Credit as Currency

Credit is the primary currency of the free software world. Whatever people may say about their motivations for participating in a project, I don’t know any developers who would be happy doing all their work anonymously, or under someone else’s name. There are tangible reasons for this: one’s reputation in a project roughly governs how much influence one has, and participation in an open source project can also indirectly have monetary value, because some employers now look for it on resumés. There are also intangible reasons, perhaps even more powerful: people simply want to be appreciated, and instinctively look for signs that their work was recognized by others. The promise of credit is therefore one of best motivators the project has. When small contributions are acknowledged, people come back to do more.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Avoid Mystery Process

Although the discussions around adding any particular new committer must be confidential, the rules and procedures themselves need not be secret. In fact, it’s best to publish them, so people realize that the committers are not some mysterious Star Chamber, closed off to mere mortals, but that anyone can join simply by posting good patches and knowing how to handle herself in the community. In the Subversion project, we put this information right in the developer guidelines document, since the people most likely to be interested in how commit access is granted are those thinking of contributing code to the project.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Responsibility without Monopoly

[No role] requires exclusive control over the domain in question. The issue manager does not prevent other people from making changes in the issues database, the FAQ manager does not insist on being the only person to edit the FAQ, and so on. These roles are all about responsibility without monopoly. An important part of each domain manager’s job is to notice when other people are working in that domain, and train them to do the things the way the manager does, so that the multiple efforts reinforce rather than conflict. Domain managers should also document the processes by which they do their work, so that when one leaves, someone else can pick up the slack right away.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Test Driven Discouragement

Some projects go even further, requiring that a new test accompany every bugfix or new feature. Whether this is a good idea or not depends on many factors: the nature of the software, the makeup of the development team, and the difficulty of writing new tests. The CVS ( project has long had such a rule. It is a good policy in theory, since CVS is version control software and therefore very risk-averse about the possibility of munging or mishandling the user’s data. The problem in practice is that CVS’s regression test suite is a single huge shell script (amusingly named, hard to read and hard to modify or extend. The difficulty of adding new tests, combined with the requirement that patches be accompanied by new tests, means that CVS effectively discourages patches. When I used to work on CVS, I sometimes saw people start on and even complete a patch to CVS’s own code, but give up when told of the requirement to add a new test to

It is normal to spend more time writing a new regression test than on fixing the original bug. But CVS carried this phenomenon to an extreme: one might spend hours trying to design one’s test properly, and still get it wrong, because there are just too many unpredictable complexities involved in changing a 35,000-line Bourne shell script. Even longtime CVS developers often grumbled when they had to add a new test. … It is true that switching to a real test framework—whether custom-built or off-the-shelf—would have been a major effort. But neglecting to do so has cost the project much more, over the years. How many bugfixes and new features are not in CVS today, because of the impediment of an awkward test suite?

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Prevent Territoriality

Watch out for participants who try to stake out exclusive ownership of certain areas of the project, and who seem to want to do all the work in those areas, to the extent of aggressively taking over work that others start. Such behavior may even seem healthy at first. After all, on the surface it looks like the person is taking on more responsibility, and showing increased activity within a given area. But in the long run, it is destructive. When people sense a “no trespassing” sign, they stay away. This results in reduced review in that area, and greater fragility, because the lone developer becomes a single point of failure. Worse, it fractures the cooperative, egalitarian spirit of the project. The theory should always be that any developer is welcome to help out on any task at any time.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Praise and Criticism

Praise and criticism are not opposites; in many ways, they are very similar. Both are primarily forms of attention, and are most effective when specific rather than generic. Both should be deployed with concrete goals in mind. Both can be diluted by inflation: praise too much or too often and you will devalue your praise; the same is true for criticism, though in practice, criticism is usually reactive and therefore a bit more resistant to devaluation.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.

Proverbs 27:6

It’s Not All About Efficiency

Delegation is not merely a way to spread the workload around; it is also a political and social tool. Consider all the effects when you ask someone to do something. The most obvious effect is that, if he accepts, he does the task and you don’t. But another effect is that he is made aware that you trusted him to handle the task. Furthermore, if you made the request in a public forum, then he knows that others in the group have been made aware of that trust too. He may also feel some pressure to accept, which means you must ask in a way that allows him to decline gracefully if he doesn’t really want the job. If the task requires coordination with others in the project, you are effectively proposing that he become more involved, form bonds that might not otherwise have been formed, and perhaps become a source of authority in some subdomain of the project. The added involvement may be daunting, or it may lead him to become engaged in other ways as well, from an increased feeling of overall commitment.

Because of all these effects, it often makes sense to ask someone else to do something even when you know you could do it faster or better yourself.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Why Do Volunteers Work On Free Software Projects?

Why do volunteers work on free software projects?

When asked, many claim they do it because they want to produce good software, or want to be personally involved in fixing the bugs that matter to them. But these reasons are usually not the whole story. After all, could you imagine a volunteer staying with a project even if no one ever said a word in appreciation of his work, or listened to him in discussions? Of course not. Clearly, people spend time on free software for reasons beyond just an abstract desire to produce good code. Understanding volunteers’ true motivations will help you arrange things so as to attract and keep them. The desire to produce good software may be among those motivations, along with the challenge and educational value of working on hard problems. But humans also have a built-in desire to work with other humans, and to give and earn respect through cooperative activities. Groups engaged in cooperative activities must evolve norms of behavior such that status is acquired and kept through actions that help the group’s goals.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Software Project “Politics”

Speaking of politics, this is as good a time as any to drag that much-maligned word out for a closer look. Many engineers like to think of politics as something other people engage in. “I’m just advocating the best course for the project, but she’s raising objections for political reasons.” I believe this distaste for politics (or for what is imagined to be politics) is especially strong in engineers because engineers are bought into the idea that some solutions are objectively superior to others. Thus, when someone acts in a way that seems motivated by outside considerations—say, the maintenance of his own position of influence, the lessening of someone else’s influence, outright horse-trading, or avoiding hurting someone’s feelings—other participants in the project may get annoyed. Of course, this rarely prevents them from behaving in the same way when their own vital interests are at stake.

If you consider “politics” a dirty word, and hope to keep your project free of it, give up right now. Politics are inevitable whenever people have to cooperatively manage a shared resource. It is absolutely rational that one of the considerations going into each person’s decision-making process is the question of how a given action might affect his own future influence in the project. After all, if you trust your own judgement and skills, as most programmers do, then the potential loss of future influence has to be considered a technical result, in a sense. Similar reasoning applies to other behaviors that might seem, on their face, like “pure” politics. In fact, there is no such thing as pure politics: it is precisely because actions have multiple real-world consequences that people become politically conscious in the first place. Politics is, in the end, simply an acknowledgment that all consequences of decisions must be taken into account. If a particular decision leads to a result that most participants find technically satisfying, but involves a change in power relationships that leaves key people feeling isolated, the latter is just as important a result as the former. To ignore it would not be high-minded, but shortsighted.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

The Necessity of Management

Getting people to agree on what a project needs, and to work together to achieve it, requires more than just a genial atmosphere and a lack of obvious dysfunction. It requires someone, or several someones, consciously managing all the people involved. Managing volunteers may not be a technical craft in the same sense as computer programming, but it is a craft in the sense that it can be improved through study and practice.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Between Three And Six What?

The other way the project can lower tensions around release planning is to make releases fairly often. When there’s a long time between releases, the importance of any individual release is magnified in everyone’s minds; people are that much more crushed when their code doesn’t make it in, because they know how long it might be until the next chance. Depending on the complexity of the release process and the nature of your project, somewhere between every three and six months is usually about the right gap between releases, though maintenance lines may put out micro releases a bit faster, if there is demand for them.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Persuade And Be Persuaded

It is crucial, of course, to never present any individual decision as written in stone. In the comments associated with each assignment of an issue to a specific future release, invite discussion, dissent, and be genuinely willing to be persuaded whenever possible. Never exercise control merely for the sake of exercising control: the more deeply others participate in the release planning process (see the section called “Share Management Tasks as Well as Technical Tasks” in Chapter 8, Managing Volunteers), the easier it will be to persuade them to share your priorities on the issues that really count for you.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Jefferson was a Do-ocrat

In his multi-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and His Time, Dumas Malone tells the story of how Jefferson handled the first meeting held to decide the organization of the future University of Virginia. The University had been Jefferson’s idea in the first place, but (as is the case everywhere, not just in open source projects) many other parties had climbed on board quickly, each with their own interests and agendas. When they gathered at that first meeting to hash things out, Jefferson made sure to show up with meticulously prepared architectural drawings, detailed budgets for construction and operation, a proposed curriculum, and the names of specific faculty he wanted to import from Europe. No one else in the room was even remotely as prepared; the group essentially had to capitulate to Jefferson’s vision, and the University was eventually founded more or less in accordance with his plans. The facts that construction went far over budget, and that many of his ideas did not, for various reasons, work out in the end, were all things Jefferson probably knew perfectly well would happen. His purpose was strategic: to show up at the meeting with something so substantive that everyone else would have to fall into the role of simply proposing modifications to it, so that the overall shape, and therefore schedule, of the project would be roughly as he wanted.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software