Retrospective After Two Years On The CNCF TOC

I just finished a two year term on the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) Technical Oversight Committee (TOC). Being too busy to dedicate the time it deserves, I didn’t run for another term. Before I put the TOC out of my mind, I wanted to take some time and do a retrospective. I’m hopeful this is useful for the future TOC members and the broader cloud native community who doesn’t have deep insight into how the TOC works and what it does.

The reason I’m writing this in public is that the CNCF and the TOC tries to be as transparent as possible. Transparency is a word you’ll find in the TOC principles. Being transparent helps people work together. I like that so I wanted my retrospective to be as transparent as possible.

I’ve tried to do this as a simple agile style retrospective.

What Went Well

It’s great to start with things that went well. To celebrate what went well. Here is my short list.

  1. The people generally worked well together and stayed on topic. In addition to everyone doing their part, I think this is due to Amye wrangling people and Emily (the most recent TOC chair) keeping us on track with useful topics.
  2. The Code of Conduct updates and committee changes bring a new level of community involvement while keeping the same level of rigor around the process and professionalism.
  3. Automation has been added around sandbox yearly reviews to help the TOC scale. This is after attempting to scale the reviews through the TAGs.
  4. The TOC had an in person meeting outside the chaos that is KubeCon/CloudNativeCon where we could plan and work through issues outside the chaos of everything else.

This is just the short list and there are many things worth celebrating.


Publicly discussing challenges is where things get a little harder. With each of these, I want to add some context. Every organization has challenges and that’s ok.

The Volume of TOC Work

The TOC has a lot going on. The public often sees projects moving levels or new projects coming in via the sandbox. But, there is more than that. The TOC is supposed to liaison with the Technical Advisory Groups (TAGs) and help them manage some changes and work. When issues come up with a project and it cannot handle it themselves, the TOC is pulled in. TOC members oversee the due diligence for projects and have to evaluate them. There is more than this, too.

All of this while the documentation and process is not always in the greatest shape. The same people who can update the docs are the ones doing all the other work.

And, they have day jobs, too.

A bunch of this work wouldn’t be helped by enlarging the TOC. For a number of things you need the TOC to come to consensus and have discussions. Getting consensus can get more difficult as groups get larger.

This last year the TOC worked to improve the situation by testing some process changes and working to automate some activities. This can help free up time for other work. A start to improving the documentation began, too.

The problem of scale is one the TOC is challenged with.

Need For More Contributors

CNCF Contributor Chart

Over the past 3 years the CNCF has seen fewer contributors and committers each year. All while the number of projects has grown. Some projects and areas of projects are struggling to hold onto maintainers. And this is for popular projects.

This is a challenge for the TOC as it needs to deal with both experiments that didn’t go anywhere and are now dormant and with popular projects with many adopters who need maintainers.

I’m not going to go into many details on this because I’ve not done the analysis work myself to really understand the problem or propose ideas for projects in need. But, this is a problem that needs to be tackled and a challenge for the TOC.


In 2023, about 1/4 of the contributions and commits came from people in the United States. The United States is a place with a number of different ideologies which sometimes clash with each other. There are mutually exclusive ideologies.

Asia has just shy of 1/5 of all contributors and more than 1/5 of all committers. The ideologies (plural intended) in Asia can be quite different from those in the United States.

Looking at these two areas doesn’t paint the whole picture. That’s only about half the people. Last year I looked at 2022 numbers which included breaking things down by region. The CNCF contributors are very much global.

The foundation has a mission statement that read:

The Foundation’s mission is to make cloud native computing ubiquitous.

Merriam-Webster defines ubiquitous as:

existing or being everywhere at the same time

Putting this together, it means you have it among atheists, christians, muslims, buddhists, and every other religion. You have it among all the races. You have it in all the political groups, from the far left to the far right. It’s everywhere.

That means, in technical circles dealing with people who hold ideologies that are different from you or me.

In todays world this can be very uncomfortable. Yet, it’s the mission.

You might wonder, how is this a challenge for the TOC? When the CNCF wades into ideological issues that are outside it’s mission there are going to be adopters and contributors who don’t agree. It doesn’t matter the stance or the issue. The CNCF is already widely diverse and the more it expands globally the more diverse it will get. This can cause problems that roll up to the TOC. For example, the impact on getting and keeping maintainers.

While I can’t go into details, just know it is a challenge.


This is quickly escalating. Yikes.

While I’m not going to be present with the TOC to implement any improvements, I have thought about a couple of easy wins for the TOC. I like easy wins and there are things I would poke at if I were still present.

Unsustainable Projects

In the graduation criteria there is one criteria that whose original intent isn’t what, I think, adopters need and it’s easy to meet as a rule but can setup for problems.

Have committers from at least two organizations.

The original idea, as I tried to dig up, is that this means projects have the means for a second company or an outside person to get involved. This was part of the original criteria created by the original incarnation of the TOC.

Now, consider a graduated project with 9 of its 10 maintainers at one company. It meets the letter of the law and original intent. But, what if the company pivots away from the project? Or, the company goes away? This happens to a fair number of startups.

The project would then be left in a situation where a majority of the maintainers are looking for new work or working on something else. The project is going to have trouble with maintenance.

Is this the kind of setup that companies who have invested in these projects for their infrastructure will want? From my conversations, I doubt it.

I would propose this criteria is updated. Projects needs to be sustainable for the long term.

Think about what sustainable means. For example, if a company behind most of the commits isn’t financially sustainable (as a whole or for that part), is the project sustainable?

This is a place where, I think, the end-user Technical Advisory Board (TAB) should provide some insight into.

Update The Documentation

The TOC repository has far too little good documentation. As a project maintainer, it can be hard to know what you should do or need to know. This is a problem for projects trying to navigate the CNCF. It’s also difficult for TOC members who need to navigate the processes or know why things are the way they are.

The TOC repository needs updated and more detailed documentation. For projects, for TOC members (and those who are interested), and for the broader cloud native space.

I know that some of this is underway. I think there are two useful things to happen around this:

  1. Get the first batch of updated documentation across the finish line
  2. Make a habit out of updating and improving the docs

What’s In A Retrospective?

Retrospectives are meant to look back and evaluate something. You intentionally dig up problems. And, I’m an engineer who will admit that I look for the next challenge faster than I celebrate wins or good things. So, please don’t look at this as doom and gloom because 2/3 of this was dedicated to challenges and improvements. There is a lot of good stuff going on with the CNCF and TOC.