Effective mentoring programs

community, freesoftware, General, gimp, gnome 18 Comments

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.

Communication issues

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.

Project culture

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.

Small tasks

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.

Keep track

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.

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.

Novell acquired by Attachmate: What does it mean?

General 9 Comments

Novell will be bought by a North American group called Attachmate that appears to be made up of financiers buying assets as investments. As someone who has seen one acquisition of a company by financiers up-close, and an acquisition of legacy products, where they languished as cash cows, I feel partly qualified to guess what might happen to Novell post acquisition – although I am often wrong about these things, so take all this with a pinch of salt.

The first hint is that Novell is being split into two groups – traditional Novell activities (mostly identity, security, systems & resource management) and Linux business (Suse Linux – presumably including things like Mono, the desktop group, OBS, Suse Studio and other related interesting stuff). In summary, looking at last quarter’s results (PDF link), old stuff that still generates a lot of revenue but little growth, and new & growing business, which just recently became profitable.

If you are a Dark Hand type of guy, the financier who wants a return on investment and doesn’t really care about innovation or changing the world, then your goal is to buy assets, perhaps sell a subsidiary or two to recoup some of the costs of the deal, perhaps change the management team, and keep the profitable business for a 5 year horizon before selling it on to make a profit. Your anticiated ROI for this type of deal would need to be around 8% to 10% per year.

So you sell on some patents & copyrights that you’re not really interested in (presumably with a free license to use said patents for a period of time), you split your business up into the cash cow moneymaker (Old Novell) and the new, growing business that can sell at a high valuiation relative to its earnings (Suse Linux), and you line up a buyer for the speculative Linux business. With $450M for patents and perhaps $800m for the Linux business, you get old, profitable business with limited growth potential, but with regular earnings (~$600M for the last financial year, as far as I can tell, in legacy revenues, with an operating net margin of >10%) and $300M cash on hand (after subtracting liabilities & deferred revenues from cash on hand).

Let’s do the sums, then: let’s say, for arguments sake, that Suse ends up being worth $800m (not unreasonable given annual revenues in the $300m range, with great growth prospects). This represents probably a 3x valuation of (Suse + Ximian), given that Suse was bought in 2003 for $210m – certainly not unreasonable given the growth of Suse and Linux since then, this might even be on the low side. Add in the $450m for patents, and $300m cash assets that they’re getting as part of the deal.

That means Attachmate will be getting all of Novell’s legacy business for $650m, around one year’s revenue. With an annual return of >10% per year on revenues. Presumably, there will be some cost cutting to increase that margin further, and some growth will be expected, so I’m sure that Attachmate are confident that they will find a buyer for Novell after a few years for around the same price, giving them that 50% return in around 4 or 5 years.

I’m sure that some people here more familiar with the financial markets, SEC filings and annual reports, and generally “the way things work” will point out the half-dozen flaws in my thinking here, but this is what I expect to happen – a lot of people in non-core areas will be laid off in an effort to reduce costs and “streamline” the company (ie. make it a more attractive acquisition target), Suse will be sold on, and Novell will be kept as a cash cow.

To all the friends I have working with Novell, I wish you well. Acquisitions are uncertain times, and morale sapping at the best of times. The dust will settle soon.

GNOME Census

General 71 Comments

(Reposted from Neary Consulting)

Today at GUADEC I presented the results (Slides are now on slideshare) of the GNOME Census, a project we have been working on for a while. For as long as I have been involved in GNOME, press, analysts, potential partners and advisory board members have been asking us: How big is GNOME? How many paid developers are there? Who writes all this software, and why?

By looking at the modules in the GNOME 2.30 release, made last March, we aim to answer many of those questions, and give deeper insight into the motivations of participants in the project.

The GNOME heartbeat - pre-release peaks and GUADEC boosts

Here are our key findings:

  • GNOME has a rhythm – there is a measurable increase in activity before release time, and after the annual GNOME conference GUADEC
  • While over 70% of GNOME developers identify themselves as volunteers, over 70% of the commits to the GNOME releases are made by paid contributors70% of GNOME participants are volunteers
  • Red Hat are the biggest contributor to the GNOME project and its core dependencies. Red Hat employees have made almost 17% of all commits we measured, and 11 of the top 20 GNOME committers of all time are current or past Red Hat employees. Novell and Collabora are also on the podium.
  • A number of top company contributors are consultancy/services companies specialising in the GNOME platform – Collabora, CodeThink, Openismus, Lanedo and Fluendo are in the top 20 companies. As many of these companies grew initially through work on Maemo, this is a sign of the success of Nokia’s strategy around the GNOME stack.

Company Commits Percentage
Volunteer 101823 23.45
Unknown 73558 16.94
Red Hat 70790 16.30
Novell 45349 10.44
Collabora 21684 4.99
Intel 11160 2.57
Fluendo 10218 2.35
Lanedo 10090 2.32
Independent 8922 2.05
Sun 8862 2.04
Nokia 6183 1.42
Openismus 5303 1.22
Codethink 5276 1.21
Eazel 4734 1.09
Litl 4620 1.06
Canonical 4487 1.03
Movial 2988 0.69
Mandriva 2504 0.58
The Family International 2130 0.49
Entropy Wave 2056 0.47
(Academia) 1894 0.44
Mozilla Corporation 1040 0.24

One of the interesting things that we have done for the census is to look at who is maintaining modules by looking at commits over the past two years, and use this data to identify areas of the platform which see lots of collaboration, areas where the maintenance burden is left to volunteers, and areas where individual companies assume most of the maintenance burden.

There are a number of modules in the platform which see a considerable amount of co-opetition, including Evolution, Evolution Data Server, DBus and GStreamer. Most modules in the platform, however, are either maintained to a large extent by volunteer developers, or see the vast majority of their contributions from one company.

I see this information being useful for companies interested in using the GNOME platform for their products, companies seeking custom application development, potential large-scale customers of desktop Linux or customers buying high-level support who want to know who employs more module maintainers or committers to the project.

GNOME platform maintenance map
The GNOME maintenance map, with modules coloured according to the company maintaining them

Update: Two significant omissions in the maintenance map were pointed out to me. After correctly associating a number of commiters to a company, Lanedo is responsible for 16.5% of the commits in GTK+ over the past two years, and volunteers are also responsible for at least 17%. Red Hat are still the largest contributor, with 32% of all commits to the module. libsoup is maintained by Dan Winship, who left Novell to join Red Hat in 2007, where he developed and maintains the module.

Update 2: As I announced in this post, the report is now available as a free download via neary-consulting.com licensed as Creative Commons by-sa 3.0

Rotten to the (Open) Core?

freesoftware, General 18 Comments

Open core, Open core,  more Open core… the debate goes on and on, with Monty the latest to weigh in.

When you get down to it this is a fight over branding – which is why the issue is so important to the OSI folks (who are all about the brand). I don’t actually care that much how SugarCRM, Jahia, Alfresco et al make the software they sell to their customers. As a customer I’m asking a whole different set of questions to “is this product open source?” I want to know how good the service and support is, how good the product is, and above all, does it solve the problem I have at a price point I’m comfortable with. The license doesn’t enter into consideration.

So if that’s the case (and I believe it is), why the fighting? Because of the Open Source brand, and all the warm-and-fuzzies that procures. “Open solutions” are the flavour of the decade, and as a small ISV building a global brand, being known as Open Source is a positive marketing attribute. The only problem is that the warm-and-fuzzies implied by Open source – freedom to change supplier or improve the software, freedom to try the software before purchasing, the existence of a diverse community of people with knowledge, skills and willingness to help a user in difficulty – don’s exist in the Open Core world. The problem is that for the most part, the Open Core which you can obtain under the OSI-approved license is not that useful.

Yesterday on Twitter, I said “Open Core is annoying because the “open core” bit is pretty much useless. It doesn’t do exactly what it says on the tin.”

Now, I wasn’t expecting this to be particularly controversial, but I got some push-back on this. Dan Fabulich replied “Ridiculous. Like the free version of MySQL is useless?” Which leads me to think of Inigo Montoya on the top of the Cliffs on MoherInsanity turning to Vizzini and saying “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

With all this talk of Open Core, clearly some confusion has crept in. Perhaps it’s on my part. So allow me to elaborate what I understand by “Open Core”.

First, companies can’t be Open Core. Products are Open Core. So whereas Monty considers that from 2006 on, MySQL was not an “Open Source company”, I would contend that MySQL Server has always been, and continues to be, Free Software, and an Open Source product. That is, not Open Core.

Open Core for me means you provide a free software product, improve it, and don’t release the improvements under the free software licence. In my mind, Mac OS X is not “Open Core” just because it’s based on the NetBSD kernel, it is proprietary software.

Perhaps it would be useful to give some examples of what is Open Core:

  • Jahia is Open Core – significant features and stabilisation work are present in the Enterprise Edition are not available at all in the Community Edition
  • SugarCRM is obviously Open Core. Key features related to reporting, workflow, administration and more are only present in the commercial editions
  • JasperSoft BI Suite is Open Core. Lots of useful features are only available to people buying the product.

The key here is that support contracts and extra features are only available if you also pay licensing fees. To take the oft-cited example of InnoDB hot back-up tool for MySQL, you can purchase this and use it with the GPL licensed MySQL Server.

This is why I say that Open Core products “don’t do exactly what it says on the tin” – the features you see advertised on the project’s website are not available to you along with software freedom.

I have talked to companies who deliberately avoid adding “spit & polish” to the community edition to encourage people to trade up for things like better documentation, attractive templates and easy installation – and don’t provide an easy way for the community edition users to share their own work. Other products have an open source engine that doesn’t do much except sit there, and all useful functionality is available as paid modules. Yes, a persistent, skilled, patient developer can take the Open Source version of the product and make it do something useful. For the most part, however, if you want to actually use the software without becoming an expert in its internals, you’ll need some of the commercial upgrades.

There is another name for this which is even more pejorative, Crippleware. Deliberately hobbled software. And that’s what I think gets people riled up – if you’re releasing something as free software, then there should at least be the pretence that you are giving the community the opportunity to fend for itself – even if that is by providing an “unofficial” git tree where the community can code up GPL features competing with your commercial offering, or a nice forum for people to share templates, themes and extensions and fend for themselves. But what gets people riled is hearing a company call themselves “an Open Source company” when most of the users of their “open source” product do not have software freedom. It’s disingenuous, and it is indeed brand dilution.

That said, let me repeat – I have no problem with companies doing this. I have no problem with them advertising their GPL-licensed stuff as Open Source. I would just like to see more of these companies providing a little bit of independence and autonomy to their user community. But then, that’s potentially not in their long-term interest – even if it is difficult to imagine a situation where the community-maintained version outstrips the “Enterprise” edition in features and stability.

Heathers

General 2 Comments

No, not the film.

While I’ve been back in Ireland it’s been impossible to avoid “Discover Ireland” promoting the country as a tourist destination for locals, with ads backed by an infectiously catchy tune.

I’d never heard the group before, so I went hunting and found Heathers, an Irish duet of teenage girls who seem just a little shy, but when they start singing they belt it out. Very simple – guitar + +2 female voices, with an atypical sound and a heavy Irish accent. They’re pretty great. The joys of the interweb and youth who thinks differently about copyright – there is *lots* of live material from these girls on youtube. They’ve already been touring the US and I suspect that they will make a name for themselves. Well worth discovering.

Sabotage and free software

community, freesoftware, General, humour, maemo 4 Comments

Who knew that educating people in simple sabotage (defined as sabotage not requiring in-depth training or materials) could have so much in common with communicating free software values? I read the OSS Simple Sabotage Field Manual (pdf) which has been doing the rounds of management and security blogs recently, and one article on “motivating saboteurs” caught my eye enough to share:

Personal Motives

  • The ordinary citizen very probably has no immediate personal motive for committing simple sabotage. Instead, he must be made to anticipate indirect personal gain, such as might come with enemy evacuation or destruction of the ruling gov­ernment group. Gains should be stated as specifically as possible for the area addressed: simple sabotage will hasten the day when Commissioner X and his deputies Y and Z will be thrown out, when particu­larly obnoxious decrees and restrictions will be abolished, when food will arrive, and so on. Abstract verbalizations about personal liberty, freedom of the press, and so on, will not be convincing in most parts of the world. In many areas they will not even be comprehensible.
  • Since the effect of his own acts is limited, the saboteur may become discouraged unless he feels that he is a member of a large, though unseen, group of saboteurs operating against the enemy or the government of his own country and elsewhere. This can be conveyed indirectly: suggestions which he reads and hears can include observations that a particular technique has been successful in this or that district. Even if the technique is not applicable to his surroundings, another’s success will encourage him to attempt similar acts. It also can be conveyed directly: statements praising the effectiveness of simple sabotage can be contrived which will be pub­lished by white radio, freedom stations, and the sub­versive press. Estimates of the proportion of the population engaged in sabotage can be disseminated. Instances of successful sabotage already are being broadcast by white radio and freedom stations, and this should be continued and expanded where com­patible with security.
  • More important than (a) or (b) would be to create a situation in which the citizen-saboteur acquires a sense of responsibility and begins to educate others in simple sabotage.

Now doesn’t that sound familiar? Trying to convince people that free software is good for them because of the freedom doesn’t work directly – you need to tie the values of that freedom to something which is useful to them on a personal level.

“You get security fixes better because people can read the code”, “You have a wide range of support options for Linux because it’s free software and anyone can understand it”, “Sun may have been bought by Oracle, but you can continue to use the same products because anyone can modify the code, so others have taken up the maintenance, support and development burden”, and so on.

Providing (custom tailored) concrete benefits, which comes from freedom is the way to motivate people to value that freedom.

In addition, the point on motivation struck a cord – you need to make people feel like they belong, that their work means something, that they’re not alone and their effort counts, or they will become discouraged. A major job in any project is to make everyone feel like they’re driving towards a goal they have personally bought into.

Finally, you will only have succeeded when you have sufficiently empowered a saboteur to the point where they become an advocate themselves, and start training others in the fine arts – and this is a major challenge for free software projects too, where we often see people with willingness to do stuff, and have some difficulty getting them to the point where they have assimilated the project culture and are recruiting and empowering new contributors.

For those who haven’t read it yet, the document is well worth a look, especially the section on “General Interference with Organisations and Production”, which reads like a litany of common anti-patterns present in most large organisations; and if you never knew how to start a fire in a warehouse using a slow fuse made out of rope and grease, here’s your chance to find out.

Last chance for early bird rate for GNOME training

General Comments Off on Last chance for early bird rate for GNOME training

Registration for the GNOME Developer Training courses at GUADEC is still open on the GUADEC registration site – and the early bird rate of €1200 is available for all orders received until next Tuesday June 15th. So if you’ve been hesitating or delaying signing up, the time is now!

As a reminder of what’s included in the package, you will get lunch and refreshments both days of the training course, a full professional registration to GUADEC worth €250, and printed materials related to the course to take home with you and spread the knowledge, and two full days of intense Lunix development training with a focus on GNOME. There are four half-day modules, covering Linux development, testing and debugging tools, the social side of contributing to free software projects, an overview of the GNOME and freedesktop.org platform and a hands-on workshop where you get to put what you learn into practice.

this will be a great opportunity to give a boost to your entire team by learning developer tips & tricks on being a productive Linux developer, learning tools and tips to improve performance and memory usage of your applications, and how to get your code upstream more efficiently & reduce maintenance costs.

Registration is open, and we still have a few places left!

Maemo Community Council voting open

community, General, maemo 7 Comments

The voting tokens have just been sent out for the Q1 2010 Maemo Community Council elections.

I already have over 100 bounced emails, so if you think that you should have a vote and you have not received an email with a voting token yet, please send me an email or leave a comment, I will look up your Maemo username and send you on the voting token/email combo we have on record so that you can vote.

Voting runs until March 30th – you can find more information about the election and the council in the Maemo wiki.

Christmas wish: Distro hardware buyer’s guide

freesoftware, General 23 Comments

As a long time free software user, every time I buy hardware I have the same decision paralysis. Will the graphics card be fully supported? Are the drivers stable? Will the on-board wifi, sound card, and the built-in webcam Just Work? Will they work if I spend hours hunting down drivers and installing kernel modules (and remembering to reinstall them every time my distro upgrades the kernel)? Or will they stay broken for at least 6 months, until the next version of the OS is released?

I’ve gone through this dance many times in the past – with an Intel 915 graphics chip, and an Nvidia chip before that, with multiple webcams, USB headsets, a scanner, a graphics tablet, digital cameras and sound chips.

Thankfully, problems with digital cameras and sound chips seems to be more or less a thing of the past, except for those USB headsets, but there are still issues with webcams, scanners,tablets and wifi chips. And I keep hearing that support for graphics chips sucks for both ATI and Nvidia, making me wary of both (and thus about 80% of computers on the market).

So when I go shopping for hardware, it sucks to be me. I haven’t tested all this stuff, and I don’t know how much of it works perfectly out of the box. What I need is to decide what software I’m going to put on it, and have hardware recommendations per price point from the software distributor, so that I can just go to my local Surcouf, FNAC or whatever, and just look at one label & say “That’s only 90% supported, no custom from me!”

Does one exist already? I really liked the Samsung NC20 page I found on the Ubuntu wiki, but I would have preferred to see it before buying. The laptop testing team page on Ubuntu is along the lines of what I want, but it doesn’t take a position on any of the hardware, which is what I need. I want Canonical to say “buy this one, it’s great” or “don’t buy that one, unless you’re prepared to spend 2 days messing with drivers”. I know this might piss off some partners, but it’d be really helpful to me. And isn’t that more important?

What I’d like to see is laptops ordered by level of support out-of-box & after fiddling, on the latest version of Ubuntu. So the NC20, for example, would get a 60% “Out of the box” rating (because the video card just doesn’t work at all), and a 90% “after fiddling” rating (because of the CPU frequency issue, lack of support for 3d in graphics driver, and graphics driver instability).

Anyone able to point me to a Linux hardware buyer’s guide that dates from 2009 that gives what I’m looking for?

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