Where do we go from here?

community, freesoftware, maemo, meego, work 14 Comments

The post-Elopocalypse angst has been getting me down over the past few days. It’s against my nature to spend a lot of time worrying about things that are decided, done, dusted. It was Democritus, I think, who said that only a fool worries about things over which he has no control, and I definitely identify with that. It seems that a significant number of people on mailing lists I’m subscribed to don’t share this character trait.

I prefer to roll with the punches, to ask, “where do we go from here?” – we have a new landscape, with Nokia potentially being a lot less involved in MeeGo over the coming months. Will they reduce their investment in 3rd party developers? Perhaps. I expect them to. Will they lay some people off? I bet that there will be a small layoff in MeeGo Devices, but I’d wager that there will be bigger cuts in external contracts. In any case, this is something over which I have no control.

First up – what next for MeeGo? While MeeGo is looking a lot less attractive for application developers now, I still think there’s a great value proposition for hardware vendors to get behind it in vertical markets. Intel seem committed, and MeeGo (even with Nokia reducing investment) is much broader than one company now. A lot of people are betting the bank on it being a viable platform. So I think it will be, and soon.

Will I continue contributing time & effort to MeeGo? My reasons for contributing to MeeGo were not dependent on Nokia’s involvement, so yes, but I will be carefully eyeing business opportunities as well. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t expect to get some business from a vibrant MeeGo ecosystem, and now I will need to explore other avenues. But the idea of collaborating on a core platform and building a set of free software form-factor specific UIs is still appealing. And I really do like the Maemo/MeeGo community a lot.

Luckily, the time to market difficulties that Nokia experienced are, in my opinion, issues of execution rather than inherent problems in working with free software. Companies have a clear choice between embracing proprietary-style development and treating upstream as “free code” (as Google have with Android), or embracing community-style development and working “The Open Source Way” (as Red Hat have learned to do). Nokia’s problems came from the hybrid approach of engage-but-keep-something-back, which prevented them from leveraging community developers as co-developers, while at the same time imposing all the costs of growing and supporting a large community.

I expect lots of companies to try to learn from this experience and start working smarter with communities – and since that’s where I can help them, I’m not too worried about the medium term.

I would bet on Nokia partners and subcontractors battening down the hatches right now until the dust settles, and potentially looking for revenue sources outside the MeeGo world. If I had a team of people working for me that’s what I’d do. If some Nokia work kept coming my way, I’d be glad of it, but right now I’d be planning a life without Nokia in the medium term.

For any companies who have followed Nokia from Symbian to MeeGo, my advice would be to stick to Linux, convert to an Android strategy, and start building some Windows Phone skills in case Nokia’s bet works out, but don’t bet the bank on it. And working effectively with community developed software projects is a key skill for the next decade that you should be developing (a small plug for my services there).

For anyone working on MeeGo within Nokia, the suspense over who might lose their jobs is worse than the fall, let me reassure you. Having been through a re-org or two in my time, I know that the wait can last weeks or months, and even when the cuts come, there’s always an itching suspicion of another one around the corner. Nothing is worse for morale in a team than wondering who will still be there next month. But you have learned valuable and sought-after skills working on MeeGo, and they are bankable on the market right now. If I were working on MeeGo inside Nokia right now, I think I’d ignore the possibility of a lay-off and get on with trying to make the MeeGo phone as great as possible. If I got laid off, I’d be happy to have a redundancy package worthy of Finland, and would be confident in my ability to find a job as a Linux developer very quickly.

For community members wondering whether to stick with MeeGo or jump ship, I’d ask, why were you hanging out around MeeGo in the first place? Has anything in the past week changed your motivations? If you wanted to have a shiny free-software-powered Nokia phone, you should have one by the end of the year. If you wanted to hack on any of the components that make up MeeGo, you can still do that. If you were hoping to make money off apps, that’s probably not going to happen with MeeGo on handsets any time soon. If you’re not convinced by the market potential of MeeGo apps on tablets, I’d jump ship to Android quick (in fact, why aren’t you there already?).

Qt users and developers are probably worried too. I don’t think that Qt is immediately threatened. The biggest danger for Qt at this point would be Intel & others deciding that Qt was a bad choice and moving to something else. That would be a massive strategic blunder – on a par with abandoning the GTK+ work which had been done before moblin 2 to move to Qt. Rewriting user interfaces is hard and I don’t think that Intel are ready to run the market risk of dropping Qt – which means that they’re pot-committed at this point. If Nokia ever did decide to drop Qt, Intel would probably be in the market to buy it. Then again, I can also see how Qt’s management might try to do an LMBO and bring the company private again. Either way, there will be a demand for Qt, and Qt developers, for some time to come.

No-one likes the guy giving unwanted advice to everyone, so this seems like a good place to stop. My instinct when something like this happens is to take a step back, see what’s inherently changed, and try to see what the landscape looks like from different perspectives. From my perspective, the future is definitely more challenging than it was a week ago, but it’s not like the Elopocalypse wiped out my livelihood. In fact, I have been thinking about life without Nokia since MeeGo was first announced last year, when I guessed that Nokia would prefer working through the Linux Foundation for an independent eye.

But even if Nokia were my only client, and they were going away tomorrow, I think I could probably find other clients, or get a job, quickly enough. It’s important to put these things in perspective.

Drawing up a roadmap

community, freesoftware, General, gimp, gnome, maemo, openwengo, work 6 Comments

One of the most important documents a project can have is some kind of elaboration of what the maintainers want to see happen in the future. This is the concrete expression of the project vision – it allows people to adhere to the vision, and gives them the opportunity to contribute to its realisation. This is the document I’ll be calling a roadmap.

Sometimes the word “roadmap” is used to talk about other things, like branching strategies and release schedules. To me, a release schedule and a roadmap are related, but different documents. Releasing is about ensuring users get to use what you make. The roadmap is your guiding light, the beacon at the end of the road that lets you know what you’re making, and why.

Too many projects fall into the trap of having occasional roadmap planning processes, and then posting a mighty document which stays, unchanged, until the next time the planning process gets done. Roadmaps like these end up being historical documents – a shining example of how aspirations get lost along the way of product development.

Other projects are under-ambitious. Either there is no roadmap at all, in which case the business as usual of making software takes over – developers are interrupt-driven, fixing bugs, taking care of user requests, and never taking a step back to look at the bigger picture. Or your roadmap is something you use to track tasks which are already underway, a list of the features which developers are working on right now. It’s like walking in a forest at night with a head-light – you are always looking at your feet avoiding tree-roots, yet you have no idea where you’re going.

When we drew up the roadmap for the GIMP for versions 2.0 and 2.2 in 2003, we committed some of these mistakes. By observing some projects like Inkscape (which has a history of excellent roadmapping) and learning from our mistakes, I came up with a different method which we applied to the WengoPhone from OpenWengo in 2006, and which served us well (until the project became QuteCom, at least). Here are some of the techniques I learned, which I hope will be useful to others.

Time or features?

One question with roadmaps is whether hitting a date for release should be included as an objective. Even though I’ve said that release plans and roadmaps are different documents, I think it is important to set realistic target dates on way-points. Having a calendar in front of you allows you to keep people focussed on the path, and avoid falling into the trap of implementing one small feature that isn’t part of your release criteria. Pure time-based releases, with no features associated, don’t quite work either. The end result is often quite tepid, a product of the release process rather than any design by a core team.

I like Joel’s scheduling technique: “If you have a bunch of wood blocks, and you can’t fit them into a box, you have two choices: get a bigger box, or remove some blocks.” That is, you can mix a time-based and feature-based schedule. You plan features, giving each one a priority. You start at the top and work your way down the list. At the feature freeze date, you run a project review. If a feature is finished, or will be finished (at a sufficient quality level) in time for release, it’s in. If it won’t realistically be finished in time for the release date, it’s bumped. That way, you stick to your schedule (mostly), and there is a motivation to start working on the biggest wood blocks (the most important features) first.

A recent article on lessons learned over years of Bugzilla development by Max Kanat-Alexander made an interesting suggestion which makes a lot of sense to me – at the point you decide to feature freeze and bump features, it may be better to create a release branch for stabilisation work, and allow the trunk to continue in active development. The potential cost of this is a duplication of work merging unfinished features and bug fixes into both branches, the advantage is it allows someone to continue working on a bumped feature while the team as a whole works towards the stable release.

Near term, mid term, long term

The Inkscape roadmap from 2005 is a thing of beauty. The roadmap mixes beautifully long-term goals with short-term planning. Each release has a by-line, a set of one or two things which are the main focus of the release. Some releases are purely focussed on quality. Others include important features. The whole thing feels planned. There is a vision.

But as you come closer and closer to the current work, the plans get broken down, itemised further. The BHAGs of a release in 2 years gets turned into a list of sub-features when it’s one year away, and each of those features gets broken down further as a developer starts planning and working on it.

The fractal geometer in me identifies this as a scaling phenomenon – coding software is like zooming in to a coastline and measuring its length. The value you get when measuring with a 1km long ruler is not the same as with a 1m ruler. And as you get closer and closer to writing code, you also need to break down bigger tasks into smaller tasks, and smaller tasks into object design, then coding the actual objects and methods. Giving your roadmap this sense of scope allows you to look up and see in the distance every now and again.

Keep it accurate

A roadmap is a living document. The best reason to go into no detail at all for  future releases beyond specifying a theme is that you have no idea yet how long things will take to do when you get there. If you load up the next version with features, you’re probably aiming for a long death-march in the project team.

The inaccurate roadmap is an object of ridicule, and a motivation killer. If it becomes clear that you’re not going to make a date, change the date (and all the other dates in consequence). That might also be a sign that the team has over-committed for the release, and an opportunity to bump some features.

Leave some empty seats

In community projects, new contributors often arrive who would like to work on features, but they don’t know where to start. There is an in-place core team who are claiming features for the next release left & right, and the new guy doesn’t know what to do. “Fix some bugs” or “do some documentation” are common answers for many projects including GNOME (with the gnome-love keyword in Bugzilla) and LibreOffice (with the easy hacks list). Indeed, these do allow you to get to know the project.

But, as has often been said, developers like to develop features, and sometimes it can be really hard what features are important to the core team. This is especially true with commercial software developers. The roadmap can help.

In any given release, you can include some high priority features – stuff that you would love to see happen – and explicitly marked as “Not taken by the core team”. It should be clear that patches of a sufficiently high standard implementing the feature would be gratefully accepted. This won’t automatically change a new developer into a coding ninja, nor will it prevent an ambitious hacker from biting off more than he can chew, but it will give experienced developers an easy way to prove themselves and earn their place in the core team, and it will also provide some great opportunities for mentoring programs like the Google Summer of Code.

The Subversion roadmap, recently updated by the core team, is another example of best practice in this area. In addition to a mixed features & time based release cycle, they maintain a roadmap which has key goals for a release, but also includes a separate list of high priority features.

The end result: Visibility

The end result of a good roadmap process is that your users know where they stand, more or less, at any given time. Your developers know where you want to take the project, and can see opportunities to contribute. Your core team knows what the release criteria for the next release are, and you have agreed together mid-term and long-term goals for the project that express your common vision. As maintainer, you have a powerful tool to explain your decisions and align your community around your ideas. A good roadmap is the fertile soil on which your developer community will grow.

Cross-Desktop devroom at FOSDEM

community, freesoftware 2 Comments

I’ll be giving a revised, updated version of my “Community anti-patterns” talk at FOSDEM this Saturday in the cross-desktop devroom, room H.1309, at 14h. While the talk definitely looks at some things that can be wrong in a community (or indeed any organisation), I also try to give some tips on how individuals can make a difference and help improve things when they observe these patterns developing.

I’m looking forward to attending this conference more than I have looked forward to any conference in a while! I hope to see a lot of you there.