Of humans and feelings

3:55 pm community, freesoftware

It was a Wednesday morning. I just connected to email, to realise that something was wrong with the developer web site. People had been having issues accessing content, and they were upset. What started with “what’s wrong with Trac?” quickly escalated to “this is just one more symptom of how The Company doesn’t care about us community members”.

As I investigated the problem, I realised something horrible. It was all my fault.

I had made a settings change in the Trac instance the night before – attempting to impose some reason and structure in ACLs that had grown organically over time – and had accidentally removed a group, containing a number of community members not working for The Company, from having the access they had.

Oh, crap.

After the panic and cold sweats died down, I felt myself getting angry. These were people who knew me, who I had worked alongside for months, and yet the first reaction for at least a few of them was not to assume this was an honest mistake. It was to go straight to conspiracy theory. This was conscious, deliberate, and nefarious. We may not understand why it was done, but it’s obviously bad, and reflects the disdain of The Company.

Had I not done enough to earn people’s trust?

So I fixed the problem, and walked away. “Don’t respond in anger”, I told myself. I got a cup of coffee, talked about it with someone else, and came back 5 minutes later.

“Look at it from their side”, I said – before I started working with The Company, there had been a strained relationship with the community. Yes, they knew Dave Neary wouldn’t screw them over, but they had no way of knowing that it was Dave Neary’s mistake. I stopped taking it personally. There is deep-seated mistrust, and that takes time to heal, I said to myself.

Yet, how to respond on the mailing list thread? “We apologise for the oversight, blah blah blah” would be interpreted as “of course they fixed it, after they were caught”. But did I really want to put myself out there and admit I had made what was a pretty rookie mistake? Wouldn’t that undermine my credibility?

In the end, I bit the bullet. “I did some long-overdue maintenance on our Trac ACLs yesterday, they’re much cleaner and easier to maintain now that we’ve moved to more clearly defined roles. Unfortunately, I did not test the changes well enough before pushing them live, and I temporarily removed access from all non-The Company employees. It’s fixed now. I messed up, and I am sorry. I will be more careful in the future.” All first person – no hiding behind the corporate identity, no “we stand together”, no sugar-coating.

What happened next surprised me. The most vocal critic in the thread responded immediately to apologise, and to thank me for the transparency and honesty. Within half an hour, a number of people were praising me and The Company for our handling of the incident. The air went out of the outrage balloon, and a potential disaster became a growth opportunity – yes, the people running the community infrastructure are human too, and there is no conspiracy. The Man was not out to get us.

I no longer work for The Company, and the team has scattered to the winds. But I never forgot those cold sweats, that feeling of vulnerability, and the elation that followed the community reaction to a heartfelt mea culpa.

Part of the OSS Communities series – difficult conversations. Contribute your stories and tag them on Twitter with #osscommunities to be included.

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