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Roman Holiday: organisation and leadership of Open Source communities

In 2017, the Joomla! World Conference was held in one of my favourite places in the world, Rome, The Eternal City.
As a representative of Until Sunday, the organisers invited me to give a keynote and also asked me to undertake the design of the event.

My keynote would address the current and next generation of Joomlers (volunteers that support the Joomla project), but also any volunteer in the Open Source community, providing insight and inspiration.

I confess that it was a difficult task for me.
Since my time as Brand Manager for the Joomla community, the organisation had changed a lot.
After I left, I would occasionally help out when needed, while remaining loyal to Joomla as Until Sunday’s CMS of choice.
Some contributors I was close to had now left and many new volunteers had joined the project, ushering in different expectations
What is more, the project itself had grown: at the time of the Conference they were ready to discuss Joomla 4.0, the new version, and this was the main subject of the event.

In a fit of despair fuelled by lack of inspiration, I decided to look at Rome and pondering on its positioning in by-gone times, circa the Roman Empire. I delved into the history of the city and the organisational problems and challenges facing the city’s officials. Lo and behold, I found similarities between the Roman Empire and an Open Source organisation like Joomla.

But how was I to bring it all together?


The Idea

The idea came in the guise of a dream where I saw myself on stage, dressed like Audrey Hepburn in the famous movie, Roman Holiday.
Let me clarify that the movie had very little to do with the task at hand but it gave me the idea of an a-sort-of-quick-tour-around-the Eternal-City intro to my talk.

Roman Holiday The Tour

With a tourist map in hand, I underlined the most meaningful architectural features of Rome and, after considerable research, I ended up with five important spots: the Old Appia Way, the Imperial Forum, the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Altar of Augustan Peace (Ara Pacis Augustae).

Each of them upheld in their own unique way that the Roman Empire is still considered the best-known example of strong leadership, sophisticated organisation and authority, even by today’s standards. But most of all, these beautiful landmarks introduced important concepts that an Open Source project should embrace to ensure a sustainable growth of ideas and enthusiasm inside the community.

So let’s start our virtual tour around Rome!



First stop: The Appia Way

Roman Holiday The Appia Way

The first stop is the Appia Way or Regina Viarum in Latin, which means "The Queen of Roads". The Appia Way was one of the earliest and strategically important Roman roads.
It was the first long road built specifically to transport troops outside of greater Rome.

The Romans were masters of road construction; the late Republic had expanded over most of Italy with all roads originating in Rome - known as the master itinerarium, or list of destinations along the roads - extending to the frontier of the realm; hence the expression, "All roads lead to Rome”.


Over the course of 700 years, the Romans built more than 55,000 miles of paved highways throughout Europe, enough to encircle the globe.


Romans realised that well-built roads were vital to the maintenance and growth of the Roman State.
The Romans understood this issue many centuries ago and their efficient network of roads helped them maintain a healthy signal-to-noise ratio while keeping everyone’s expectations in check given that a community that grows quickly, can also get out of hand quickly.Specifically, an extensive network of roads helped the Empire:

  • Ensure fast communication and collaboration. Thanks to this network the Roman military could out-pace and out-manoeuvre its enemies while assisting the daily maintenance of the Empire. Even the most isolated parts of the empire could be swiftly supplied or reinforced in the event of an emergency.

  • Map its territory. All major Roman roads were identified and listed, and the map even gave distances between various cities and landmarks.


Parallelism with an Open Source project

Communication is key.

Any Open Source project carries with it the need to select the best tools that can help it reach everyone in the community, in the many different teams. When communication is good, collaboration is smoother and faster.

The best Open Source teams also have clear documentation, regular releases and predictable versioning. Communication tools like monthly reports, public updates and blog posts are a good way to keep track of where the project is heading, plus showing growth and achievements to the community.



Second Stop: The Imperial Forum

 Roman Holiday The Imperial Forum

The Roman Forum (Forum Romanum) was the economic, political, and religious centre of the city in the early Republic.
As the Empire expanded, the small Foro was enriched with new buildings and temples, becoming the Imperial Forum, an important administrative and emblematic area of the city.


Several buildings in this area were dedicated to this purpose, allowing the Senate and other high-ranking Romans to have a place to meet and make decisions, but to also allow other citizens to gather and hear announcements and proclamations.


The Via Sacra extended along the forum square en route to the Capitoline Hill and the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. This sacred route was used for certain state-level ceremonies, especially the celebration of the victory ritual known as the Roman triumph.

As with the Appia Way, we can learn a lot from the Imperial Forum on how the Romans kept the community integrated, accountable, and excited about being part of the Empire.

The Forum served as:

  • A communal focal point. Various members of a diverse socio-economic eco-system gravitated to the Forum. In this important space, community rituals that served a larger purpose of group unity were performed and observed and elites could reinforce social hierarchy through the display of monumental art and architecture.

  • A symbol that reinforced a sense of community and belonging. Taking a stroll in the Imperial Forum, helps one understand Rome’s infatuation with spectacle and the importance of size. These government buildings were all functional, but also important to the people of Rome, continually reinforcing a sense of community and belonging but also inspiring awe and admiration in visitors.


Parallelism with an Open Source project:

A common space.

Having a place where people can easily meet is crucial to a remote community. Online meetings, forums, brainstorming through Google Drive documents and chats are helpful to keep every volunteer focused on the same goals, accountable for their actions and committed to specific deadlines, but most of all excited to be part of such a lively community.

A strong identity and visual language.

I cannot stop stressing how important a consistent brand identity is coupled with strong brand management. These design elements can play a crucial role in the way people perceive the community while enabling an Open Source project to attract new volunteers, sponsors and investors.



Third stop: the Colosseum

Roman Holiday The Colosseum


On our tour, we couldn’t resist a quick stop at the Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the Colosseum.

Although two-thirds of the original Colosseum have been destroyed over time, the amphitheatre remains a popular tourist destination, as well as an iconic symbol of Rome and of its long, tumultuous history.


The venue once hosted 100 days of games, including gladiator combat and wild animal fights. After four centuries of active use, the magnificent arena fell into neglect, and up until the 18th century, was used to source construction materials.


Let’s put aside the atrocities happening inside this monument momentarily, and give a little context about the timeframe that the amphitheatre was built in.

Even after the decadent Roman emperor, Nero took his own life in A.D. 68, his misrule and unrestrained behaviour fuelled a series of civil wars.

The Flavian emperors attempted to tone down the excesses of the Roman court, restore Senate authority and promote public welfare. 
Part of this project was the construction of a venue for the public to enjoy gladiator combat and other forms of ‘entertainment’.

So yes, it was an Imperial gift to Roman citizens. People enjoyed a host of performances; not always brutal.
For example, there were spectacles with elephants writing on sand or miniature ship naval battles in a Colosseum filled with water.

The Colosseum is a prime example of the deep understanding of the Romans regarding:

  • Shared experience in diverse communities. Everyone was welcome inside the Coliseum, despite their wealth and position in the society. All Ancient Romans had free entry to Colosseum events and food was also gratis.

  • Influencing public opinion. Sponsors, like aristocrats and politicians, used to invest significant sums of money in these spectacles for publicity purposes.

  • Reignite the faith. During periods of general discontent, a well-timed gathering of citizens at the Colosseum would work wonders to bring back faith in the Emperor’s legitimacy.

Parallelisms with an Open Source project:

A project always needs influencers and supporters.

Beautiful and well-promoted events attract new and old volunteers and influence the public opinion. The main source of money in an Open Source project comes from investors and sponsors.
They are also the first to get involved in big events, capitalizing on visibility and engaging in direct community building.

Bring back enthusiasm to the project and help networking.

An event like the upcoming J and Beyond conference for the Joomla community (or the Typo 3 Kongress 2018, or the successful UbuCon 2017) is vital to communities that work mostly remotely. 
Every open source project or big business has its downtime or moment when it needs to face failings and address shortcomings. These events reignite the faith by adding a spark to the mission and bringing people together in one place.

Finally, these events breathe new life into the project: we all return home with new insights, new goals, new ideas and a slight sprinkling of magic.

Fourth stop: The Pantheon

Roman Holiday The Pantheon

Are you ready to be impressed by the best preserved Ancient Roman monument?

The Pantheon was a temple turned church, that mysteriously managed to survive barbarian raids when the rest of Roman monuments had been destroyed.

Still intact in all its splendour and beauty, the fascinating part of the Pantheon is its giant dome, with its famous opening at the top (The eye of the Pantheon, or oculus).

It is an impressively clever bit of work that has awestruck engineers and architects from all around the world studying it with great curiosity.

Even today, the Pantheon boasts the largest unsupported dome in the world.
And what is more, rain seldom falls inside the dome. On the rare occasion that it does, the floor is slanted and magically, the water drains.

Romans were determined to leave their mark in world history by:

  • Building to last. Rome is not called the Eternal City by chance. It was built to live forever. The influence and impact of Roman architecture are seen the world over, least of all of the buildings that still surround us. They survived barbarian attacks and even natural disasters.

  • Creating to inspire. Centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, many iconic monuments were designed to emulate this period of architectural excellence; and not only in Italy! Columns, domes and arches have found their way into important buildings all over the world.

  • Thinking big by starting small. Rome was not built in a day, the saying goes. Roman architecture came from years and even centuries of research and painstaking attention to detail. This spirit lives on in everything built and created in that era. A legacy that reigns and inspires new trends, new perspectives, new generations. 
The greatest innovation that Roman architecture brought with it was probably the widespread use of concrete. Roman architects realised early on that concrete was not only stronger than commonly used marble but could also easily be manipulated into various shapes that didn’t require carving. 

Parallelisms to an Open Source project

Create a resilient and sustainable project.

Whether writing strings of codes, releasing a new version of a software, within the framework of Joomla 4 or any other open source project, let’s think about the magnificence of Roman architecture.

As a volunteer who is part of a bigger community, always build keeping in mind how great it would be to inspire others, encourage new ideas or simply be a starting point for something bigger.

This is the spirit of Open Source, after all!

Last stop: The Ara Pacis

Roman Holiday Ara Pacis

We are almost at the end of our virtual tour.
 Roman architecture peaked during the Pax Romana period, a period that lasted over 200 years in which the Roman Empire didn’t expand and wasn’t invaded.

One of the main actors responsible for the Pax Romana, was Augustus, Emperor of Rome to whom the Senate dedicated a monument that celebrates the Goddess of Pax, aka the Ara Pacis Augustae.


Currently, in the Museum of the Ara Pacis, this monument once stood in the northeastern corner of the Campus Martius.


Under Augustus, Rome's citizens were relatively sheltered, and the government mostly maintained law, order and stability. 

Some of the most influential architectural innovations such as roads and the Pantheon were created in these 200 years of relative peace.

 It is widely known that peace is not the absence of war.
Romans called pax the rare state of affairs wherein opponents had been fully subjugated.

Augustus' mission was to persuade Romans that the prosperity they could achieve in the absence of warfare far outweighed the potential wealth and honour acquired whilst fighting a risky war.

Augustus succeeded by means of skilful propaganda. 

Part of this propaganda was the restoration of the Mos Maioroum, aka "ancestral customs" another name for the unwritten code from which the ancient Romans derived their social norms. These were behavioural models and social practices that affected private, political, and military life in ancient Rome.
According to Augustus, following these values was not about garnering personal glory but bringing real benefit to the community as a whole.


Parallelism with an Open Source project

Build an open, collaborative culture

In an Open Source community, the ancient Mos Maiorum could be translated into a strong "culture code".
As volunteers, leaders and members of an Open Source organisation, you need to ask yourselves if you have what it takes to contribute to the growth of the project.

More specifically, the Mos Maiorum that you need to observe to make amazing things happen are:

  • Fides: Trust and good faith. But mostly reliability and credibility.

  • Pietas: which doesn’t mean pity, but it is all about being respectful of others. So as a volunteer among other volunteers, mind your manners in public and maintain morally upright relationships. 

  • Majestas: meaning respect for leadership and for the leaders governing;

  • Virtus: the use of skills for a higher purpose and for the good of the community.

Gravitas: probably the most difficult ones for Open Source organisations’ leaders (and not only!) but that can be summed into one word: “self-control”. It includes values like dignity, impressiveness, seriousness, influence and presence. An aura of charisma.
    It answers the questions: can you handle your emotions, your own passion while leading the community? Can you lead yourself before effectively leading others?



Last thoughts

Proud Augustus used to say: “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble”. 

Whenever you join an Open Source project, whether it is Joomla or another amazing Open Source initiative out there, and you are called to lead their community or participate as a volunteer, think of what achievements and improvements you as an individual could add to the whole organisation (project and community).
Think of how your contribution can truly make a difference, and how joining with others we can all together build something greater than ourselves.