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Community Building and Thought Leadership in Open Source | Royal O’Brien

Community Building and Thought Leadership in Open Source | Royal O’Brien

How thought leadership can build communities and products in open source development.

An interview with Royal O’Brien about nurturing communities to reach long term goals.

Can thought leadership help organize people towards a common goal? The answer is yes!

Our guest in this episode is Royal O’Brien, General Manager of Digital Media and Games at Open 3D Engine, an important facet of the Linux Foundation.

Open 3D Engine (O3DE) is an Apache 2.0-licensed multi-platform 3D engine. This engine enables developers and content creators to build AAA games, cinema-quality 3D worlds, and high-fidelity simulations. And, because it’s “open source,” creators can use the engine without fees or commercial obligations. Open source projects create base code and make that code available to everyone. This allows the audience to modify and innovate that code for their own projects, continually updating and adding to the base.

Motivating, coordinating, and moving people towards a common goal can be a challenge. Yet, organizing large groups of creative people without restricting or stifling them is the key to Royal’s success, and he’s managed to do it time and time again. Today, Royal shares the thought leadership that guides his path, shaping the questions he asks about his audience: Who will use this product? How will they use it? How will they change it? and, most importantly, What kind of impact will it make?

From those questions, he creates a “flywheel effect,” aligning short- and long-term goals, and focusing his attention on creating products that will move his organization into new financial markets. He even discusses how tools like Discord and Game Jams bring people together and unleash their creativity, allowing him to watch for direction and advancements in real-time as his engine is shaped by the community.

Royal’s advice about community-building can be applied to many communities and industries; anything that encourages creative individuals to work in concert towards a common goal. If that sounds like your org, don’t miss this episode!

Three Key Takeaways:
  • Thought leadership can be the key to ensuring that communication between creative, innovative individuals or teams is clear and productive.
  • When building a community, you can use thought leadership to increase inclusivity and make sure everyone’s voice is heard.
  • Once you’ve started a movement, you need to nurture it (both short- and long-term) in order for it to succeed.

Join the Organizational Thought Leadership Newsletter to learn more about expanding thought leadership within your organization! This monthly newsletter is full of practical information, advice, and ideas to help you reach your organization’s thought leadership goals.

And if you need help scaling organizational thought leadership, contact Thought Leadership Leverage!


Bill Sherman How do you organize individuals and organizations to create open-source software? My guest today is Royal O’Brien. He’s the general manager of digital media and games at Open 3D Engine, which is now part of the Linux Foundation. The seed code for this project came from a 3D engine called Lumberyard, which was developed by Amazon’s IWC business, and then Amazon donated it to the Linux Foundation. In this conversation, I’m eager to talk with Royall about open-source collaboration and community building. We’re even going to talk a little bit about game jams and Discord servers. I’m Bill Sherman, and this is Leveraging Thought Leadership. Ready? Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Royal.

Royal O’Brien Hey, how are you?

Bill Sherman So I want to start with your working in the space of open-source software and you’ve been there for a while. Right? And we’re a podcast that’s talking about thought leadership. So my question for you is, is there space for thought leadership within open source and to create thought leadership through open source?

Royal O’Brien So there absolutely is. There’s a lot of approaches in open source that you see are taken in a lot of cases. You’ll find where you have a project that will start up and they’ll kind of put the code out there for everybody, just start using, but they don’t really establish everything else around it on how you’re going to get it there, how you’re going to grow it, how it’s going to become this thing other than through, you know, either a viral type of campaign or people just picking it up. And those things are critical, but having a plan of of really operating in a different manner that is still aligned with open source values. That’s the key. So when we talk about the thought leadership, you have to think about who’s going to use it. Why will they use it? What kind of impact is this going to have? And then what can I do to kind of differentiate this? And how long will it take me to get there? That kind of thought leadership takes a lot of planning ahead of time on where you want to deliver it to be. So, for example, you know, when we’re talking about, you know, how we want to get it out there, it was different than let’s just put the code out there and hope that people grab it. Instead, it was how do we get companies who would actually use this to be able to support it so that people who are building and adopting it actually get a better experience and can build better things and to create better things? See, nobody wants to win, especially with video games. Nobody wants to play the game of creating the game. They want to make the game. And that’s the hardest part. There’s a lot of money and a lot of time to get sunk in and a lot of times successes that move to failures because of it. And if you’re thinking ahead for them, that has a huge impact.

Bill Sherman Right, so one of the things you started with the lumber yard project at AWB is creating a platform and a new platform within AWB and then talk about that experience and then the migration over to the Linux Foundation. So how did that evolve? Lumberyard evolve into open 3D.

Royal O’Brien Yeah, so the funny thing about that process was first to take a look. Is this something that people are? Are they going to actually adopt this right? Is it good enough? Will they take it? And when we took a look at it, it was like, Well, it’s in pretty good shape, but there are things that really could make it better. And the first thing was, how do we kind of when somebody goes to build something on it a lot of times in especially game development, you have to unwind a lot of code. It was built to do something in first person shooter engine was built to do first person shooter and things like that. And so part of the first approach was let’s make it modular. So there’s a lot less unwinding. That’s a critical piece so that people can actually adopt and take what they want. That’s what created that nine monolithic environment. So we thought people can really get into that because if they pull the piece they want, they can get it, take it forward and build what they want. That was the first step. The second step was then changing the actual internal of how do you do things from a team that has corporate type of practices that work well and then move it into open source where you have intellectual property constraints, you have different code constraints. There’s a lot of things that go into that. And so then you have people who have been developing inside of a company that don’t talk about what they’re doing openly with the rest of the world. How do you get these people that have never dealt with that before they say, Yeah, go talk to the world, share everything with the world that you’re thinking and building. It is a totally, totally different leap and you’ve got to keep working on it. The funny thing is, it doesn’t just happen overnight. It really is a continual process.

Bill Sherman So open source, I think is best thought of as a movement. Would you agree with that rather than as an entity or a set of values? How would you answer that?

Royal O’Brien I mean, it is definitely. It’s definitely a movement because we’ve seen here’s the thing with open source is that people have learned that open source actually brings a lot more benefits than not using open source. The security, the stability, the growth of the community, the maturity. You know, it’s really hard to compete with the velocity of open source. At the end of the day, either I go hire a thousand people or I can move it into open source and build a successful campaign that actually has a much larger base that grows and matures faster. So I don’t think open source was any kind of a, you know, a fad or things like that. We’ve seen this grow and evolve continuously, and there’ve been some of the largest products used on the planet, the open source. Mm-Hmm.

Bill Sherman Well, and they run large parts of everyday experience, even though it’s a layer or two below what people see on the internet. Apache, for example, right? With that, where I want to connect is the sense of creating a movement. One of the things in thought leadership is you can bang the drum as an individual or a small team as much as you want to try and attract attention. But it’s far more powerful when you recruit others, and they’re excited about it too. And so one of the things that I think about in the the magic of open source is how you get people to contribute their time on an individual level or organization, say this is in our interest strategically to contribute rather than directly compete. So how do you nurture that movement?

Royal O’Brien First thing is, you have to look, there are always short term and long term goals and then you’ve got to find the alignment between them. So for a company at the end of the day, they’re looking at both short term and long term. For different organizations, the short term is how can I use this and what I’m trying to build and will it get me to where I want to be long term is, is everybody going to be using this or is this a space that I need to be in in three to five years? And should I be supporting this with what my offerings are now? So from a company perspective, that’s one aspect of it. Now, from a community perspective, it’s a little bit different. It’s Hey, I want to get this done and I want it to be usable for this particular piece. You know, I have a felt need that I want to put forward. And the interesting thing is when you can get that alignment where the needs of the individual are no longer driven by the perception of what a company feels that you need. All of a sudden you had this alignment of business and community where they’re building a product that actually they’re working on a project that builds a product. That product begins to open up new markets. Those markets are areas that businesses get to move into, and as a result, they wind up being able to create new profits that they can then contribute back into the open-source project. And that creates a flywheel because now you have the next iteration that the community is looking to have fulfilled. So it continually. Turns with that alignment.

Bill Sherman So one of the things that I think about is that with open source, you can bring people together to solve a problem that would have been an orphan problem that no one would have touched because it didn’t fit within any individual’s responsibility or even any organization’s area of interest. But you can create the space where you say, OK, we have to tackle this together to make this work.

Royal O’Brien Yes, it is. It is a fair statement. The funny thing about it is that when you’re a business, even a startup, you’re making bets, you’re actually placing bets and hoping that that’s what the market wants in open source. The markets literally telling you what they want. They’re coming to you. So it starts to reduce some of the risk. And then as a result, when you start getting involved, if other people latch on to what you’re doing well, your risk begins to get even more mitigated as a result of that. So it becomes an easier bet. What getting past that concept of how businesses operate? Of placing a bet in closed doors is a hard one to break,

Bill Sherman right, because it’s often strategy, followed by market research and testing. And then, oh, we actually found a potential buyer. Let’s see how they respond once it’s been built, right? Yup.

Royal O’Brien Yeah, that’s exactly it. And in this case, they’re actually talking every day. It’s funny when I take a look like it open 3D discord. I see people in there and I watch companies and people and they’re talking together and you see these cool ideas or cool things that pop up. They’re like, Hey, we should make an RFP for that because that’s something we actually want. That means that now you have this spec that’s been put up this this, you know, process and a proposal. And the funny thing about it is that all of a sudden, all the other companies that might be able to support that go, Hey, if we make these small tweaks in our offerings, we can actually support that. And so everybody puts a small percentage in and moves that huge ball down the road versus one or two people trying to move the Atlas stone.

Bill Sherman Right, right. So let’s push on discord a little bit because I know it’s very popular in the gaming and tech space, but all of our listeners may not be familiar with what Discord is. So can you unpack that and how that’s part of what you’re doing in community building?

Royal O’Brien So Discord is a lot of people are familiar with Slack, where you have kind of an instant communication, instant chat discord is the same idea. It was built where gamers can build channels and rooms and share live video streams and chat communicate. And the funny thing is that that type of environment, you are building basically a forum or a support place. The difference is that you’re not waiting for somebody to post into a forum. You literally can put a question out and everybody can answer you on the spot. The trick with using Discord is to actually have it sectioned out into the interest areas. Or else you wind up having everybody talk about everything and nobody being able to follow anything. So you have to be organized and disciplined inside for how it operates, and you have to get your community to actually help self-police that because if not, you’ll wind up seeing these stretched out threads that just become incoherent.

Bill Sherman So I can see where Discord could easily become cacophony, right? This concept of self-policing and sort of self-regulation is a thread that I think is deep within sort of what you’re trying to achieve through open source as well, right, where people agree to ground rules of how we’re going to work together.

Royal O’Brien You’ll find out that an open source project structure is really, really helpful, not something that is so structured that it provides, you know, iron walls. But you want people to have general guidelines of expectations on how they should, you know, the code of conduct and how they should operate. And it’s one of those things that the suggestion of how you should be in this environment is what allows that self-policing to occur. If you just leave it open to chaos and you kind of leave its ambiguity, then people don’t know what they should be doing. So then things begin to get interpreted and now you run into trouble. And so self-policing is the result of having structure laid out for how you operate. People can observe and learn from it very quickly. So it needs to be a behavior that’s also easily observable that they can then follow. And the corrections to people need to be very easy and slight to do with any kind of extreme hammers. You know, we’ll see somebody who basically will post something about rendering, right? And they’ll posted in general, then nobody’s like, you know, Oh, don’t be silly, this is not where you they just go, Hey, you might want to put that post that over into CID graphics, and you’re going to get the answers you’re looking for. And that’s productive and self-policing. That person now knows they should go to that particular area to get it, and they will tell others to do it now because it was the easiest and least path of resistance.

Bill Sherman And with that, it’s also building community rather than eroding community, because people look at each other and say, Oh, you helped me out and then I’m willing to help the next person. That’s right. That’s right. And so it’s a very pay it forward sort of mindset on the community. If you are enjoying this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about the podcast, please leave a five star review and share it with your friends. We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all major platforms, as well as at Leveraging Thought Leadership dot com. One of the other things so they know that you’re doing what the community is the concept of a game jam, which is very classic within the game’s world. But I think for organizations that are not in gaming, I’d love to riff a little bit with you about game jams, how they work, how they produce ideas and how they create momentum. So what is a game to you?

Royal O’Brien So Game Jam is basically where you set a timeframe aside. You pick a theme and then you tell everybody, make whatever you want. That kind of follows that theme. So they’re making different games and experiences. It’s a place to allow people just to have the creativity to go nuts where they’re not trying to pick some super long term project or build something for a company where they’re under pressure. It is a way of it’s like an art class. You can express yourself and show the world the cool stuff that you can do as a result. Some of your ideas, you begin to talk with other people and learn from other people, and you begin to expand your knowledge. And it’s that thing that that little bit of adrenaline rush. When you do something and you see it for the first time, you’re like, Oh, that was really cool. And somebody is like, Yeah, but could you do this? And you’re like, Oh, that’s even cooler. And then you start building upon that. And the result is that it begins to kind of feed itself over and over and over. And when you can cultivate that kind of environment, people really look forward to it. It’s kind of like taking a vacation where you get that that ounce of creativity. And the other part about doing a jam is making sure that they have all the resources so that they can focus on building something, not figuring out how to get started. Right. Right?

Bill Sherman Because it’s usually constrained time, 72 hours or something like that.

Royal O’Brien Not always. I mean, the one. So we’re running the 3D jam that we’re doing on October 18th. I think it is, and that runs for a month. We’re giving up a whole month to actually run it because you’re not going to 72 hours, not a lot of time. I mean, I’ve actually run jams in five hours, by the way.

Bill Sherman Yeah, there crunches. Yeah.

Royal O’Brien And people have astonished me like what they’ve pulled off. I mean, like out of nowhere, we had students who never did animation systems that would bring these characters all the mixed mail. And I’m like, Where did you get that? They’re like, I found this script over here, around there, and there it is. And I’m like, I have guys who can spend weeks on this and have to figure that out, and you got it in like two hours. I’m like, This is amazing. Like, you should consider doing this for a living. You’re pretty good at it so far.

Bill Sherman I think one of the things about the jam, whether it’s a week or a weekend a month, is that concept of pressure and the arbitrary limit where instead of trying to go after perfect, you’re going after good enough and you’re trying to solve problems to get a working prototype and try new things. If it doesn’t work, you shift your focus and you move on,

Royal O’Brien most importantly, out of a jam that a lot of teams and people will learn. They actually wind up learning how to time scale themselves because you’ll find somebody has these great grandiose ideas and they feature creep it and they wind up with nothing to show. And as a result, I’ll be honest, you know, if everybody in the world actually did a game jam, they would learn so much about time management and how to actually understand the scope of work that they do to be a lot more successful because that’s usually where you run into a problem.

Bill Sherman Well, and jams are also good for getting your hands on to the idea. Seeing how it works, how you might contribute to it, as well as then you have to figure out how you’re going to work with the team. It’s got to be a self-regulating team very quickly because if you’re locked in politics or back and forth and bickering, you get nothing done.

Royal O’Brien Yeah, that’s actually the funniest thing is that when you’re working in a jam like we were doing for the open source 3D is that you wind up using it. If there are things that are holding you back or slowing you down. You’re right there in the mix, you could file a ticket. If you don’t understand something, you can jump discord and get answers. So for the open source community, a jam is critical because what happens is we get a ton of feedback on how this should be better because people are actually putting it to practice.

Bill Sherman It’s giving you a pressure test.

Royal O’Brien That’s right, that’s exactly it. So we get all of these new features and new fixes and new things like even just, yeah, you actually like the flow of this is horrible. I’ve got to do 10 steps, you know, maybe you should think about this. We make that change. The whole entire community gets the benefit of it. So there’s really no downside from that. And that’s what actually helped grow the community and grow the number of people who adopt it, who then share their ideas and it goes back into the flywheel.

Bill Sherman So give me a sense of how many people you expect to participate in the jam in October.

Royal O’Brien I don’t know. I mean, I’m hoping that. It’s the first one, it’s very, you know, we haven’t gotten a lot of marketing done on it because it’s super early. I mean, we’re maybe two months into this. Right, right? Of releasing it. Yes, we have open sourcing. We’re two months out. So I would hope that we get at least a few hundred, which is, you know, it’s kind of an aggressive number. But I mean, you never really know because people can just show up at the last minute. And it, you know, the trick is also timing. You can’t put it in the middle of the bunch of other jams that they’re going to be doing those things. And so, you know, the time that we picked is a pretty good, pretty good time slot. So I’m hoping that we get a couple hundred if we don’t, to be honest, every single person that gets into the jam and does something is still going to be a huge contribution, going back into the open source community because they’re going to find problems that they’ll find when somebody actually wants to use this. It’ll have already been found and solved. There’s no such thing as a perfect product.

Bill Sherman Now, am I correct in remembering this is one of the first game engines, if not the first, that would be open source. So this is relatively new coming into open source or might miss misremembering?

Royal O’Brien I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t say it’s the first one. I mean, you’ve got like an engines like Godot, which they’ve done tremendous work on, and there are some others. The difference just with this one is that it’s it really has its roots in the space. And, you know, it started out as a Triple-A engine. You know, all of it, there’s maybe, I think, one percent left of the original engine where it came from. And so it is all of the pieces that are comprehensive from end to end. And that’s kind of what differentiates it and being able to do this, it’s not where it’s just focused on one platform. It’s from the perspective I can yes, I can do windows, but then I can do Linux and Mac and iOS and Android and consoles and all those having that full support across the board is very different than what you’ll find out there. So I wouldn’t say it’s the first one. But I would say it’s probably one of the most comprehensive ones out there. I’ve learned one thing in open source don’t compare yourself to others. It really doesn’t help because at the end of the day, people are in Godot or using other open-source projects. We are an Apache two and it licensed product. They may take some of the technologies from this and use it over there, and maybe they’ll contribute back and vice versa. So open source is very much about sharing, not about kind of comparing yourself to others. So I try to remind people not to do that.

Bill Sherman Thank you for that clarification. Something you talked about early with the game developers was trying to look three to five years ahead and say, where do they want to be right and what space do they need to be in? My question for you is looking and building this platform. Where are you headed? Over three to five years. I mean, it’s the journey.

Royal O’Brien Yeah, three to five years. I mean, it was built from the ground up. Not just to be a game it. It’s also made for simulation automotive. I mean, you could see it in a in LCD screen, on the dashboard, in a car because it’s very lightweight. It’s made for a mobile type of environment. But at the same time, it’s an open engine that you’re talking about, you know, the metaverse and things of that nature. And when you’re when you’re talking about those, well, what is a platform that everybody can build from and how can they build on that stock stack and how they get to be adopted? And when you have enough companies and people that are behind it, it can become a default reference. Will it be? I mean, it doesn’t mean that it takes over unreal or unity or anything like that because they all have their place in the market, too. And they do an amazing job. But when you’re looking three to five years forward, you’ve got to look at the merits of what you’re actually trying to build and how will it fit in the ecosystem in the space. And, you know, just in the just in the context of metaverse.

Bill Sherman And I want to pause you there for a moment because I don’t know if all of our audience members will know what we’re talking about with metaverse. Can you give like a 30 second definition of what it is because I know it touches on many, many things in terms of our VR, but go ahead.

Royal O’Brien So Metaverse, if you’ve seen like Ready Player One, is a great example of it, but it is a network of experiences, whether they’re VR, think of it as your web browser, but in full 3D full AR VR, where you know you can go from experience to experience. In other words, I’m not stuck in one engine if I decide I want to go play in Mario World Metaverse experience 3D World, I can and then come out of that and go play in a golf one, or it’ll play in a racing one. It’s a place where you have a lot of different simulations and environments in a large network, just like we do on the web today. But in more of an immersive environment that is limitless

Bill Sherman well and that has application not only in the gaming space, but also the workspace.

Royal O’Brien That’s right, that’s exactly it, because the reality is that, like I said, it’s limitless. So being able to once you enter that metaverse and you’re in that experience and you have that, what the content is that you’re actually consuming can change. Whether it’s work or play, it doesn’t matter because you’re still consuming in the same space.

Bill Sherman Right? So one of the questions that I want to ask as we start to wrap up here is you’ve done this journey and you’ve worked on with leading the engine and now building community. What advice would you offer someone who would be starting a similar journey? So look back to the point where you started a few years ago on this. So what lessons have you learned that you’d share?

Royal O’Brien Rule number one is stay true to open source when you’re having meetings and things, if you’re an open source, you need to eat, sleep and breathe it and you need to act. So that means that, hey, we’re going open source. Let’s have this meeting on the side to talk about what we’re going to plan to do. That’s not open source. And, you know, and getting other people to really go in that direction, you have to be thinking at all times about the community as a whole. You have to be thinking from the perspective that you’re being inclusive. You have to be thinking of everybody. What are the environments that you’re going to be dealing with? Because the minute you kind of narrow that scope, you’re forgetting somebody. And when you forget somebody that results in kind of that whole deterioration of what you’re about to do in the first place, which is that the centralized growth. So I would say the number one thing is that you want to always be thinking community, that’s just the key, no matter what.

Bill Sherman Well, an inclusive community. I think that’s a piece that you sort of underlined in there is when you exclude you, create problems for yourself later on.

Royal O’Brien Well, that’s if you’re not looking at how your community can actually operate, especially with inclusion. There is so much brainpower out there that you’re missing out on that. That’s the reality. And it’s really important to have that. So if you’re not focused in that area to making sure that that community can operate where everybody is a player and that’s, you know, and that’s a key element here because you don’t want somebody to get stepped on or pushed down because of who they are, what they are, you know, any kind of, you know, gender, race, things of that nature. The funny thing is that when code goes in a repository, the repository binary doesn’t have a gender, doesn’t have a color, doesn’t everything. It’s code, it goes in. So you want to make sure that that playing field level so that everybody can express themselves because getting involved in open source is where people are actually giving their time to this and they’re giving their creativity and the things that they love that really just drives them every day. And you don’t want somebody to not be able to do that and enjoy the fruits of their work and be able to show the world, you know, it’s just as amazing it is to them as it is to someone else who sees it real.

Bill Sherman I think that’s a really great point to end on is that allowing people to show their best through their work and to take an idea and add their idea on to that of others? Thank you very much for joining us today.

Royal O’Brien Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Bill Sherman  If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the OrgTL Newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website and choose Join our newsletter. I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening, and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.

Bill Sherman works with thought leaders to launch big ideas within well-known brands. He is the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Bill on Twitter

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