovely book “Show your work” makes a case that people want to see work in progress and not just the finished product, so shed any nervousness of showing incomplete work.

In the source software community, it is easy if you make your software open source and push it out for the world to see. Once people see the cool work, they want to know more, hear more and voila — you have the beginnings of a tribe.

#4 Take joy in bringing people for a ride along with you

Once you have got people intrigued, they will take a few nervous steps towards you — welcome them with open arms. My involvement in the Jenkins community started because I liked it and nervously walked across the office hallway to ask a really naive question. Not only did I get an answer, I was encouraged to contribute back and when I did contribute back, I was celebrated — they had me as a community member right there. Ten years and I am still a part of the community.

#5 Serve

Your tribe is a Venn diagram of contributors and users and each constituent is on the ride with you because you satisfy their particular needs. Thus, never forget that each circle in the Venn diagram exists to serve its constituents. You serve your contributors and tribe; your contributors serve your tribe; the tribe serves your need to provide something tangible and of value back to humanity.

Serving starts by listening to these sub-tribes and building what they ask for. A tribe will die on the vine if this cardinal rule is repeatedly flouted.

#6 Credibility

If there was a candidate for the word to show up most often in our conversations, it was credibility. Building a community stands on the bedrock of trust and credibility. Your tribe should see you not only do the talk but match it up with the walk too.

Life isn’t perfect and one messes up occasionally but if the tribe perceives you as authentic to your core ideals and promises, they will stick with you through the bad times.

#7 Execution over vision — 8/10 days

Years ago, a key client pounded on the table asking us to paint a 5 year vision for Jenkins. We didn’t quite lay it out that way.

The key philosophy is that it is better to actually do the work than paint a rosy picture that might be unrealistic to adhere to. If you do look at the rate of innovation in the world, it is extremely hard to predict what’s will happen 1–2 years from now let alone 5 years.

So show up and do the work and show the work, there are enough people who are promising the moon — you shouldn’t be in that tribe.

#8 Let them scratch their itch

Build a community that comes to you to scratch their itch and over time empower them to scratch their own itch. As a community leader, you want your community members to have a symbiotic relationship with each other. This can only be done if the community members can help themselves and the others.

#9 Get out of the way

Mark of a great leader is to build institutions and processes that outlast the leader. Once a community is up and thriving, the community leader should step in only when required and only in areas necessary.

The tribe will not scale if you are always in the middle of relationships. Set them free to chart their own paths and build their own relationships.

#10 Respect and Fairness

People join communities if they know that they are valued, respected and believe that they will be treated fairly if things go south.

Establishing ground rules in a community to treat other humans fairly and with respect is an endeavour that has to be lived day to day as well.

#11 Humility

Do you want to follow someone who is a pompous ass?

A community or leader can attract others only if they have an attitude of humility. If your core contributing team is ego-driven, you will have consumers following you and these members will never be in your tribe.

The difference between consumers and a community is that the consumers will flee to the next shiny product when it becomes good enough whereas the community will stick with you to build a shinier product.

Side note: A year ago, I saw a keynote speaker show a picture of a dying man on screen and said that this person died on his watch in the ambulance that the keynote speaker manned. More importantly (as he took a breath full of himself) was how seeing a human die was a life changing experience for the speaker.This, while the rest of us watched in shock at the narcissism of this speaker.

How many followers do you think he garnered for his company that evening?

#12 Show up

Show up day in and day out.

Show up day in and day out.

Show up day in and day out.

Show up day in and day out.

Show up day in and day out.

I cannot stress this enough.

#13 Recognise that luck is a key component in every success story

I live in Silicon Valley and see too many people who strongly believe that “they” had everything to do with the success that they are enjoying at the moment.


Luck is a huge factor in bringing success to your doorstep. Keeping this aspect in mind will bring the requisite humility to help facilitate other principles that I talked about earlier.

When I grew up in India, our maids would bring in their kids to help them in their chores. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see how incredibly lucky I was as compared to these smart kids.

Keep this in mind — always!


In summary, the keys to building a successful tribe or a community rest on the principles that your mother taught you — work hard, help and respect others, treat people fairly and count your blessings. It is painful to see that not too many people do it — so go ahead, employ them and a see a community build around your work