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Asking the “Five Whys” about Open Source Sustainability at the Sustainability BoF @ NED Camp 2021

· Drupal,Sustainability,NEDCamp,BoF

Why sustainability matters to me

I care about Drupal and the Webform module; therefore, I care about sustainability out of my necessity to ensure Drupal and the Webform module are successful.

As the maintainer of the Webform module for Drupal 9, I make sizable contributions to Drupal in a variety of ways: committing code, writing documentation, recording screencasts, wrangling the issue queue, and more…. Over the last five years, I’ve come to realize that figuring out how to make my contributions sustainable is essential.

Sustainability has been a consistent theme in my blog. Last year, when it seemed that my organization was moving away from Drupal, I thought a lot about my commitment to Drupal and the sustainability of my work on the Webform module. This challenge encouraged me to improve the Webform module’s Open Collective. I worked to persuade individuals and organizations to invest (aka sponsor) in the ongoing maintenance of the Webform module. The number of backers and the annual budget of the Webform module’s Open Collective has grown substantially; for this, I am very grateful. Talking more about the Webform module and its Open Collective is a discussion for another day.

Engaging in the more extensive discussion around sustainability

Because I talk about the sustainability of my contributions to the Webform module, it is reasonable for people to ask me to talk about sustainability in general.

Recently, John Picozzi (johnpicozzi) asked me to help facilitate the online Sustainability BoF at New England Drupal Camp (NEDCamp) on Friday, November 19th, 2021. I hesitated because I have mixed feelings about the topic. At the beginning of this blog post, I stated I cared about sustainability out of necessity, and I would always prefer to talk about code and collaboration. I see individuals like myself pushing for sustainability while large organizations are not getting as involved to solve this persistent problem in the Open Source community. Shouldn’t someone affiliated with any large organization using Drupal to build and maintain 100’s of Drupal websites be tasked with addressing the sustainability of Drupal? Some organizations do care, and they have people contributing to Drupal and discussing sustainability.

Circling back to John’s request to facilitate the Sustainability BoF at NED Camp, I said yes with the realization that I need to think about how to approach this topic constructively and thoughtfully. I decided to collect my thoughts in this blog post and maybe also start the BoF’s preliminary discussion at the same time.

What is the most productive way to have a conversation about sustainability?

There are plenty of resources, articles, and mechanisms for funding Open Source development. I’m hesitant to rehash the past discussions; meanwhile, everyone needs to improve their dialog around contributing and helping to sustain Open Source. Frankly, it is tough to argue that a business should contribute to Open Source when they already get the software for free. Time and time again, an organization’s contribution to Open Source seems to be driven by an individual who has the authority or influence to move an organization to contribute. When I listen to podcasts about how different Open Source projects have become sustainable, persuading people to contribute is consistently one of the most critical tasks.

A goal for productive BoF about Sustainability would be to improve our collective ability to persuade people and organizations to contribute to Open Source. Improving our discourse around sustainability in a one-hour discussion could have a tangible impact. If any action we take within Open Source inspires someone directly or indirectly to contribute or back an Open Collective, I see that as a significant accomplishment. I have an ongoing personal experience with this myself - I am working on and need help to persuade my organization to start actively contributing code and resources to Drupal.

What are the questions we need to be able to persuade people to contribute to Open Source?

Last year, while seeking some career advice from Chad Hester (chadhester), he recommended reading the book Lean Startup by Eric Ries. The book is an incredible resource that changes the way one thinks about starting and running a company. Eric Ries’ Lean Startup movement was inspired by Toyota’s Lean Manufacturing, which led me to read The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker. I have worked as a “consulting firm of one” for the past twenty years. And while the concepts behind running a startup or manufacturing company are foreign to me, I can relate to their shared approach to solving problems efficiently, which is to ask difficult questions that seek out root causes. One of the ‘lean’ tools to finding the root cause of a problem is asking the “Five whys.”

Asking the Five whys around sustainability

Five whys (or 5 whys) is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem. The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question “Why?”. Each answer forms the basis of the next question. The “five” in the name derives from an anecdotal observation on the number of iterations needed to resolve the problem.


To begin the Sustainability BoF’s discussion, I want to suggest that we have to state the problem, which could be as simple as, “Open Source is not sustainable.” From there, we need to ask, “Why is Open Source NOT sustainable?” If I am going to facilitate a BoF about sustainability, my job is to inspire you to start asking the right questions and work together to find some answers.

Minimally, if everyone logs off from our virtual BoF thinking about nudging people and organizations to contribute to Open Source, we would have accomplished a lot in an hour. Bonus points if people log off thinking about Why Open Source is NOT sustainable and what is the root cause or this problem/challenge.

Hopefully, you can attend the free and open BoF on Sustainability at NEDCamp. If you want to help me prepare, please share what you feel are the sustainability problems and challenges facing Drupal and Open Source in the comment below. If you want to help move this discussion forward, please also share your Five Whys. I welcome the feedback.

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