The Scala Center Advisory Board

Monday 30 May 2016

Jon Pretty


Part of the role of the Scala Center is to run the Advisory Board, a quarterly forum for our sponsors to discuss, guide and challenge the direction of the Scala Center and how it influences the Scala community and ecosystem.

It was never intentional, but it’s become a bit of a joke at EPFL that the “Scala Center Advisory Board” was born with an unfortunate acronym! So, when I chaired our inaugral meeting in New York two weeks ago, one of the first points I made to the attendees was that we have to exceed our acronym and earn the community’s trust and respect, ensuring we provide a worthwhile and beneficial service to all users of Scala.

This respect is not something to be assumed or taken for granted, though we have received a lot of support already from many Scala users. The Advisory Board’s legitimacy as a “guiding light” to the Scala Community is quite rightly something we should expect to be challenged on, so it is paramount that we do the best with the power we have been entrusted with.

So, what is the Advisory Board?

About the Advisory Board

The Advisory Board is a separate body from the Scala Center, much as many governments have separate legislative and executive branches: the Advisory Board makes recommendations to the Scala Center on the work we should do, but it’s the Scala Center’s job to execute those recommendations.

It currently has seven voting members: representatives from each of our six sponsors, plus Bill Venners, the community representative. Additionally the Executive Director of the Scala Center, Heather Miller, sits on the board to report on the Scala Center’s activities, and provide advice on the feasibility of the proposals under consideration, and Martin Odersky is the technical advisor to the board.

The board will meet four times a year, usually via a conference call to keep costs down, but when there’s an opportunity (hopefully at least once a year) we will hold physical meetings. We organized our first meeting to take place at Scala Days in New York, as most of the board members were attending. (Those who couldn’t be there in person this time joined the meeting over Google Hangouts.)

Before our first meeting, we were a little apprehensive - despite our preparations - about how the process would play out, but having now had our first successful meeting, we have more confidence in the format for typical meetings in the future.

How does the board work?

The main goal for each meeting is to define a set of tasks - we call these “recommendations” - for the Scala Center to undertake over the coming quarter. Each board member can submit proposals for discussion - short overviews of a change or project they would like to see the Scala Center use its resources to implement - and a few minutes (usually no more than ten) will be devoted to discussing that topic amongst the members.

An important aspect of the relationship between the Scala Center and the Advisory Board is that recommendations are not binding. This means that the Scala Center has the option to ignore recommendations, if it decides to, which may seem surprising, but is actually very important. It not only maintain independence between the two bodies, but also in ensuring that the recommendations received from the Advisory Board are within our budgetary and technical capabilities. And this is why Heather and Martin sit on the board, in a non-voting capacity: to offer advice to the members on the viability of each of the proposals under discussion, so that the debates can focus on making a coherent set of recommendations which is actually achievable.

For example, a recommendation to halve scalac compilation times may have the support of the entire Advisory Board, but the Scala Center would struggle to make it happen, so there would be little point in the Advisory Board making it a recommendation.

So the discussions we have around each proposal may more closely resemble a negotiation whereby the scope of a proposal is narrowed (or maybe widened) to garner the support necessary from the board, and confirmation from the Executive Director and Technical Advisor that the idea is viable.

Once there’s some consensus around the table, we move to vote on the proposal and have a show-of-hands to formally decide whether to adopt the proposal as a recommendation. For some proposals, we may not reach any agreement amongst the members in the time available, in which case, the chairperson may decide to defer further discussion until the next meeting, or suggest that the proposal is rewritten and resubmitted at the next meeting.

I mentioned at the beginning that it’s important for the Advisory Board to make good on its promise, but it’s just as important that we are seen to be doing so. So the whole Advisory Board process is open, and we will publish the proposals and minutes from each meeting. You will be able to see these in the Advisory Board’s GitHub repository in the next few days.

The First Meeting

As the process was new for all of the members and less time was available for preparing proposals, we made the concession to allow proposals to be presented at the meeting (without prior submission), but in future, we will require that proposals be submitted to the repository at least a week before the meeting to give all the members an opportunity to consider them before meeting.

During the first meeting, we also elected Seth Tisue as the secretary, and his minutes will be published in the next few days have been published here.

The meeting itself was a success! We deferred one proposal until the next meeting (which will take place in August), but adopted four others:

  • to clarify the governance of Scala, including the SIP/SLIP process,
  • to define a migration path from Scala 2.x to Dotty,
  • to create a new unpaid “publicity chair” role for the Scala Center, and
  • to ensure continuation of support of Scala.js.

Over the coming weeks, we will be taking steps to ensure these recommendations come to fruition.

It was a lot of work to get this far, but, after our first successful meeting, I’m very much looking forward to the next one!