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

The World Before Rapid Release

Stabilization is the process of getting a release branch into a releasable state; that is, of deciding which changes will be in the release, which will not, and shaping the branch content accordingly.

There’s a lot of potential grief contained in that word, “deciding”. The last-minute feature rush is a familiar phenomenon in collaborative software projects: as soon as developers see that a release is about to happen, they scramble to finish their current changes, in order not to miss the boat. This, of course, is the exact opposite of what you want at release time. It would be much better for people to work on features at a comfortable pace, and not worry too much about whether their changes make it into this release or the next one. The more changes one tries to cram into a release at the last minute, the more the code is destabilized, and (usually) the more new bugs are created.

Thus, the process of stabilizing a release is mostly about creating mechanisms for saying “no”.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Correctly Indicating Newsworthiness

In free software, there is a fairly smooth continuum between purely internal discussions and public relations statements. This is partly because the target audience is always ill-defined: given that most or all posts are publicly accessible, the project doesn’t have full control over the impression the world gets. Someone—say, a slashdot.org editor—may draw millions of readers’ attention to a post that no one ever expected to be seen outside the project. This is a fact of life that all open source projects live with, but in practice, the risk is usually small. In general, the announcements that the project most wants publicized are the ones that will be most publicized, assuming you use the right mechanisms to indicate relative newsworthiness to the outside world.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Convergent or Divergent?

In any project that’s making active use of its bug tracker, there is always a danger of the tracker turning into a discussion forum itself, even though the mailing lists would really be better. Usually it starts off innocently enough: someone annotates an issue with, say, a proposed solution, or a partial patch. Someone else sees this, realizes there are problems with the solution, and attaches another annotation pointing out the problems. The first person responds, again by appending to the issue…and so it goes.

The problem with this is, first, that the bug tracker is a pretty cumbersome place to have a discussion, and second, that other people may not be paying attention – after all, they expect development discussion to happen on the development mailing list, so that’s where they look for it. They may not be subscribed to the issue changes list at all, and even if they are, they may not follow it very closely.

There isn’t one right answer, but there is a general principle: if you’re just adding data to an issue, then do it in the tracker, but if you’re starting a conversation, then do it on the mailing list. … To use a mathematical analogy, if the information looks like it will be quickly convergent, then put it directly in the bug tracker; if it looks like it will be divergent, then a mailing list or IRC channel would be a better place.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Producing Open Source Software: 2nd Edition Kickstarter

Regular readers of this blog will know that over the last year I’ve been posting striking quotes from “Producing Open Source Software”, an excellent book written by Karl Fogel in 2005, published by O’Reilly, and available online.

I’ve just been informed by Devdatta that Karl is looking to update the book for a 2nd edition, which will also be available under a free license.

If you think this book contains as much wisdom as I do, head over to Kickstarter and chip in. He needs US$10,000, and currently has just under US$5,000.

To The Archives, Batman!

Typically, all communications in an open source project (except sometimes IRC conversations) are archived. The archives are public and searchable, and have referential stability: that is, once a given piece of information is recorded at a particular address, it stays at that address forever.

Use those archives as much as possible, and as conspicuously as possible. Even when you know the answer to some question off the top of your head, if you think there’s a reference in the archives that contains the answer, spend the time to dig it up and present it. Every time you do that in a publicly visible way, some people learn for the first time that the archives are there, and that searching in them can produce answers. Also, by referring to the archives instead of rewriting the advice, you reinforce the social norm against duplicating information. Why have the same answer in two different places?

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

Saving The Project From Itself

No one wakes up in the morning and says to himself: “Today I’m going to cynically manipulate procedural forms in order to be an irritating obstructionist.” Instead, such actions are often preceded by a semi-paranoid feeling of being shut out of group interactions and decisions. The person feels he is not being taken seriously, or (in the more severe cases) that there is almost a conspiracy against him—that the other project members have decided to form an exclusive club, of which he is not a member. This then justifies, in his mind, taking rules literally and engaging in a formal manipulation of the project’s procedures, in order to make everyone else take him seriously. In extreme cases, the person can even believe that he is fighting a lonely battle to save the project from itself.

— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software