I realised recently that most of my writing has been of the 140 character format recently…. I plan to rectify this, starting today.
There are times in a long career when you have to turn your back on what’s gone before. In work, this is easy. People stop giving you a paycheck, you stop turning up to work. And yet, some of my best friends are people I worked with 10 years ago.
In open source, it’s harder. You build relationships, you grow emotional attachments to projects you work on.
When life moves you on from a project, you stay subscribed to mailing lists, you add mail filters to move them to a folder you read less and less frequently.
When you hit a threshold where you no longer consider yourself a developer or contributor, you keep watching from afar, and when the project takes a direction you disagree with, that you know you would have argued against, you feel a little sadness.
After a while, this build-up of guilt weighs you down. But letting go is hard to do.
I’m learning. Trying to get better at letting go. The next generation needs to find their own way. It’s liberating and saddening in equal measure. Old friends: we will stay friends, but I need to trust you to make your own way.
Over at community.redhat.com, the Red Hat community blog, I have posted an article detailing some of the value I see to customers of companies who support and build on free software. The article is basically notes from a presentation I will be giving next Wednesday at the Red Hat Summit, “Community Catalysts: The Value of Open Source Community Development”. The problem statement?
It’s not always obvious, however, what the value of that is to our customers. The four freedoms of the free software definition which personify open source software – the freedom to use, study, modify and share modified copies of the software – at first glance appear to benefit only participants in open source communities. If you are a customer of a company like Red Hat, does it really matter that you have access to the source code, or that you can share the software with others? Aren’t customers, in some sense, paying us to “just take care of all of that stuff?”
This line of thought is not original, but it’s one I’ve had for a long time – and others such as Simon Phipps have given voice to similar insights in the past. Hopefully I can give it a fresh treatment for Red Hat Summit attendees next week!
You: “I’d like to install a file server for the LAN – can I have the root password for the server, please”
Admin: “You’re kidding, right? Submit a ticket, we’ll install it when we get around to it”
You: “I installed a Samba file server for the LAN on my own Linux machine”
Admin: “Gah! You messed up my workgroup. What happens when you turn it off? Bloody amateurs…”
You: “I’d like to install a bug tracker for the dev team”
Admin: “The existing servers are overloaded – you’ll need a hardware req. Lodge a ticket, and get management approval first.”
You: “I’d like to install a bug tracker for the dev team”
Admin: “I’ll create a VM for you to use. Lodge a ticket”
You: “I’d like to install a bug tracker for the dev team”
Admin: “You have a self-service account on OpenStack, don’t you? What are you talking to me for?”
For anyone who saw the recent launch of the new oVirt website a while back and was wondering how we could make such an attractive theme and lay-out for a MediaWiki wiki, wonder no more. In fact, you don’t even have to be jealous! Because the theme, called Strapping, so called because it’s based on the Bootstrap web framework, has just been published by my colleague Garrett on GitHub.
Kudos to Garrett, who did amazing work on this theme to make it as beautiful and reusable as possible, and I’m looking forward to using it for other websites in the near future. And so can you!
Via Simon Phipps, I discovered PlayTerm this morning. You can record and play back terminal sessions, which allow you to show commands and their expected output, played at typed speed. This may be the greatest invention since screencasts.
This week I was reminded that the first step in an Open Source project is often the hardest. We’ve been using MediaWiki for a project at work, with the “ConfirmAccount” extension to deal with spammers – a very nice extension indeed! It adds account creation requests to a queue where they can be handled by members of the bureaucrat group.
We had one wishlist item. We wanted to have a notification email sent out to every member of the group when a new request was received. There is an existing feature to send a notification email to a configurable email address, but not to the whole bureaucrat group.
So I said to myself, how hard can that be? And I rolled up my sleeves and set aside an afternoon to make the change, and submit it upstream. After a few false-starts which were nothing to do with MediaWiki, I got down to it.
First task: Upgrade to the latest version of MediaWiki – the version on Fedora 17 is MediaWiki 1.16.5, and the latest stable version is 1.19.2. So I download the latest version, and follow the upgrade instructions to over-write the system MediaWiki install in /usr/share/mediawiki with the upstream version. Unfortunately, the way that $IP (the Install Path) is set changed in version 1.17, in a way that took a little time to work around.
Once that was done, I downloaded the HEAD of the trunk branch from SVN which was linked from the old version of the extension home page, and got the extension working. That needed a few additional modules, and some configuration to get the email notifications working locally, but eventually, I was good to go.
I got to work making my change. It took a while, but once I figured out how to turn on debugging and the general idiom for database queries, it was easy enough. After a couple of hours hacking and testing, I was happy with the result.
The first date
I headed back to the extension home page to figure out how to submit a patch. At the same time, out of habit, I joined the project IRC channel, #mediawiki on Freenode, reasoning that if I got lost I could ask for help there. No indication on the Extension page, but a web search showed me that MediaWiki uses Bugzilla. So I registered for Yet Another Bugzilla Account, and confirmed my email address a few minutes later. Then I created a bug on Bugzilla, and attached my patch to the report.
Simultaneously, on IRC, I was asking for help and was told by a very nice community guy called Dereckson that the preferred way to submit patches was through Gerrit. It turned out that the extension home page should have been pointing to the more recent Git repository all along, and I had been developing against the wrong version of MediaWiki. Dereckson updated the extension page with the right repository information as soon as he discovered it hadn’t been updated before. No big deal, I cloned the Git repository, and tried to apply the patch from svn to git. Unfortunately, it didn’t work – some other changes related to translatable strings had changed code in the same area, and I had to re-do the change, but that was pretty easy.
I did try to submit a patch by following the procedure in the git workflow document, but without an account on Gerrit it didn’t work, of course. Dereckson convinced me to apply to developer access. After some initial resistance, because I really didn’t want to be a MediaWiki developer just to submit a drive-by patch, I requested developer access with the comment “I just wanted to submit one patch to an extension I use, Extension:ConfirmAccount.” Half an hour later, jeremyb approved my request with the comment “That’s what you think now!”
Then I went to the documentation on getting access and followed the instructions there until I was directed to upload my ssh key to labs and found I did not have access to that resource. Thanks again to Dereckson (once more to the rescue!) on IRC, I found my way to getting set up for git and Gerrit, and got an SSH key set up for Gerrit. Then I went back to the instructions for submitting a patch and a quick “git review” later, I had submitted my first patch ever to Gerrit.
Pretty quickly, the first couple of reviews came in. First comment: “There’s some whitespace issues here.” Gee, thanks. Second comment, from Dereckson (again!) started with a “Thank you”, said the idea was a good one, and then gave me an example of the project norms for commit comments, and made one comment on the code suggesting I use an option.
As a first time user of Gerrit, I noticed a few issues with it for newbies. It’s not at all clear to me how to distinguish “important” commenters from trivial-to-change things like whitespace issues. It’s also not clear whether a -1 blocks a commit, or how to have a discussion with someone about the approach taken in a patch. Also, it was unclear what the suggested way to update a patch was and propose a new, improved version. My first try, I made some changes, committed them into a new revision on my local branch, and pushed the lot for review (normal git workflow, I daresay). Unfortunately, this was not correct. I ended up squashing the two commits with a “rebase -i”, and since then I have been using “commit –amend”.
After a few more rounds of comments (another whitespace comment, and a suggestion to avoid hard-coding the group name), I am currently on the 5th patchset, which I think does what it says it should, and will pass review muster, when someone gets around to reviewing it. I’ve been told that the review time for a small patch like this can be up to 5 or 10 days, and I don’t know exactly how I know that the process is over and it’s good to commit.
The end result is that for a small change to a fairly simple MediaWiki extension, I spent about 2 hours coding, and about 4 or 5 hours (a full afternoon) going through the various hoops involved in submitting the change for review upstream.
I’m aware that this is a one-off cost – that now that I have a Bugzilla account, and a git and Gerrit account, it will be easier next time. Now that I have spent the time reading the MediaWiki coding conventions, git workflow, and have spent time understanding how to use Gerrit, I won’t have these issues again. The next patch will only take a few minutes to submit, and I won’t be wondering if I did something wrong if I don’t get a review in the first 10 minutes.
But along with some installation and firewall issues, I ended up spending slightly more than a full day on this. In hindsight, I’m saying to myself “was it really worth a full day of work to avoid maintaining this 20 line patch over time?”
I think it’s important that projects make newcomers jump through some hoops when joining your project – the tools you use and the community processes you follow are an important part of your culture. Sometimes, however, the initial investment that you have to put into the first-time use of a tool – the investment that regular contributors never see any more – is big.
If you’ve never used Bugzilla, git, Gerrit, or SSH, how long would it take you to submit a first patch to a project? How many hurdles does someone have to jump through to submit a patch for your project? Is there a way to ease people into it? I could imagine something like an email based process for newcomers, and only after they’ve made a few contributions, insist that all of the community’s preferred tools and processes be used. Or having true single sign-on, where you have only one account-creation process for all of your interactions with the project, so that you don’t end up creating a wiki account, a Bugzilla account, a Labs account and configuring a Gerrit account.
I want to make clear – I am not picking on MediaWiki here. I rate the project well above average in the speed and friendliness with which I was helped at every turn. But they, like every project, have adopted tools to make it easier for regular contributors, and to help ensure that no patches get dropped on the floor because of poor processes. Here’s the $64,000 question: are the tools and processes which make it easier for regular contributors making it harder for first-time contributors?
For those of you who have been keeping an eye out for me in A Coruna this week I’m sorry to be letting you down. Instead of Galicia, I will be in the Alps this weekend, finally running the race I have spent the last 4 months preparing for: the 6000D.
I have written a post about my final preparations, and a fundraising update (I’m running the race in aid of Muscular Dystrophy Ireland, a group near and dear to my heart) over at “Run for MDI”. It’s not too late to make a donation, if you’d like to. Thanks to the support of friends, family and colleagues, we have raised over €1600 so far!
I am sorry to be missing you all – but if anyone wants to follow along tomorrow and check on my progress, you can track me live during the race.
Fancy yourself as a smartypants who knows everything there is to know about everything? Could you name all the cities who have had two or more soccer teams win a European club tournament? Or name the artist and song that kept “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” off the number one spot in the UK in 1967? Can you name the flower found on the Hong Kong flag? Will you be in Lyon on July 11th?
I’m organising a table quiz next week, Wednesday 11 July, to raise funds for Muscular dystrophy Ireland in advance of running the 6000D in three weeks time (eek!). So far, mostly because of my injury, work and training commitments, fundraising has been slow – but with the race approaching we’re heading full steam ahead, and I’m once again asking for your support and donations.
For those of you who are not in Lyon next week, you are cordially invited to Johnny’s Kitchen, 48 rue Saint Georges, in Vieux Lyon, for a quiz in aid of this cause. There will be a raffle on the night, and the owner is donating €1 for any drinks sold to quiz attendees. Doors open at 8pm, and we’ll kick off the quiz around 8.30. Entry is €3 per person, and all proceed go directly to MDI.
For those of you who can’t be there next week, you can also donate online! We’ve collected almost €700 to date, and I’m hoping to reach €1500 by the time of the race.
Thanks everyone for your support!
This Summer, on July 28th, I’ll be running a 60km mountain trail race in La Plagne in the Alps, the 6000D. And to provide myself with an added incentive, and to give back something to an organisation that has helped my family in the past, I will be raising money for Muscular Dystrophy Ireland in the process.
I’ve got a blog (in both English and French) specifically for the event to cover my training and fundraising activities, and to give people more information about muscular dystrophy and MDI. I’ve posted a first blog post detailing how I got involved in this as well as some information on muscular dystrophy, MDI and the 600D race up there. I have set an ambitious funding goal of €3000 – and you can follow along and donate on mycharity.ie right now!
In the coming months, I hope that all my friends and family will help me raise money and donate to this great cause. I’ll periodically post updates here, but primarily I’ll be keeping people up to date on the Run for MDI blog and the 6000dForMdi twitter feed. Yu can also subscribe to a newsletter if you don’t want to visit the site regularly – I’ll send out occasional email updates with what’s been going on.
Please help spread the word, and consider donating to help this great cause!