December 7, 2011
For the past few months, I have been offering a new service – a training course tailored to helping a team be effective working with community projects – whether that is engaging an existing community, or growing a community around new code. Details of the topics I cover are up on my site. Developing software in community is as much a social activity as it is a technical activity – and engaging an existing community, like moving into a new neighbourhood or starting at a new school, can be very daunting indeed. This course covers not just the technical issues of community development, but also the social, management and strategic issues involved. Some of the questions that I try to help answer are:
- What are the tools and communication norms?
- How can I get answers to my questions?
- Is there a trick to writing patches that get reviewed quickly?
- How do I figure out who’s in charge?
- How much will it cost me to open source some code/to work with an existing project?
- How does managing volunteers work?
- Is there anything I can do to help my developers be more vocal upstream?
- What legal issues should my developers be aware of?
All of these things, in my experience, are challenges that organisations have to overcome when they start engaging with community projects like Apache, GNOME or the Linux kernel.
If you’re having trouble with these issues, or some subset of them, and are interested in a training seminar, please contact me, and we’ll talk.
November 18, 2011
community, freesoftware, General
A couple of days ago, I tweeted this: “Insight of the day: All “community norms” documents come down to one word: Empathy. Think how others will feel before you act.” I think that’s worth developing on.
As I was growing up, empathy meant "Deanna Troi" to me
Here are a few examples:
- GNOME Code of Conduct: “If someone asks for help it is because they need it. Do politely suggest specific documentation or more appropriate venues where appropriate, but avoid aggressive or vague responses such as “RTFM”.” – think how it feels to need help, and to take the step of asking for it. I want to know that someone *understands* what I’m going through, feels my frustration, and is looking for a way to help relieve it. Recently, when confronted with a technical issue that prevented me from using my scanner, the advice I received on an IRC channel was to upgrade or change my Linux distribution! How un-empathic can you get!
- Koha patch rules (along with every other development project in the world): “The patch must apply to the current HEAD of the master branch of the code”: Put yourself in the place of a project maintainer who receives a patch proposal. He tries to apply it to his source tree, but the merge fails. Why? Because the patch was created against a year-old release of the project, and he’s since reworked internals to solve a different, unrelated issue. The maintainer is faced with a number of unsavory choices now: Spend time reading the patch, understanding what it does, and “forward-porting” it to master; check out the old branch, apply the patch, review, and test it there, and not commit to master; or drop the patch. What would you do in that situation? Someone is giving you a gift, which is going to make work for you. Is it worth an hour or two of your time to work on it to get it to just apply to your work? You still need to review the patch after that – which you would have to do anyway. In that situation, most people will ask the original patch proposer to do the initial grunt work and get the patch working on the tip of master.
- Now flip things around. You found a bug in software you use – the bug was really annoying. You took the time to get the source code, identify, qualify and fix the buig, open a bug report, which was confirmed, and attach a patch which you have checked fixes the problem. And what answer do you get? “Not good enough – work on it more”. How would that make you feel? That depends on how it is communicated. If it’s a stock answer, like a sheet of paper handed over a tax office counter, with a list of prerequisites, then I bet that would make me angry, resentful and frustrated. I poured time and effort into that patch, and this is how you treat it? If the criticism is of the core of the patch – it doesn’t fix the problem, or should do so differently, then the criticism might be easier to take. But if it’s issues which potentially add many hours of effort on top of time already spent, with no benefit to the proposer (check out the latest code, upgrade half a dozen dependencies without breaking my old version, compile it, and then forward-port the patch), chances are he won’t do it. An empathic response might be to make someone aware of the guidelines and their reason for being, but help him with the forward-porting on IRC by asking him to explain the patch, what it does and why.
All of those guidelines on indentation and whitespace, commenting code, including test cases, updating documentation, and ensuring code compiles at the tip of the master branch are designed to help patch proposers make patches which are easy for maintainers to apply. And in this context, an empathic patch proposer can understand them much better. Miguel de Icaza did a great job of framing this right.
When I was in college, I went to the Netherlands one Summer for a working holiday. At one point, I had a job offer for short-term work, but needed to be registered for tax to start, and I needed a bank account to get paid. So I went to the tax office, and the lady behind the counter very resignedly handed me a piece of paper with prerequisites, and told me to come back when I had fulfilled them. Then she looked over my shoulder and said “Next!” One of the prerequisites was a permanent address – I explained that I was living in a camp-site for the summer, and would that address do? Of course not! No proposed solution, no consideration of the situation I was in, no empathy.
Then I went to the bank, where I was told that I needed a permanent address to open an account. Same sense that the person I was dealing with didn’t care about me. So with my friend Barry, we looked into short term accommodation options. Landlords required (among other things) an employment agreement and a bank account before they would rent us accommodation – even if only by the week! In the end, we had to pass up that job, and work “on the black” for less than minimum wage to survive the Summer – but what choice did we have?
How frustrating! Just imagine how we felt. That’s empathy.
Again and again in community guidelines, whether it’s guidelines for people who are approaching a community to report a bug or propose a patch or feature, or guidelines for community members dealing with each other and people outside the community, this idea “think how this would make you feel if the roles were reversed” is pervasive, but unwritten. I think that it should be.
It reminds me of a social experiment I heard about recently:
Rats are placed in a box with a lever. When you pull the lever, a food pellet is distributed. The rats quickly learn to pull the lever. After a while, you change the configuration of the cage. Now, when the lever is pulled, the food pellet is distributed, but a cold shower drenches all the rats in the box. After a while, the rats learn not to pull the level, and start to punish rats who do as a group.
The second generation starts when a new rat is introduced into the box. as he approaches the leverl, the older rats all jump on top of him, to prevent him from touching it. In effect, they are teaching him the rule “don’t touch the lever”, without explaining why the rule exists. As time goes on, new rats are added, and old rats removed from the box.
The third generation happens when there are none of the oiriginal rats left in the box. None of the rats have experienced the cold shower after the lever was pressed. At that point, you can turn off the cold shower function – you will be sure that no rat will ever touch the level, because the community rules forbid it. Ask any of the rats why, though, and they will not be able to give you a better answer than “because that’s the way it is”. If rats could talk, of course.
Community guidelines which are purely written documents, but which neglect the empathic side of the equation, and don’t explain how not following the guidelines affect other people, can be similar. It’s important to include the reasons for guidelines,so that we don’t forget how breaking the rules makes others feel. It’s also important to have sufficient flexibility and adaptability in dealing with new community members – like the rat experiment, circumstances change all the time. Back when everyone was using CVS, performing merges was a complicated and time-consuming process. Nowadays, rebasing and merging with Git, Bazaar or Mercurial is so easy that some of the coding guidelines we used to have may no longer have the same impact. Likewise, email technology has moved on, and with cheap and copious bandwidth, email norms have evolved – netiquette community norms move on with them.
In general, as Bill & Ted famously said, “Be excellent to each other”. Think about how your actions & statements will be received. Be empathic.
October 6, 2011
community, General, gnome, maemo, work
With the announcement of Tizen (pronounced, I learned, tie-zen, not tea-zen or tizz-en) recently, I headed over to the website to find out who the project was aimed at. I read this on the “Community” page:
The Tizen community is made up of all of the people who collectively work on or with Tizen:
- Product contributors: kernel/distribution developers, release managers, quality assurance, localization, etc.
- Application developers: people who write applications to run on top of Tizen
- Users: people who run Tizen on their device and provide feedback
- Vendors: companies who create products based on Tizen
- Other contributors: promotion, documentation, and much more
Anyone can contribute by:
- Submitting patches
- Filing bugs
- Developing applications
- Helping with wiki documentation
- Participating in other community efforts and programs
Wow! That’s a diverse target audience, and a very wide ranging list of ways you can help out. But is it really helpful to scope the project so wide, and try to cater to such a wide range of use-cases from the start? And is the project at a stage where it even makes sense to advertise itself to some of these different types of users?
I have talked about the different meanings of “maintainer” before, depending on whether you’re maintaining a code project or are a package maintainer for a distribution. I have also talked about the different types of community that build up around a project, and how each of them needs their own identity – particularly in the context of the MeeGo trademark. I particularly like Simon Phipps’s analysis of the four community types as a way to clarify what you’re talking about.
For Tizen, I see between three and five different types of community, each with different needs, and each of which can form at different stages in the life-cycle of the project. Trying to “sell” the project to one type of community before the project is ready for them will result in disappointment and frustration all round – managing the expectations of people approaching Tizen will be vital to its long-term success, even if it opens you up to short-term criticism. Unless each of these communities is targeted individually and separately, and at the right time, I am sceptical about the results.
“Upstream” software developers
The first and most identifiably “Open Source” family of communities will be the software developers working on components and applications which will end up in the core of Tizen. For the most part, these communities exist already, and Samsung and Intel engineers are working with them. These are the projects we commonly call “upstreams” – projects you don’t control, but from whom code flows into your product.
In other cases, code will originate from Intel and/or Samsung. In the same way that Buteo, oFono and the various applications which were developed for the MeeGo Netbook UX were very closely associated with MeeGo, there will be similar projects (sometimes the same projects) which will have a close association with Tizen. Each of these projects will have their own personality, their own maintainers, roadmaps, specs – and each of them should have their own identity, and space to collaborate and communicate.
Communities form around programming projects not because of the code, but because of a shared vision and values. Each project will attract different people – the people who are interested in metadata and search are not the same as the people who will be passionate about system-wide contact integration. Each project needs its own web space, maintainers, bug tracker, mailing list, and wiki space. Of course, many projects can share the same infrastructure, and a lot of the same community processes (for things like code governance), and for projects closely related to Tizen, we can provide common space to help create a Tizen developer community in the same way there’s a GNOME developer community. But each community around each component will have its own personality and will need its own space.
At the level of Tizen, we could start with an architecture diagram, perhaps – and for each component on the architecture diagram, link to the project’s home page – many of the links will point to places like kernel.org, gnome.org, freedesktop.org and so on. For Tizen-specific projects, there could be a link to the project home page, with a list of stuff that needs to be done before the component is “ready”.
Core platform packagers, testers, integrators
Once we have a set of components which are working well together, we get to the heart of what I think will be Tizen’s early activity – bringing those components together into a cohesive whole. Tizen will be, basically, a set of distributions aimed at different form factors. And the deliverable in a distribution is not code or a Git tag, it’s a complete, integrated stack.
The engineering skills, resources and processes required to integrate a distribution are different to those of a code project. Making a great integrated Linux platform is obviously difficult – otherwise Red Hat would not be making money, and Ubuntu would not have had the opportunity to capture so much mind-share. Both Red Hat and Canonical do something right which others failed at before them.
Distributions attract a different type of contributor than code projects, and need a different set of tools and infrastructure to allow people to collaborate.At the distribution level, it is more likely you will be debating whether or not to integrate a particular package or its competitor than it is to debate whether to implement a feature in a specific package. Of course, it is possible to influence upstream projects to get specific features implemented, not least by providing developer resources, and there will be a need for some ambassadors to bridge the gap to upstream projects. And it is possible for a distribution to carry patches to upstream packages if that community disagrees. But in general, not much code gets written in distributions.
What the distro community needs and expects is infrastructure for continuous integration, bug tracking software, a way to submit and build software packages, good release engineering, an easy way to find out what packages need a maintainer (see Debian’s WNPP list or Ubuntu’s “need-packaging” list for examples) and a way to influence what packages or features are included in future releases (see Fedora or Ubuntu for examples). They also want tools to allow packaging, testing and deploying the integrated distribution – for an embedded distro, that might mean an emulator and an image creator, perhaps.
Vendors and carriers
Communities of companies are worth a special mention. Companies have very different ways of working together and agreeing on things than communities of individuals. I was tempted to just roll vendors into the “Platform integrators” community type, but they are sufficiently different to be considered another type of community. Vendors have different constraints and motivations than individual contributors to the platform, and we should be aware of those.
Vendors like to have a business relationship – some written agreement that shows where everyone stands. They have a direct relationship with people who buy their hardware, and have an interest (potentially in conflict with other communities) in owning the user relationship – through branded application stores, UI and support forums, for example. And since vendors are typically working on hardware development in parallel with software development, they care a lot about a reliable release schedule and quality level from the stack. Something that companies care about which individuals usually don’t are legal concerns around working with the process – do they have patent rights to the code they ship? Are they giving up any of their own potential patent claims?
3rd party application developers
Application developers don’t care, in general, whether the platform is open source or closed, or developed collaboratively or by one party (witness the popularity of Android and iOS with application developers). What they do care about are developer tools, documentation, and the ability to share their work with device users and other application developers. Some application developers will want to develop their applications as free software, and it is possible to enable that, but I think the most important thing for application developers is that it’s easy to do things with your platform, that there are good tools for developing, testing and deploying your application, that your platforms APIs are enabling the developer to do what he wants, and that you are providing a channel for those developers to get their apps to users of your platform.
An application developer doesn’t want to have to ship his software to 5 different app stores on every release – in contrast to vendors, he would like a single channel to his market. Other things he cares about are being able to form a relationship with his users – so app stores need to be social, allow user ratings and comments, and allow the author to interact with his users. Clear terms of engagement are vital here too – especially for commercial application developers. And application developers are also another type of community – they will want to share tips and tricks, code, and their thoughts on the project leaders in some kind of app developer knowledge base.
There is another potential community which I should mention, and that is users of your platform – typically, these will be users of devices running your platform. It should be possible for engaged users to share information, opinions, tips & tricks, and interesting hacks among each other. It should also be possible to rate and recommend applications easily – this is in the interests of both your user community and your application developer ecosystem.
OK, so what?
Each of these community types is different, and they don’t mix well. They mature at different rates. There is no point in trying to build a user platform until there are devices running your platform on the market, for example
So each type of community needs a separate space to work. There is no point in catering to a 3rd party application developer until you have developer tools and a platform for him to develop against. Vendors will commit to products when they see a viable integrated platform. And so on.
What is vital is to be very clear, for each type of community, what the rules of engagement are. As an example, one company can control the integration of a platform and the development of many of its components (as is the case for Android) and everyone is relatively happy, because they know where they stand and what they’re getting into. But if you advertise as an open and transparent project, and a small group of people announce the decisions of what components are included or excluded from the stack (as was the case in MeeGo), then in spite of being vastly more open, people who have engaged with the project will end up unhappy, because of a mismatch between the message and the practice in the project.
So what about Tizen? I think it is a mistake to announce the projects as a place to “submit patches, report bugs and develop applications” when there is no identifiable code base, no platform to try, and no published SDK to develop against. By announcing that Tizen is an Open Source platform, Intel and Samsung have set an expectation for people – and these are people who have gone through the move to MeeGo under two years ago, and who have seen Nokia drop the project earlier this year. If they are disappointed by the project’s beginnings because the expectations around the project have been set wrong from the offset, it could take a long time to recover.
Personally, I would start low-key by announcing an architecture diagram and concentrating on code and features that need writing, then ramp up the integrator community with some alpha images and tools to allow people to roll their own; finally, when the platform stabilises roll out the developer SDK and app store and start building up an application developer community. But by aiming too big with the messaging, Tizen runs the risk of scaring some people away early. Time will tell.
September 22, 2011
community, freesoftware, marketing, work
Tomorrow, Friday September 23rd, the Humanitarian FOSS track at the Open World Forum will bring together leaders from some of the most important humanitarian software projects and case studies of the impact these projects are having on people’s lives around the world. I’m happy to have been allowed to chair the track, and I am humbled by the quality of the presenters and the impact that their work is having.
In addition to the Humanitarian track, we are also honoured to have Laura Walker Hudson from FrontlineSMS give a keynote presentation on the overarching theme of “Humanitarian FOSS – serving humanity” in the main auditorium at 17:15. Laura will give an overview of the myriad ways that free and open source software is saving and helping people’s lives.
The Humanitarian track will have two core themes:
- Crisis Management– how Free and Open Source Software plays a role in extreme events
- The Sahana project, born in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, helps NGOs and citizens caught in a crisis by crowd-sourcing missing persons reports, co-ordinate different NGOs working in the same place, and track incident reports and volunteer co-ordination.
- Tashiro Shuichi from Japan will present the ways that Open Source software helped during the tsunami disaster in Japan.
- Syrine Tlili from the Tunisian Ministry of Communication Technologies will tell us how Open Source was used by citizens during the Arab Spring revolutions
- Sigmah is a project that enables project management for NGOs
- Sustainable Development– once the crisis is over, what are the projects that help with systemic problems like education, health-care, sanitation, and documenting human rights violations?
- SMS is the killer app for communication in the developing world. Most villages in Africa, Asia and South America have cellphone connectivity, but unreliable power grid, Internet and no phone lines. FrontlineSMS enables you to send and receive SMS messages from any computer, using a cheap phone or GSM modem. It is at the heart of every prominent humanitarian software project.
- Sugar is an operating system which was designed from the ground up to meet the needs of educators in developing countries, as part of the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project to revolutionize the use of technology in education. Sean Daly from the Sugar project will show us a deployment of Sugar and OLPC in a secondary school in a small town in Madagascar.
- Martus, a project created by Benetech, allows the secure recording and storage of testimony relating to human rights violations. Testimony collected with Martus has been used to successfully prosecute police officers for murder in Guatemala.
- Mifos, which was developed by Grameen Bank, the pre-cursor of micro-financing, provides a micro-financing platform for financial institutions.
- Akvo help connect doers and donors to transform communities in some of the poorest parts of the world, funding water, sanitation, and health-care projects around the world.
- The Open Bank Project promotes financial transparency and provides tools to allow people to fight corruption in banking.
Coders for Social Good
There are dozens of amazing Free/Open Source Software projects working to improve the lives of people around the world. For example, Literacy Bridge provides talking books to communities in Africa, and OpenMRS enables the gathering of medical information from regional clinics to reduce child mortality by improving resource allocation.
Many Open Source developers are developing software in communities because they want to make the world a better place. Working on a humanitarian project provides a unique opportunity to combine the social good of Open Source community projects and the public good of helping people in need. Social Coding 4 Good is a new initiative from Benetech which puts willing volunteers in contact with humanitarian projects in need of resources.
The schedule for the track is available on the Open World Forum website. For any press or interview requests, please contact me by email email@example.com or my cellphone +33 6 77 01 92 13.
September 19, 2011
After some last minute confirmations, cancellations and other trials and tribulations, I am very happy with the final line-up for the Humanitarian FOSS track at the Open World Forum this year.
We have a range of projects attending and speaking this year which will cover both crisis response (crowdsourcing first responder information, document and information management when it’s most important) and longer term actions (education, sanitation, financing sustainable projects, enabling reconstruction and securing people from persecution).
I’m particularly happy to have Syrine Tlili from Tunisia presenting the role that free software played in the citizen’s revolution in Tunisia this Spring, and Tashiro Suichi to tell the story of the lives that were saved thanks to free software after the tsunami disaster in Japan in March. I also expect Simon Redfern’s presentation on the Open Bank Project to be particularly interesting, in the context of the current financial crisis.
In addition to the track, Laura Walker Hudson has also agreed late in the day to keynote on the topic of “Free and Open Source Software: Serving Humanity” at 17:15 on Friday the 23rd. As project manager of FrontlineSMS, she has a key position at the center of a lot of what goes on in the humanitarian world: SMS is the key means of gathering and sharing information with rural areas of the developing world, and is also the main way people share information during a crisis.
I’d also like to take the opportunity to give a big shout out to Bayor Andrew Azaabanye from the Literacy Bridge project – he was due to speak on the ways Literacy Bridge is being deployed in Ghana, but unfortunately we could not get a visa in time for him to attend.
We will be in the “Paris” room from 1pm until 5pm on Friday September 23rd – I hope to see a lot of you there!
September 1, 2011
These are speaker notes from a presentation I gave at the Desktop Summit 2011, on a topic I’ve written about in the past. The slides for the presentation are on the conference website (PDF link).
I’m going to talk about the costs associated with modifying and maintaining free software “out of tree” – that is, when you don’t work with the developers of the software to have your changes integrated. But I’m also going to talk about the costs of working with upstream projects. It can be easy for us to forget that working upstream takes time and money – and we ignore that to our peril. It’s in our interests as free software developers to make it as cost-effective as possible for people to work with us.
Hopefully, if you’re a commercial developer, you’ll come away from this article with a better idea of when it’s worthwhile to work upstream, and when it isn’t. And if you’re a community developer, perhaps this will give you some ideas about how to make it easier for people to work with you.
In 1996 and 1997, Softway worked on bringing a POSIX API to Windows NT. This involved major patches to all the components of the GCC toolchain – the compiler, linker, assembler, debugger, etc. To make the changes they needed, they hired an 18 year industry veteran of compilers and operating systems, and over the course of 6-8 months, the main body of work was done.
Conscious of the costs involved in maintaining that much work out-of-tree, Softway approached upstream developers to propose that their changes be integrated. The reactions ranged from “this is great, but…” to “NT? Don’t care about it”.
After this initial failure, Softway turned to the GCC company at the time: Cygnus Solutions. Cygnus had hired many GCC maintainers, and at that time if you wanted anything done with GCC, they were the guys to talk to. Their quote? $140,000. And they wouldn’t be able to start work on the project for 14 months.
Deciding this was too expensive, Softway eventually hired another company called Ada Core, maintainers of the Ada front-end for GCC, to rework the patches and get them upstream. Ada Core cost $40,000, and could start next week. That’s roughly the same amount of money as was originally spent developing the features in question.
Getting Things Done
At the highest level, the question that people want to answer is: “How can I get what I want done, as quickly and cheaply as possible?” This software exists, it does 80% of what I need, I need to change it a little bit to fit those needs. What’s the best way for me to do that?
The most common strategy is to pick a release on which to build on, and hack away from there. In fact, in probably 90% of cases that’s as far as it goes. I add the features I need for the project I’m working on Right Now, ship it, and never even talk to upstream about what I did, or why.
The costs involved in this approach are all the “stuff” that gets added upstream (features, bug fixes and security patches) which you never see. Mal Minhas, former CTO of the LiMo Foundatioon, labelled this “unleveraged potential” (PDF link) – missing out on the work of other people who are doing things in your interests. The underlying assumption is that you will end up redoing at least some of this work during your maintenance of your own work.
To avoid missing out on this work, it’s recommended to merge regularly changes from upstream into your local copy of the upstream package. But this merge is typically not free – and the bigger your changes, the more likely it is you will find significant conflicts between upstream and your local copy. There is also an additional, often-forgotten overhead involved with regression testing and validation post-merge. Every time I upgrade a component to a new version, I need to verify that it hasn’t broken anything, either because of changed behaviour at integration points I’m using or simply because some regressions were introduced when fixing other issues.
And the worst part about this maintenance cost is that you will incur it every time you upgrade. Almost every time you pull code from upstream, you will have substantial costs involved in merge resolution and regression testing. And to keep the delta between your code and upstream as small as possible, you should do these merges regularly.
Inevitably, someone will suggest that the maintenance costs have grown to the point where it’s worth your while “giving back” (where this is often a synonym for “dumping our stuff upstream”). The goal is to reduce the delta to a point where only client- or project-specific patches are maintained out of tree, and anything which might be useful to someone else is sent back to the upstream project, to be maintained there. Jim Zemlin recently said in an interview “Let me tell you, maintaining your own version of Linux ain’t cheap, and it ain’t easy”… in his words, “if some aren’t giving back as much as others today, I just think it will naturally happen over time. It always is in their business interest to do so”.
It’s at this point that you will run into the community overhead.
Open Source developers expect contributors to jump through all sorts of hoops to get their code upstream. Most maintainers will request that you re-format patches according to community norms, submit patches which apply cleanly to the head of the development branch, and may suggest alternative approaches to how you should write your patch or feature. Jonathan Corbet has described how this works with the kernel community:
A patch of any significance will result in a number of comments from other developers as they review the code. Working with reviewers can be, for many developers, the most intimidating part of the kernel development process […] when reviewers send you comments, you need to pay attention to the technical observations that they are making. Do not let their form of expression or your own pride keep that from happening. When you get review comments on a patch, take the time to understand what the reviewer is trying to say. If possible, fix the things that the reviewer is asking you to fix. And respond back to the reviewer: thank them, and describe how you will answer their questions.
To take just one example of how projects expect people to do extra work to contribute, think about what version of a piece of software a company is likely to want to integrate into their product or solution. When we worked on QuteCom, the rule I expected our developers to follow was to use only stable releases of any libraries we depended on, which were included in recent releases of major distributions, and were present in Debian testing. I didn’t want my guys to be debugging unstable versions of software written by other people, we had our own stuff to get out the door. And by requiring that components be present in releases of popular distros, I felt I was lowering the bar to participation, by allowing community members to get started by installing devel packages from the distro, rather than downloading and compiling dependencies.
So what happens when you make some changes to the projects you depend on? Those changes are made to a stable version of the software. If your product release will take several months, it is likely that upstream will have moved on. And we expect patches against development branches, not against stable releases. So any work that I do needs to be merged first with the development branch, before it’s submitted.
A developer is left with some choices, none without costs or risk:
- Ignore upstream completely, scratch your own itch, and sell upgrades to your end client to pay for maintenance costs – which wastes developer time and does not benefit upstream at all, not to mention leaving your software open to security issues and bugs as they are discovered and fixed upstream.
- Fork a vendor branch off a stable release, and “when the project is finished” work on merging it upstream – but by that time, other projects have come along, there’s a substantial cost involved in rebasing your work to the latest and greatest upstream – “when I have time” doesn’t happen very often in the Real World. One way to get around this is to hire someone from upstream to “take care” of getting your code upstream – as we have seen with Softway, this can be a significant financial and time investment. But it can almost guarantee that your code will get upstream.
- The ideal situation – work on a feature branch on the development branch of upstream, and back-port your work to the slow-moving stable version, submitting it for inclusion upstream as soon as it’s finished. Martin Fowler recently pointed out some of the problems with feature branches, but they’re much better than big merges and code dumps. The cost here is that you’re paying up-front the merge cost by making small frequent merges, and adding an extra overhead keeping two branches in sync. Also, there is a significant cost involved in the risk that once you’ve put in all the work, the result will be rejected by upstream developers anyway.
Some stories can illustrate the relative weight of the costs involved in the second and third of these options.
In 2003 or 2004, Nokia started working on modifications to GTK+ for its Nokia 770 tablet. By the time the tablet was released in 2005, the Nokia delta to GTK+ was tens of thousands of lines of code. In addition, a set of mobile-only widgets had been packaged into the Hildon package, which depended on Nokia’s vendor version of GTK+. At that point, when the project became public, Nokia wanted to propose these changes for inclusion upstream in GTK+.
To help with this work, Nokia contracted Imendio (now called Lanedo) to help. At the time they started working on the project, the delta was over 50,000 lines of code. Over the course of 4 years, a lot of work was done to reduce this delta, sometimes by re-writing Maemo features to make them acceptable upstream, sometimes by shepherding changes in, and in part by rebasing Maemo’s GTK+ on GTK+ 2.10, which solved some of the problems which needed to be addressed before.
And yet, even after four calendar years and many more man-years of effort, Hildon, the (reduced) set of mobile widgets which many Maemo application developers used, did not work perfectly on top of a stock upstream GTK+. When Nokia made a grant of $50,000 to the GNOME Foundation to be spent to enhance the developer experience for MeeGo developers, integrating Hildon widgets upstream and ensuring that Maemo application developers could easily port their applications to MeeGo was a big part of the winning bid.
A huge amount of this work could have been avoided by following Andrew Morton’s advice, given to a developer of the experimental filesystem Tux3:
Do NOT fall into the trap of adding more and more stuff to an out-of-tree project. It just makes it harder and harder to get it merged.There are many examples of this.
But to ask the question the other way around: could the GTK+ maintainers have done more to facilitate the submission of this work upstream?
In 2005, Google acquired a little-known, stealth mode company called Android, which we now know was developing a Java- and Linux-based phone operating system. By 2007, when the platform and first Android phones were announced, the company had made significant changes to the Linux kernel for its needs. One of those changes was called wakelocks – system services and kernel drivers could request that the kernel not go to sleep in the absence of user input (thus locking the device awake, giving the name). Matthew Garrett gave a pretty clear description of what wakelocks do, and why they were added to Android (from his point of view as maintainer of power management in the kernel) at last year’s LinuxCon.
Wakelocks allow the system to save battery, even when there are poorly behaved applications running on the system. For a production environment with thousands of applications of varying quality, that makes sense. So in early 2009, a little known kernel developer working on Android, Arve Hjønnevåg, proposed that wavelocks be included in the kernel. To that end, he sent the following mail, along with a big patch, to the Linux kernel mailing list:
The following patch series adds two apis, wakelock and earlysuspend. The Android platform uses the earlysuspend api to turn the screen and some input devices on and off. The wakelock code determines when to enter the full suspend state.
These apis could also be useful to other platforms where the goal is to enter full suspend whenever possible.
It’s fair to say that these changes were not initially well understood or well received. The initial reaction was covered at the time by Jonathan Corbet of LWN.
After a few rounds of revisions, the proposal appears to have been dropped. At least, no significant efforts were made to have the patches proposed from March 2009 until early 2010, when a number of things happened that converged to a perfect storm around the issue. At the end of 2010, Greg Kroah-Hartman deleted a number of Android drivers from the staging tree, saying “no one cared about the code”. Partly as a result of that, a number of key kernel figures met in April 2010 at the collaboration summit to discuss “the Android problem” with Google engineers. Soon afterwards (perhaps by coincidence), Arve re-posted a new set of patches, which seemed to be well received.
That thread erupted, however, and 1500 emails and some hurt feelings later, an alternate implementation called suspend blockers by Rafael Wysocki was integrated into the kernel.
All of this took a lot of work from Google, essentially after the feature was finished. According to Ted Ts’o, speaking in August 2010:
Android team members have spent literally hundreds of man hours (my mail folder on the suspend blocker thread has over 1500 mail messages, and is nearly 10MB), and have tried rewriting the patches several times, in an attempt to make them be main-line acceptable.
Chris DiBona, speaking in an interview with Paula Rooney, said that at that time that “there were some developers at Google working on it who “feel burned” by the decision but he acknowledged that the “staffing, attitude and culture” at Google isn’t sufficient to support the kernel crew.”
Clearly, there is a cost involved in trying to submit code to the kernel and to other projects, and there is a significant risk that the code will be rejected, in spite of that effort.
Given the heavy-hitting kernel developers working inside Google, I can’t help but wonder whether things would have gone smoother if Andrew Morton were asked to help shepherd wakelock functionality into the kernel. As Matthew Garrett said in his LinuxCon post-mortem: “Getting code into the kernel is always easier if you have a recognised name associated with it”.
EVMS and IBM
Even when you do everything right, it is possible to have code rejected by upstream – at which point, the best solution is often to suck it up, and port your work over to whatever API was provided for the same problem space by upstream.
In 2000 or 2002, IBM started work on EVMS, the Enterprise Volume Management System/ EVMS was a set of kernel drivers and user space tools which allowed users to manage several virtual disk drives, potentially across several disks and physical partitions. Dan Frye, speaking about the project in August 2002, said it was “a quantum step forward in terms of ease of use, reliability and performance”.
The project was published first on SourceForge in 2001, and was developed in the open, with releases regularly being made against the most recent upstream kernels, as well as for the major distributions.
On October 2nd, 2002, Kevin Corry proposed EVMS for inclusion in the 2.5 kernel. At the time, he wrote:
To make this as simple as possible for you, there is a Bitkeeper
tree available with the latest EVMS source code, located at:
This tree is sync'd with the linux-2.5 tree on linux.bkbits.net
as of about noon today (Oct 2).
At this point, IBM had done everything right, as far as I can tell. They tracked upstream development, talked about their plans and encouraged feedback, and when they proposed EVMS for inclusion, it was intended to make it as easy as possible to accept it.
At this point, things get a little fuzzy. The end result, though, was that LVM2, an alternative kernel framework for logical volume management developed by a small company called Sistina (later acquired by Red Hat), was merged on October 29th. And on November 5th, Kevin Corry announced a change in direction for EVMS:
As many of you may know by now, the 2.5 kernel feature freeze has come
and gone, and it seems clear that the EVMS kernel driver is not going
to be included. With this in mind, we have decided to rework the EVMS
user-space administration tools (the Engine) to work with existing
drivers currently in the kernel, including (but not necessarily limited
to) device mapper and MD.
Again, IBM did “the Right Thing”, and ported their tools to the APIs which were in the kernel. Making that decision earned the team a lot of respect among the kernel community. But at the end of the day, it also cost them – all of the wasted work on their kernel drivers, and all of the work porting their tools to new APIs. A back of the envelope calculation, based on the releases of EVMS after that date, suggests that it set the project back ~6 months, and ~18 man-months of work.
When to engage?
So when does it become useful to engage upstream? And, more importantly, is there anything that we, as upstreams, can do to lower that barrier, to make it easier for new companies to engage?
The reality is, if you’re only making small patches to a project, it’s going to take you longer to get your patches upstream than it will to maintain them over time. It’s just not worth your while, unless there is some intrinsic motivation for working with the project.
If you have a moderately sized delta with upstream, and you expect to have to maintain your version over time, then it may be time to start thinking about getting some of that code upstream. There are a couple of approaches you can use: The first is to train up developers working in-house and have them build some relationship capital over time. The second is to hire a company who already employs maintainers to review your code, suggest changes and help shepherd anything that is appropriate upstream, as Softway did with Ada Core. The relative costs of these options will depend on how nice the project is to new developers, how well documented the community processes are, and of course the quality of your code. In any case, at this point you will need to consider the cost involved in rebasing to a later version of upstream, and consider how often you will have to do it.
However, once your delta goes over a certain threshold, you will end up spending a substantial amount of time in maintenance and regression testing. At this point, the repeated long-term cost of conflict resolution and regression testing every time you merge will outweigh the cost of getting code upstream. Again, there are two options – train up one of your developers, or subcontract the upstreaming work. You might even consider killing two birds with one stone, and including mentorship of one or two of your developers in the subcontracting contract, to grow some in-house project developers. It may also be worth head-hunting someone with an existing reputation in the project.
Finally, if you are using a piece of software as a strategic plan of a product portfolio, and you are making substantial changes to it, then you would be insane not to have a maintainer, or at least a senior developer, from the project on payroll. When Samsung decided to include EFL in their phone platform, they hired Rasterman. Google hired Andrew Morton. Red Hat hired many of the GTK+ maintainers of the era when they created Red Hat Advanced Development Labs to develop GNOME back in 2000. Collabora hired Wim Taymans, Edward Hervey and Christian Schaller from the GStreamer project. And the list continues. But if you do hire a maintainer, do so in the knowledge that their primary allegiance may be to “their” project, and not to your company. Being a good maintainer entails doing a lot more than writing code – factor into your schedule that 20% – 30% of their time will be spent on patch review, rolling releases, documenting roadmap plans, chatting on the mailing list, etc.
Let me leave you with this take-away: We will never make it financially interesting for someone who’s done a quick hack to get that upstream, or get them to fix their “bug” the Right Way. It will always be in the interests of companies with a strategic dependency on a piece of software to hire or train someone to be a core member of the community developing that software. But for everything in between, as free software developers, we can help. We can make it easier for companies to figure out who they can hire to train or mentor their developers, or shepherd changes upstream. We can lower the bar to getting features upstream by documenting community norms and practices, by being nicer to new developers on the list, and by instituting a mentoring programme. By improving patch review processes, we can decrease friction and make it nicer and easier to contribute to the project. If it’s easier for a developer to do a merge every three months than it is for him to talk to you, then your project is missing out.
September 1, 2011
While reading “The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight”, it occurred to me that the real cost (and tragedy) of Unity and GNOME Shell, or KDE and GNOME, is that it turns us into “us” and “them” – and at that point it is really easy to fall into the trap of reducing all criticism to “haters gonna hate”.
July 6, 2011
The Harmony agreements reached a significant milestone this week, as they were tagged 1.0 and left the “beta” stage. As someone who has previously taken position regarding contributor licensing agreements, I was asked this week what my thoughts on Harmony are.
First off, let me say that I have not followed the Harmony process closely. Indeed, the process, which was semi-open, but operated under Chatham House Rules (any participant can quote what was said in a meeting, but cannot name the person who said it), is one of the major issues I have seen people take with Harmony. The lack of a clearly identified team taking responsibility for the contents and standing behind the agreement texts is unfortunate, but I think it’s an issue completely independent of their content and the project’s goals.
The goal of the project, as far as I can tell, is to provide a set of templates for people who might want to use a Contributor Licensing Agreement (CLA). As far as it goes, that is fine. Where there is a danger is if the existence of such a template is used to encourage the adoption of CLAs (including copyright assignment) as a “best practice” to be followed.
A CLA is actually a conflation of two very different things: the first is asking a contributor to certify that they have the right to make their contribution (that it is original work, that they agree to the project’s license, that their employer has given permission for the contribution, etc). The Mozilla project gets their contributors to sign a similar document upon becoming committers, to ensure that they perform due diligence before accepting a patch from a proposer. So this aspect of CLAs is sensible and useful for most projects.
The second part of CLAs is copyright licensing or assignment. This creates an asymmetric situation in the project where a central copyright holder has the power to make certain decisions for the project, including for some code which they did not write. As I said previously, copyright assignment has its down sides: it will prevent (or, at best, make much more difficult) the formation of a diverse developer community around the core of your project. If that is part of what you want to achieve, then you should be aware of that. However, if you are happy to be basically the sole contributor to the project core, and the ownership of all of the code in that core is useful for other goals, then copyright assignment may well be appropriate for your project.
Harmony does attempt to make copyright assignment more acceptable by including a licensing promise in some variants. This is fine. I don’t think I would sign such an agreement, but I am sure that the promise that contributions will always be available under a certain license may be enough to reassure other potential contributors.
The main “flaw” which others have identified in Harmony is the lack of a patent promise from the assignee to the assigner. I kind of think that this is a red herring, because such a promise should really be explicit in the license under which the contributor got the software in the first place. Having such a promise in a CLA really doesn’t feel necessary or useful.
Overall, I’m sure that some people will find Harmony agreements useful – they will hopefully save communication time between projects with CLAs and developers, and lawyer fees for companies considering the adoption of a CLA. Yet, my priority will continue to be to question the assumptions which lead people to adopt a CLA without fully thinking through the consequences.
Do you really need a CLA to achieve your objectives? Is it, in fact, harmful to some of what you want to achieve? At the end of the day, my position remains the same: the goal should not be to write a better CLA, it should be to figure out whether we can avoid one altogether, and figure out how to create and thrive in a vibrant developer community.
June 8, 2011
Interesting article from Gartner which has some relevance to my recent proposal for a gnome-design mailing list: Gartner Identifies Five Collaboration Myths.
Myth 1. The right tools will make us collaborative
Technology can make it easier to collaborate when applications mirror a more intuitive, fluid work style, but selecting a tool without addressing roles, processes, metrics and the organization’s workplace climate is putting the cart before the horse.
May 31, 2011
community, freesoftware, General, gimp, gnome
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about mentoring programs, what works, what doesn’t, and what the minimum amount of effort needed to bootstrap a program might be.
With the advent of Google Summer of Code and Google Code-In, more and more projects are formalising mentoring and thinking about what newcomers to the project might be able to do to learn the ropes and integrate themselves into the community. These programs led to other organised programs like GNOME’s Women Summer Outreach Program. Of course, these initiatives weren’t the first to encourage good mentoring, but they have helped make the idea of mentors taking new developers under their wing much more widespread.
In addition to these scheduled and time-constrained programs, many projects have more informal “always-on” mentoring programs – Drupal Dojo and GNOME Love come to mind. Others save smaller easier tasks for newcomers to cut their teeth on, like the “easy hacks” in LibreOffice. Esther Schindler wrote a fantastic article a few years ago documenting best and worst practices in mentoring among different projects.
Most mentoring programs I have seen and participated in don’t have a very good success rate, though. In this article, I look at why that is the case, and what can be put in place to increase the success rate when recruiting new developers.
Why most mentoring fails
Graham Percival, a GNU/LilyPond developer, decided in 2008 to run an experiment. At one point, Graham decided that he would quit the project, but felt guilty about doing so in one go. So he started the “Great Documentation Project” to recruit a replacement documentation team to follow on after his departure. He then spent 12 months doing nothing but mentoring newcomers to get them involved in the project, and documented his results. Over the course of a year, he estimates that he spent around 800 hours mentoring newcomers to the project.
His conclusions? The net result for the project was somewhere between 600-900 hours of productivity, and at the end of the year, 0 new documentation team members. In other words, Graham would have been better off doing everything himself.
Graham found that “Only 1 in 4 developers was a net gain for the project” – that is, for every 4 apprentices that Graham spent time mentoring, only 1 hung around long enough for the project to recoup the time investment he put into mentoring. A further 1 in 4 were neither gain or loss – their contribution roughly equalled the mentor time that they took up. And the remainder were a net loss for the project, with much more time spent mentoring than the results could justify.
The GNOME Women’s Summer Outreach Program in 2006 had 6 participants. In 2009, the GNOME Journal ran a “Where are they now?” follow-up article. Of the 6 original participants, only one is still involved in free software, and none are involved in GNOME. Murray Stokely did a follow-up in 2008 to track the 57 alumni of Summer of Code who had worked on FreeBSD. Of these, 10 students went on to get full commit access, and a further 4 students were still contributing to FreeBSD or OpenBSD after the project. Obey Arthur Liu also did a review of Debian participants in 2008. Of 11 students from 2008 who had no previous Debian developer experience, he found that 4 remained active in the project one year later.
From my own experience as a replacement mentor and administrator in the Summer of Code for the GIMP in 2006, we had 6 projects, most of which were considered a success by the end of the summer, yet of the participating students, none have made any meaningful contribution to the GIMP since.
I feel safe in saying that the majority of mentoring projects fail – and Graham’s 1 in 4 sounds about right as an overall average success/failure rate. This begs the question: why?
Most mentored projects take too long
What might take a mentor a couple of hours working on his own could well take an apprentice several days or weeks. All of the experience that allows you to hit the ground running isn’t there. The most important part of the mentoring experience is getting the student to the point where he can start working on the problem. To help address this point, many projects now require Summer of Code applicants to compile the project and propose a trivial patch before they are accepted for the program, but understanding the architecture of a project and reading enough code to get a handle on coding conventions will take time. It will also take mentor time. It takes longer to teach a newcomer to your project than to do the work yourself, as anyone who has ever had a Summer intern will attest.
When you set a trainee task which you estimate to be about 4 hours work, that will end up costing a few weeks of volunteer effort for your apprentice, and 8 to 10 hours mentoring time for you during that time. Obviously, this is a big investment on both sides, and can lead to the apprentice giving up, or the mentor running out of patience. I remember in the first year of Summer of Code, projects were taking features off their wishlists that had not been touched for years, and expecting students new to the project to come in and work full time implementing them perfectly over the course of 12 weeks. The reality that first year was that most of the time was spent getting a working environment set up, and getting started on their task.
Mentoring demands a lot of mentors
As a free software developer, you might not have a lot of time to work on your project. Josh Berkus, quoted in Schindler’s article, says “being a good mentor requires a lot of time, frequently more time than it would take you to do the development yourself”. According to the Google Summer of Code FAQ, “5 hours a week is a reasonable estimate” for the amount of time you would need to dedicate to mentoring. Federico Mena Quintero suggests that you will need to set aside “between 30 and 60 minutes a day“.
When you only have 10 hours a week to contribute to a project, giving up half of it to help someone else is a lot. It is easy to see how working on code can get a higher priority than checking in with your apprentice to make sure everything is on track.
More mentoring projects fail for lack of communication than for any other reason.
Apprentices may expect their mentors to check in on them, while mentors expect apprentices to ask questions if they have any. Perhaps newcomers to the project are not used to working on mailing lists, or are afraid of asking stupid questions, preferring to read lots of documentation or search Google for answers. In the absence of clear guidelines on when and how parties will talk to each other, communication will tend towards “not enough” rather than “too much”.
No follow through
Many mentoring programs stop when your first task is complete. The relationship between the mentor and the apprentice lasts until the end of the task, and then either the apprentice goes off and starts a new task, with a new mentor, or that is the end of their relationship with the project. I would be really interested to hear how many Summer of Code mentors maintained a relationship with their students after the end of the Summer, and helped them out with further projects. I suspect that many mentors invest a lot of time during the program, and then spend most of their time catching up with what they wanted to do.
In her OSCON keynote in 2009, Skud talked about the creation of a welcoming and diverse community as a prerequisite for recruiting new developers. Sometimes, your project culture just doesn’t match newcomers to the project. If this happens regularly, then perhaps the project’s leaders need to work on changing the culture, but this is easier said than done. As Chris di Bona says in this video, “the brutality of open source is such that people will learn to work with others, or they will fail”. While many think that this kind of trial-by-fire is fine, the will not be the environment for everyone. It is really up to each project and its leaders to decide how “brutal” or forgiving they want to be. There is a trade-off: investing time in apprentices who will contribute little is a waste of time, but being too dismissive of a potential new developer could cost your project in the long run.
Mentoring best practices
Is all the effort worth it? If mentoring programs are so much hassle, why go to the bother?
Mentoring programs are needed to ensure that your project is long-term sustainable. As Graham says in his presentation: “Core developers do most of the work. Losing core developers is bad. Projects will lose core developers.” Do you need any other reason to start actively recruiting new blood?
There are a few simple things that you can put in place to give your mentoring program a better chance of success.
Mentored tasks should be small, bite-sized, and allow the apprentice to succeed or fail fast. This has a number of advantages: The apprentice who won’t stick around, or who will accomplish nothing, has not wasted a lot of your mentor’s time. The apprentice who will stay around gets a quick win, gets his name in the ChangeLog, and gains assurance in his ability to contribute. And the quick feedback loop is incredibly rewarding for the mentor, who sees his apprentice attack new tasks and increase his productivity in short order. Graham implies that a 10 minute task is the right size, with the expectation that the apprentice might take 1 hour to accomplish the task.
A ten minute task might even take longer to identify and list than it would to do. You can consider this cost the boot-strapping cost of the mentoring program. Some tasks that are well suited to this might include:
- Write user documentation for 1 feature
- Get the source code, compile it, remove a compiler warning, and submit a patch
- Critique 1 unreviewed patch in Bugzilla
- Fix a trivial bug (a one line/local change)
Of course, the types of tasks on your list will change from one project to the next.
Mentoring is management
Just as not everyone is suited to being a manager, not everyone is suited to being a mentor. The skills needed to be a good mentor are also those of a good manager – keeping track of someone else’s activity while making them feel responsible for what they’re working on, communicating well and frequently, and reading between the lines to diagnose problems before it’s too late to do anything about them.
When you think of it in this way, there is an opportunity for developers who would like to gain management experience to do so as a mentor in a free software project. Continually recruiting mentors is just as important as recruiting developers. Since mentoring takes a lot of time, it’s important that mentors get time off and new mentors are coming in in their place.
Pair apprentices with mentors, not tasks
An apprentice should have the same mentor from the day he enters the mentoring program until he no longer needs or wants the help. The relationship will ideally continue until the apprentice has himself become a mentor. Free software communities are built on relationships, and the key point to a mentoring program is to help the creation of a new relationship. Mentoring relationships can be limited in time also, 6 months or a year seem like good time limits. The time needed to mentor will, hopefully, go down over this period.
Regular meeting times
Mentors and apprentices should ensure that there is a time on their calendar for a “one on one” at regular times. How regularly will depend on the tasks, and the amount of time you can spend on it. Weekly, fortnightly or monthly are all reasonable in different situations. This meeting should be independent of any other communication you have with the person – it is too easy for the general business of a project to swallow up a newbie and prevent their voice from being heard. Rands said it well when he said “this chatter will bury the individual voice unless someone pays attention.”
Convert apprentices into mentors
Never do you understand the pain of the initial learning curve better than when you have just gone through it. The people best suited to helping out newcomers to the project are those who have just come through the mentoring program themselves.
This is a phenomenon that I have seen in the Summer of Code. Those students who succeed and stay with the project are often eager to become mentors the following year. And they will, in general, be among the best mentors in the project.
For all involved, it’s useful to have some idea of the issues newcomers have – ensure that documenting solutions is part of what you ask. It’s also useful to know how successful your mentoring program is. Can you do better than the 1 in 4 success rate of LilyPond? Keeping track of successes and failures encourages new mentors, and gives you data to address any problems you run into.
Manage the mentors
All of this work has overhead. In a small project with 1 or 2 core developers, it’s easy enough to have each core developer take an apprentice under their wing, and co-ordinate on the mailing list. In bigger projects, keeping track of who is a mentor, and who is mentoring who, and inviting new mentors, and ensuring that no-one falls through the cracks when a mentor gets too busy, is a job of itself. If your mentoring program goes beyond more than ~5 mentors or so, you might want to consider nominating someone to lead the program (or see who steps up to do the job). This is the idea behind the Summer of Code administrator, and it’s a good one.
Go forth and multiply
Developer attrition is a problem in open source, and recruitment and training of new developers is the only solution. Any project which is not bringing new developers up to positions where they can take over maintainership is doomed to failure. A good mentoring program, however, with a retention rate around 25%, organised continuously, should ensure that your project continues to grow and attract new developers.
Replenishing your stock of mentor tasks and recruiting new mentors will take effort, and continual maintenance of someone putting in a few hours a week. If you execute well, then you will have helped contribute to the long term diversity and health of your project.
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