What does “success” mean?

When I first interviewed for the job of “Community Growth Hacker”, I was told that a major part of my job was helping SourceForge projects be “successful.” Naturally, I asked what “successful” means. I asked this of our CEO, and of my boss and co-workers, and got a number of different answers. I also asked the question of colleagues in Open Source, and got other answers there.

In the last few months, I’ve asked this question of people on a variety of SourceForge projects. I ask the question in many different ways, but I always ask it. The answers vary greatly.

This shouldn’t be too terribly surprising, of course. Open Source is driven by people who are volunteers – they’re working for a wide variety of different motivations, and not just for profit. So their definitions of success, too, will vary widely.

Some value fame (ie, popularity, large numbers of downloads, large user base). Others value utility – does the project do what I set out for it to do? To others, success means frequent releases, or quick time-to-close on tickets. And to others, success means happy customers or users. All of these are important, but which one the project admin values most will no doubt shape their attitude towards building their product and community.

This question was asked many years ago on Slashdot, and got a similarly diverse list of answers. And a research paper was written, largely based on the results of that question.

Frequent readers will no doubt note that two of the authors of the paper are also authors of the heartbeats paper I mentioned back in February, which is how I came across it.

I wonder if attitudes have changed at all in the 9 years since this paper was written. My experience is that they haven’t. People still do Open Source for an enormous variety of reasons – profit, fame, resume fodder, utility, boredom, interest in a particular topic, desire for community, altruism, and many others.

What do you think? Why do you work on Open Source? How do you know when your project is successful?

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