A Level Playing Field

Subversion was started in 2000 by CollabNet, which has been the project’s primary funder since its inception, paying the salaries of several developers. Soon after the project began, we hired another developer, Mike Pilato, to join the effort. By then, coding had already started. Although Subversion was still very much in the early stages, it already had a development community with a set of basic ground rules.

Mike’s arrival raised an interesting question. Subversion already had a policy about how a new developer gets commit access. First, he submits some patches to the development mailing list. After enough patches have gone by for the other committers to see that the new contributor knows what he’s doing, someone proposes that he just commit directly. Assuming the committers agree, one of them mails the new developer and offers him direct commit access to the project’s repository.

CollabNet had hired Mike specifically to work on Subversion. Among those who already knew him, there was no doubt about his coding skills or his readiness to work on the project. Furthermore, the volunteer developers had a very good relationship with the CollabNet employees, and most likely would not have objected if we’d just given Mike commit access the day he was hired. But we knew we’d be setting a precedent. If we granted Mike commit access by fiat, we’d be saying that CollabNet had the right to ignore project guidelines, simply because it was the primary funder. While the damage from this would not necessarily be immediately apparent, it would gradually result in the non-salaried developers feeling disenfranchised. Other people have to earn their commit access—CollabNet just buys it.

So Mike agreed to start out his employment at CollabNet like any other volunteer developer, without commit access. He sent patches to the public mailing list, where they could be, and were, reviewed by everyone. We also said on the list that we were doing things this way deliberately, so there could be no missing the point. After a couple of weeks of solid activity by Mike, someone (I can’t remember if it was a CollabNet developer or not) proposed him for commit access, and he was accepted, as we knew he would be.

That kind of consistency gets you a credibility that money could never buy. And credibility is a valuable currency to have in technical discussions: it’s immunization against having one’s motives questioned later. In the heat of argument, people will sometimes look for non-technical ways to win the battle. The project’s primary funder, because of its deep involvement and obvious concern over the directions the project takes, presents a wider target than most. By being scrupulous to observe all project guidelines right from the start, the funder makes itself the same size as everyone else.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

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