Brussels / 3 & 4 February 2018


You’ve Got Some Explaining to Do! So Use An FAQ!

Doing something controversial? Have lots of stakeholders with conflicting needs? Changing course in a way that makes people suspicious or concerned? Write an FAQ! If you can answer the hard questions publicly, honestly, and confidently, you’ll foster trust and build good will even when your audience does not hear the exact answers they want. What’s more, the feedback will give you the input you need to correct any errors you have in fact made. We’ll use real world examples to look at some best practices, including Sun’s comprehensive FAQ for open sourcing Java.

Perhaps you’re in a company, trying to engage developers, leverage the FLOSS development model, and participate in communities important for your business. Maybe you’re part of a developer community eager to further your progress, and intent on changing your contract with contributors and downstream users. When you’re in the development and FLOSS world, inevitably you’ll have complicated, controversial, or unpopular news to deliver as things move forward, and skeptics ready to believe the worst! A comprehensive, transparent, honest FAQ document can help in ways you might not expect.

In this talk, we’ll look at how to use an FAQ to:

o Organize the effort. o Force decision makers and leaders to decide on goals, craft a coherent strategy, and understand and accept the tradeoffs. o Internally sell transparency and scrupulous honesty as essential to success. o Help the legal team be a partner, instead of just saying “no”. o Simplify and accelerate communications and make the Marketing Department an ally.

We’ll be using a bit of FLOSS history to illustrate our points - Sun’s Open Source Java Initiative.

Java wasn’t always Free Software. By 2005, Sun was making a lot of money with its staunchly proprietary Java platform. Richard Stallman called it a seductive “trap”. Under pressure from FLOSS community leaders to open source Java and turn it into a compelling example of the new model, Sun listened.

Those of us on the Java team were just as surprised as the rest of the software world by the announcement. Immediately, the questions started pouring in: Which license? How to encourage and manage contributions? What happens to the brand, and to Java’s “Write Once, Run Anywhere” compatibility promise? How does Sun continue to make money with Java, when the code is out there for anyone to use without paying a fee?

Sun didn’t know the answers. And these questions were in the minds of Sun’s customers, competitors, and knowledgeable FLOSS leaders. We needed a way to:

o Answer the hard questions consistently and in one place so everyone would know. o Get the whole company on board, including management, lawyers, salespeople, engineers, and marketing personnel. o Communicate the answers successfully to diverse internal and external audiences. o Convince skeptics on both sides that this initiative would succeed in future-proofing Java’s business while keeping the platform relevant and exciting.

Thus was born the “Open Source Java FAQ”, which was inspired by an earlier FAQ done for the Debian community, and grew to 200 questions. It would prove to be a key tool in solving these problems.


Photo of Simon Phipps Simon Phipps
Photo of Rich Sands Rich Sands