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Sustain, a one-day conversation about sustainability in open source

Amy Hays
by Amy Hays
on August 8, 2018

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Sustain is a one-day event where 100 diverse open source “sustainers” gather together to discuss the unique challenges facing open source sustainability. All four Tidelift founders attended and enjoyed the first conference, which was held last year in San Francisco. This year, the second iteration of the event will be hosted on October 25, 2018 in London, and Tidelift is excited to be a sponsor.

We wanted to learn more about the event, how it began, and what will be happening this year. So we interviewed co-founders Justin Dorfman and Pia Mancini to get the full story.

It started with a Tweet

The whole thing started with a Tweet.

Justin tweeted a quote from an article written by Pia.

The quote sparked a conversation about having a one-day discussion with others who care about open source sustainability, and snowballed from there.

“There were a lot of direct messages, saying, ‘Hey, we’re on board,’” Justin said. He expected interest to die down after that first weekend, but it didn’t. People remained interested. And that’s how the conference was born.

The conference format is somewhat unique. There are no keynote addresses, no speakers, no sponsored demos. It’s just a room of 100 people having conversations led by a facilitator, Alan “Gunner” Gunn, the Executive Director of Aspiration in San Francisco.

“[Gunner] is such a great mentor and facilitator,” Justin said. Gunner advocated for a less traditional conference schedule and instead a full day of structured conversation.

The importance of diversity and inclusion

One thing that makes Sustain unique is the diversity of the attendees. “[Last year] we made a point to reach out to different people, [like] Black Girls Who Code and the trans community,” Pia said. “Our fear at the beginning [was] we didn't want a room with just one voice in this conversation.”

To help facilitate this, the conference offers childcare and scholarships to help bring people in who normally wouldn’t be able to attend. (Tidelift is proud to be the diversity and inclusion sponsor, which helps provide those daycare services.)

By bringing in a diverse crowd, they hoped to amplify different points of view that might not normally get heard. “We wanted a diverse group of roles–maintainers, sustainers, companies–[so that we could] build a common language [around] how we achieve [sustainability],” Pia said. “We were greatly surprised that it worked.”

Key takeaways

What were some of the most intriguing takeaways from last year’s conference? Well, for one, Pia was surprised that it's not controversial to bring money into open source anymore. It’s almost a necessity now.

“A paying salary for people working in open source is less of a question today,” Pia said.

What they learned was that sustainability means a lot of different things.

  • How do we include more people?
  • How do we free a maintainer from a project before they get bogged down and exhausted?
  • How do we understand that open source is more than code and move away from the idea that code is king?
  • How do we include unacknowledged roles and help people understand how important those roles are?

“We had people from [the] Python [software foundation], Google, GitHub, and [discussed] all the different problems they have,” Justin said. “There’s not just two classes of [maintainers]; there are many classes of open source.”

“It helps us bring people together in a really unique way,” Pia said.

They hope this year’s conference will continue the important discussions. The fact that the event will be hosted in London this year, not San Francisco, is intentional.

“Since open source is used worldwide, we wanted to be sure it wasn’t just a United States thing,” Justin said.

In fact, both Pia and Justin said they dream that others might start their own Sustain conferences.

“We’d love to see pop-ups of Sustain,” Pia said. “It’s not something we own. It’s [just] something we started.”

Are you interested in the unique sustainability issues facing the open source world? You can learn more about the Sustain conference here.

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