Interview: Jono Bacon

He’s the Pharaoh of community management, but what led him to switch from Ubuntu to the millionaire philanthropic prize fund, XPRIZE?

Jono Bacon is the co-founder of LUG Radio, LUG Radio Live and the brilliant Bad Voltage ( podcast. He was also the Ubuntu Community Manager at Canonical for eight years, providing a bridge between the company and its community of users, while at the same time writing books about community and conflict, as well as founding the Community Leadership Summit. Last summer, he switched streams to join the XPRIZE Foundation as its Senior Director of Community. We sent Graham Morrison to find out where the crossover might be, and what open source and XPRIZE could learn from each other.


Jono says the worst thing about moving from Wolverhampton to California is being so far away from the Black Country Living Museum.

Has it felt like a natural progression, going from Canonical to XPRIZE?

Jono Bacon: I think so. When I joined XPRIZE and started to think about building a new community that is designed to create a brighter future, the first thing I thought was that communities share many of the same principles, so I could pull from much of my existing experience.

The XPRIZE ethos is based on solving problems with technology, and that technology grows at an exponential rate. I then realised that communities have this exponential growth curve in many ways too – we saw that with Wikipedia, we saw that with open source, we’ve seen it politically with the Arab Spring. I never really realised that communities were an exponential entity. With that in mind, when we start socialising that as a concept, we can define these broader goals. Much of this is inspired by open source and my work at Canonical, but I think we can actually do way more in the world in new and different areas.

Is this is the emergent philanthropist in Jono Bacon?

JB: [laughter] Worst philanthropist ever! I believe that technology can solve all these major problems but I also believe that communities are a critical part of solving these major problems too. They just need to be better organised. We’ve been through the dark ages of community management, now we’re starting to see people write it down – we’re in the Renaissance period. My job at XPRIZE is obviously focused on the XPRIZE community, and growing that out. But in a broader sense as well, I want to get people to think about what we can do with communities and how well structured and organised communities can be world-changing.

Will exponential growth happen outside of social media? That’s a huge challenge.

JB: When I was thinking of going to XPRIZE, I watched this talk that Peter [Peter Diamandis – Chairman and CEO of XPRIZE] did in the Arab Emirates. He said that as human beings we think in this local and linear way, because our brains are designed that way, because a thousand years ago the changes in technology or the surroundings between one generation and another were very very small. But even the difference between my dad’s generation and my generation is huge already, if we think about what’s happened.

Take the maker movement, for example. Chris Anderson, who used to edit Wired, has written this book where he talks about his granddad moving from Switzerland, and he basically invented an automated sprinkler system in his garage. He spent some money on getting it patented, and he sold it to a company and it made a little bit of money. But it didn’t really have that much of an effect, and Chris wondered whether he could do the same thing using 3D printing, Arduino, and other pieces.

So he tried to do what his grandfather did, but designed for today. He did it for a few hundred dollars. His sprinkler system would listen to and based upon that would apply the relevant level of moisture. A lot of the pieces were already there for him because a community was already trying to automate ways of growing weed [laughs] more effectively. So there’s this massive community of people who are building these advanced sprinkler systems basically driven by hydroponics. What was interesting was that he could build something unique because a lot of the pieces were created by different communities of people coming together. And that’s the reason why the community piece is so important.

Will you have room in your new job to do that?

JB: With an open source company, what a community looks like is fairly well defined. You have the technology and you get people involved in building that technology. What’s different with XPRIZE is that there are going to be lots of smaller communities because we have lots of different areas of focus, from oceans to space to education to life sciences and more.

The work I am doing is to provide an on-ramp for anyone to have a practical effect in changing the world. This includes people writing code, running local XPRIZE Think Tank groups, designing user interfaces for teaching kids literacy and more. What is fun about this is that it’s a totally new community. The job was pitched to me by Peter and he said, “I want you to transform our progress at XPRIZE ten-fold with communities.” We didn’t get into a lot of the details about how exactly how it would work: he is the visionary, the big thinker, and he wanted me to come and disrupt our normal way of working at XPRIZE to explore how we make it more collaborative and so anyone can play a role in building this brighter future.

That’s probably the best way…

JB: It’s great but it’s a bit scary because this is all new and success is not assured. We just don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like. Right now we are starting with some logical building blocks and I want to connect my prior experience to see what makes sense and what interesting ideas the community comes up with for areas where people can collaborate and get involved. Importantly, our community will play a key role in what path we choose to follow; I want this to be a really collaborative experience.

It could be a great opportunity.

JB: Exactly. But it’s challenging. I found out from one of my new colleagues, who is on the Google Lunar XPRIZE to get a drone on the moon…

That’s just so cool, the fact that you can just drop that into the conversation…

JB: I know [laughs]… well, I said to my colleague that one of the things I want to do is set up a forum in which teams can collaborate together on areas of common interest, instead of all of them solving the same problems over and over again. It would be interesting, for example, to bring industry experts into the discussion to better support the teams, and he said, that’s doable with certain types of space research, but not all. The challenge today with space is that if you’re building space technology over a particular size, then the government makes you restrict how that information is shared; they consider over a certain size to be creating weaponised space technology.

It’s very difficult to build collaboration within that world, when the government locks it down. But then that doesn’t apply to other areas such as oceans, literacy or whatever else. I went into it initially thinking we needed to create one massive XPRIZE community, like we did with Ubuntu. Now I’m thinking a little differently about that. I think it will manifest in lots of different areas.


“There’s a mantra at XPRIZE: ‘The day before something is a breakthrough, it is a crazy idea’”.

I guess you could start with small ideas and see which gain any momentum?

JB: Exactly. There’s so much we can do. I know so many smart people that aren’t currently connected. And when we connect them together, it is going to be pretty amazing.

What do you think the open source communities could learn from XPRIZE communities?

JB: The thing that XPRIZE does that I think is really interesting is evolve how you define incentives for solving these issues. The prize development process is really expansive. There’s a lot that goes into it. It is not just making sure that the technology exists in the first place; you want to look at the technology where we are today, predictions around where technologies are going in the next 3–5 years…

Is there a laboratory with charts somewhere?

JB: Yeah! They bring in industry experts, consultants, scientists, business leaders and more. They have these multiple phases about how a prize goes from being an idea to something more.

There are ideas around weather control, building flying vehicles, curing diseases, producing better cleanup technologies, and more. Each idea goes through this process, but it’s not just about if technology will get you there – is there an interest there? Does it affect hundreds of millions of people? The goal here is not to build cool gadgets; it is to bring profound impact to the world.

But it is also about creating new industries. Creating great R&D is nothing if we can’t get it to the market and get people competing to drive prices down. This is a big chunk of the picture too.

A lot of that knowledge of the challenges in the world, and what we can do to fix them, can bubble out in so many different directions. Some of the work that’s gone into XPRIZE may provide inspiration for where developers may want to focus their efforts, for example, on software that could be used as part of these solutions.

It sounds like a dream job.

JB: It is pretty neat. When I started my career, I wanted to focus my efforts on having a contribution to something that has a wider-reaching benefit to the world. Canonical was a great place to do this focusing on building free and open technology that empowers people to educate themselves, start small businesses, create art, collaborate, and more.

I wasn’t really looking to leave Canonical, but when this thing came up – I’d heard of XPRIZE, but I didn’t really know what it was, so I started looking at it and thought ‘wow.’ There’s a lot that could happen here, a lot of potential, but a lot of new and culturally different work to do. It seemed like the right mix of a great opportunity but also a real challenge to get my teeth into.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve taken from Canonical?

JB: I think there’s probably two things; one thing that Canonical really helped me with is to think in a very strategic way. To really think about what we want to do. Where do we want to go? What’s it going to look like? I learnt a lot of project and people management from some amazing people.

The most important thing for a lot of this stuff is having the passion, and one of the things I learnt most from Mark [Shuttleworth – Ubuntu founder and Earth’s second space tourist], is not that we’re going to “try” to do this, we’re going to go out and “do it”. Having that level of confidence but not arrogance, and not dominance, is critical. Ubuntu doesn’t go out to crush the competition, it’s out to be better than the competition, and I think that’s the right kind of approach, and I learnt a lot from Mark in that regard. He’s got an unbending level of positivity and forward momentum – one of the hardest things about leaving Canonical is not working for Mark any more.

Are you still using Ubuntu?

JB: Yeah, but I do have to use a Mac for work, because XPRIZE has a small IT team and a limited set of platforms they can support within the remit of that team. I use Ubuntu for everything else and I am working to get Ubuntu into XPRIZE more.

How do you think your ebook (Dealing With Disrespect) has been received? It was a brave thing to do; stating your case can often be asking for trouble and it’s so much easier to just keep your head down.

JB: The thing I was most scared about in writing that book was that people might interpret it as tolerating bullying. I don’t think it’s about that. The book touches on a big source of conflict which I think are the different ingredients that make up a human being. Age, culture, gender – all those different pieces. As we all know, when you start talking about those kinds of areas, it doesn’t matter what you say, some people are going to read it in the way they want to.

Was there anything in particular that pushed you to the point of writing it?

JB: Yeah. I can tell you exactly what it was, and this is going to sound a bit weird actually. I bought a Playstation 4 – I was sadly one of those people who lined up outside of a Best Buy at 7 o’clock in the morning – what a nerd. There’s a feature on Playstation 4 called Playstation Live, and people can stream videos live. I’m a big Reddit fan and I was following the Playstation 4 subreddit and there was post on there at the top that said there was a guy live streaming right now who’s drunk and he’s just kicked his dog and he’s hitting his wife or girlfriend – and the post said “He’s live streaming now, go and check it out.”

So I went to check it out and he was surrounded by cans of Bud Lite and he was on the phone – this is a little bit funny – but basically, he gave his phone number out on the live stream so people were prank calling him pretending to be this MMA fighter or something, Reddit had conspired around this. On the one hand it was funny, and people were egging him on.

What was clear to me though was that this guy was having a breakdown. I started typing in, “Turn the Playstation 4 off. Go to bed and sober up. Just, stop this.” And people started giving me grief, saying, “What the hell is wrong with you. This is brilliant, blah, blah…” People were insulting me and I was just trying to be a good citizen.

I was really angered by this. These people are absolute idiots, and it got me thinking about the conduct of people on the internet and how mean spirited people can be to serve their own interests and opinions. And that was the night I had the idea for the book. I had the benefit of being the community manager for a large open source project and I’d learned a set of things that are now in the book. Most people don’t go through that experience so they’ve not had that opportunity to learn how to put things in context and develop a thicker skin.

There’s some weird voyeurism going on. They’ve got a games console and they’re sitting with a beer watching other people watching other people.

JB: One of my goals for the book is that when someone’s in that position and someone has said something mean, and it dings that person’s confidence, I want someone else to say, “You should read this book. It’s really quick and easy – you can read it in a couple of hours. That will help.” And that’s the reason why it’s free to download and it’s available online. I hope it helps people stay focused and positive on creativity and not negativity.