Frequently asked questions about working open

Why working open?

Hi there, and welcome to the first module of Open Hardware Makers! Our program was born out of the need of a bridge, a helping hand that guides newcomers into the open hardware community. Our intention is that this bridge allows more, and different people, to create, contribute to and support open hardware projects. This is one of the core values of Open Hardware Makers: we envision the program as a tool for diversifying the open hardware community, making openness not only available but accessible for everyone.

As part of this vision, in Open Hardware Makers we consider working open is much more than making your hardware documentation available online.

What does working open mean?

As we ourselves learned through the Mozilla open leadership training series, you are “working open” when:

  • you use the power, knowledge, and skills of a diverse community of “contributors” to accomplish something that a single person or a small team couldn’t do alone.
  • you share knowledge and information generated by the project widely and freely, allow others to build on your project, and maximize its usefulness for everyone.

The beauty of it is that by working open, we can often get far more done (and often done better) than we could working alone. And the knowledge, resources, and tools we generate in our work are more useful and powerful because they’re shared widely. In fact, this curriculum was developed in an open process involving diverse members of the open hardware community and would not have been possible otherwise.

What working open can do for you

So, why would you open your hardware project?

  • Working open can make your project better

Having many contributors on your project means you benefit from different approaches and ways of thinking– a contributor might offer a totally novel solution to a design problem that would never occur to you. Diverse perspectives produce a better, richer product. Contributors may also catch errors that you’ve missed. Also the process of mentoring contributors can enhance and deepen your own skills– you may find efficiencies or better ways of working as you help contributors solve problems or tackle new chunks of creative work.

  • Working open gets you closer to your users and their needs

By inviting a broad community to contribute to your project, you can integrate your target audience into the development process to help ensure that you’re creating a tool, experience, or resource that meets their needs. Future users can be involved in decision-making about project design, direction, and features, as well as contributing project work.

  • Working open can allow your project to achieve its maximum impact

When you’re engaging contributors and target users from day one, your final product will launch to a built-in audience and be more likely to be supported, championed and sustained by contributors with a long history with the project. When you share your process and make ongoing work openly available on the web, others can build on your work, adapt your process or a part of your project for a novel use. Your project can have a positive, transformative effect far beyond what you’re able to imagine.

…and what it can’t

Working open can help your project flourish and grow, but there are also many misconceptions about the practice. Let’s address a few common confusions about working open, and get at some of the challenges inherent in this way of working.

  • Working open is not a way to get free labor for your project

In a successful open project, volunteers will contribute time, energy and work, but if you open your project solely for the purpose of getting resources for free and you treat your contributors only as unpaid laborers, your contributors won’t stick around and your project will fail. Contributors on an open project should gain as much (if not more) than they give to the project. This is why shared decision-making, mentorship, and skill sharing are so important to ensure that contributors grow and benefit along with the project.

  • Working open is not a way to hit your deadline faster

On an open project with a sizable community of enthusiastic contributors, you might think that work gets done rapidly and efficiently. And in some instances that can be true. But you should be prepared for the reality that it takes time and energy to build a functional community of people who work well together. You’ll spend less time working directly on the project while you coordinate contributors and contributions, a task that requires intention, mindfulness, and consistent effort.

  • Working open is not a way to avoid process or structure

Good open projects provide clear guidelines and a coherent process so new contributors know what to do and what to expect as they make their first contributions. It’s helpful to have roles– even if these are lightweight and somewhat flexible– so it’s clear who contributors can go to for help or who might approve or review a contribution they make. Any power structures or decision making processes need to be transparent, so contributors feel encouraged to participate meaningfully in shaping the direction of the project.

Assignment: Reflecting on how openness benefits your project

We will be discussing more about these aspects of working open in each of the modules of the program. For now, we want you to reflect on:

  • Why would you like to open your project?
  • How do you envision your project specifically benefiting from more community contribution and participation?

Take 5 minutes to think about these questions and write down a few lines with your ideas to discuss with your mentor.

next: The Open Hardware Landscape  

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