Who is Coko? An interview with Coko Founder and visionary Adam Hyde

Alison McGonagle-O'Connell Jun 17, 2019

With the establishment of the new management team, I found myself curious how founder Adam Hyde arrived in leadership. His unique style makes Coko what it is today, so as I began to reflect on this, I had many questions. I decided to interview him and share his responses here.


Alison: Adam, you have a very interesting and impressive background. You have founded several companies, you were a Shuttleworth Fellow, you are an Open Source guru and a legendary facilitator. How ever did you accumulate these experiences?

Adam: I’m driven by a combination of curiosity and an internal set of mission oriented values. I simply follow problems I find interesting and want to solve in the way I think makes sense to solve them. Book Sprints is a good example. In 2007, I started this crazy adventure trying to prove to people you could write a book in a week. I had no previous experience in publishing and yet the proposition had this absurd ambitiousness to it which made it interesting. It took me four years to work it out completely. Four years of trying to convince not only myself, but others, that it was even possible. The key is that I understood the only way that this could be done was via the power of collaboration (I consider collaboration to be a virtue / value). So I was driven to understand collaboration deeply and work out how to harness its power to do what everyone was telling me was impossible.

Now, Book Sprints is a company and we use this method with everyone from the United Nations, to Cisco, to OER and activist orgs. Curiosity, combined with a strong set of values as a set of drivers, can yield some amazing results. Coko also very much has this DNA.

Alison: At what point did you realize that your vision and leadership are unique?

Adam: I don’t think my leadership style is unique. I am continually learning from others that are better at my particular approach than I am. I do think my vision is unique if that’s not overclaiming. I bring all these whacky experiences I have had over my life together in a melting pot which informs how I think about things. All these experiences, from working on large scale ex-soviet radio telescopes in Latvia, to being an activist in Macedonia during the NATO bombing of Kosovo/Serbia, to traveling the world teaching people how to make micro radio transmitters, to facilitating Book Sprints, to building modular publishing systems and building documentation communities, to being part of a Italian hacker group, to managing technical departments in the Netherlands, to being an artist, setting up autonomous research labs in Antarctica, building portable printing presses into vans and driving around Europe printing free books for people, managing radio stations in New Zealand  – are all things I have learned from and continue to learn from. They cross-pollinate in my mind and contribute to the way I see the world and inform what I do.

Alison: What did you do to develop these domains, as I imagine it’s a bit different from accumulating subject matter expertise. That is to say, your style does not appear to have come from a book.

Adam: I just apply myself passionately without much thought for how I am going to make it work or make it sustainable. A continual process of throwing myself in the deep end. If you do that enough times, you begin to trust you will find a way to stay afloat, so throwing yourself in the deep end becomes easier over time until its the only thing you know.

Along the way I have developed a few tools that have helped. First, if I believe that if you state an idea out loud and no one responds, or there is an embarrassed silence, you are probably on to a good thing. Second, those ‘half-formed’ ideas floating around your head, which are easy to ignore, are the most important and valuable ideas you will have. That periphery is the real value of ‘you’ and what you bring to any context. Learning to bring those peripheral ideas into the center of your focus and articulating them to others in a way that they will hear you takes practice but it’s worth it. There is also a certain amount of fun to be had being the one with the kooky ideas!

Alison: In addition to leadership, you’ve also been an artist on the global stage. How did you move from art to start ups?

Adam: Being an artist and being in ‘start ups’ is the same thing. As an artist you have the privileged opportunity to come up with an idea and then find a way to explore and articulate it. It is exactly the same process as starting a new venture.

Creativity is something you can apply anywhere to great effect, but fostering the ability to be creative requires some practice. Art gives you exactly this, as does philosophy, which is, as it happens, what I have a degree in. They are both cognitive gymnastics at the end of the day and being a cognitive gymnast is invaluable whatever you do.

Alison: Do you think business acumen is important to run non-profit organizations like ours?

Adam: Yes I do. Business acumen is generally applicable. It can be used to formulate strategies for non-profit and for-profit organisations alike. Each of those contexts has a set of drivers that affects how you apply that acumen, but these contexts aren’t as far apart as many think.

The main differences between for-profit and not-for-profit and how you get them to pay for themselves really comes down to just three points. First, what are the rules in each country governing what you can and can’t do for non-profits, for-profits? I’ve set up for-profits and not-for-profits (NFPs) in Germany, the Netherlands, the US and New Zealand. What you can and can’t do operationally for each differs in each country. For example, in the Netherlands a NFP (Stichting) gives you a lot of latitude in executing commercial services to support your mission, whereas in the US that’s a big no-no. Second, what you call the ‘money left over’ at the end of the year is different – for profits call it profit, NFPs say surplus. Semantics! Third, what you can do with that ‘left over’ money differs. Profits, you can pay out; With NFPs you must use surplus funds toward the mission.

And that’s about it. Within those bounds, you do what you do with as much creative ‘business acumen’ as you want to apply. That does not mean that a business exec can come run a NFP with no hiccups. There is the outstanding question of organisational culture, and NFPs and commercial enterprises can, but not always, differ markedly on that front. If you don’t understand that and don’t change how you operate across ‘codes’ you will inevitably, and possibly catastrophically, fail. But it’s also true that sometimes these cultures don’t differ as much as you might think. For example Patagonia is a huge business, but its core principles are set very much like that of a NFP (see Let My People Go Surfing by Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard).

And lastly, I think with NFPs, you need to be more creative when thinking about revenue. I remember Alex Blumberg recently interviewed Ira Glass, and he said the truer you are to your mission, the more creative you have to be with how you generate revenue to support it. I think it’s a great point.

Alison: What is your proudest achievement from your management career?

Adam: I think Book Sprints so far. Not because I love it more than Coko, but because I set Book Sprints up, and it was a heavy lift, and then handed over to a bunch of people I really trust to take it to the next level. That is the definition of success to me.

Alison: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader?

Adam: Choosing the wrong people. That’s always a problem. I have become better at it– much better– and the people I work with now are amazing. But there have been times in my career that I’ve invested in the wrong people. I remember once for example, when living as an artist in London, I met this guy who was a programmer. I immediately liked him and offered him a small amount of contract work. I hadn’t seen his work but trusted he would be great. When he turned up to work with me on the project and start programming it turned out he didn’t have a computer and I had to lend him one and help him set it up. That was probably not my best hiring moment. It was clear he didn’t know what he was doing. On the other hand, I met Yannis (our front end lead dev) in the back of a taxi on the way to a mutual friend’s wedding in Greece. On that basis, I offered him a job with Coko, and Yannis is awesome, so go figure.

Alison: You are someone who does a lot of internal mentoring, but also external mentoring in the Open Source community. Have you benefited from a mentor? What has been your experience as a mentor yourself?

Adam: I’ve benefited from many mentors. Tetsuo Kogawa, father of microFM in Japan was a mentor to me for a very long time. As well as Robert Adrian X who I miss very much, also Heidi Grundmann from Kunstradio in Austria, Geert Lovink, Rene Post, Doke Pelleboer, and currently the awesome Allen Gunn. Also, the Shuttleworth Foundation has a unique style of peer mentoring which I benefit greatly from when we meet twice a year for the wonderful ‘Gathering’ event.

And one can’t go far without mentioning their mum, right! My mother (Anne) has been a very patient and amazing mentor throughout my whole life and is someone I continue to draw wisdom from.

Being a mentor is something I enjoy very much. I think good management is actually mentoring. Giving amazing people who you believe in the opportunity, trust, and space to grow in the way they wish to grow is a privilege. I enjoy acting as a sounding board, passing on what wisdom I might have, and framing contexts for them to help in their problem solving processes. I’ve been very lucky to work with many amazing folks in this way, such as Jure, yourself, Barbara Rühling and others, and I have learned a lot from it.

Alison: How is community management same and different from organization management?

Adam: Interesting! I think community is essentially bottom up, whereas setting up an organisation is top down. That’s not to say, either, that I enjoy imposing hierarchy in organisations, nor is it to say communities don’t have hierarchies. But the way they are instantiated, where the ‘energy’ comes from and how you facilitate how it flows through the different types of entities is fundamentally different.

Communities you must facilitate completely transparently and your job is to apply top-down and bottom-up pressure simultaneously so everyone is ‘on the same level’. You can’t have lopsided communities where the power dynamic is stored unfairly and opaquely within a minority. You must work to make the power dynamic explicit and the power must be distributed. The community owns the community. You do not own the community, but you can facilitate it to establish and maintain healthy processes. In this situation, the facilitator has a lot of power, more than anyone else, but this capital must be used to distribute power fairly within the community.

Organisation management is similar but there is a little bit more of a mandate, and some requirement for utility, that allows for top-down processes.Transparency is sometimes conveniently sacrificed internally so people can just get their job done and not be distracted by the things they don’t need to care about. In orgs you do ‘own’ the organisation and you can do what you want, but whether you do a good job of it often requires you to apply many, but not all, of the same principles that work for community management. The more transparent you are, for example, the better your organization will operate.Your job here as a facilitator/manager is to move the power to make decisions to the people you think are the right people. It’s a subtle but important difference.

Alison: What advice do you have for emerging leaders or folks breaking in to our space trying to understand how non-profit and open source can unlock meaningful and direly needed changes in for their organizations?

Adam: The Scholarly Communications sector can learn a lot from open source and open processes. For example, at Coko we don’t actually own anything. It is the community that owns it. We facilitate the communities success and their success is our success. We share everything we have with them – code, methods, processes, PR, expertise, funding, successes, coffee! – and they in turn share those things with us. We are the community, the community is us. That can only happen in an environment of trust and trust is what openness – the core ingredient to best practice open source – is all about. If more people within the Scholarly Communications sector at large can learn to work like this then they will benefit from it greatly.

Alison: The question on many many minds right now is what is coming next as part of the new era of Coko? Do you have plans you want to share?

Adam: In many ways it will be business as usual but I think there will be some important differences. Most notably, we will continue to do all that we do but we will make the structure of what we do easier to understand. At the moment Coko is a very complex proposition and we need to make it much easier to digest. That’s mainly a messaging issue as all our staff will remain in place and we will keep supporting all the projects we now support, it’ll just look a little different. We will also strengthen our work as a ‘gold standard’ open source organisation, an example for the rest of the publishing community to learn from – that is a very important role that we need to embrace more. Lastly,  we will strengthen our identity as a network. Coko is not about any one person, and it never has been. So we are going to reach out to, and strengthen, our community more. We are Coko…and lastly lastly…, and hopefully…a little more surfing! (hope is free!).

Alison: That is a hopeful and optimistic note to end this discussion on! Many thanks for sharing so generously today, and always!

Who is Coko? is a series. We release new interviews weekly. Next week, we’re chatting up Jure Triglav about the PubSweet Community, technology decisions, and his role within new Coko’s Management team.

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Alison McGonagle-O'Connell

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