Funding Non-Programming Activities

Programming is only part of the work that goes on in an open source project. From the point of view of the project's participants, it's the most visible and glamorous part. This unfortunately means that other activities, such as documentation, formal testing, etc., can sometimes be neglected, at least compared to the amount of attention they often receive in proprietary software. Organizations are are sometimes in the best position to make up this gap, by devoting some of their own development resources to open source projects.

The key to doing this successfully is to translate between the company's internal processes and those of the public development community. Such translation is not effortless: often the two are not a close match, and the differences can only be bridged via human intervention. For example, the company may use a different bug tracker than the public project. Even if they use the same tracking software, the data stored in it will be very different, because the bug-tracking needs of a company are very different from those of a free software community. A piece of information that starts in one tracker may need to be reflected in the other, with confidential portions removed or, in the other direction, added.

The sections that follow are about how to build and maintain such bridges. The end result should be that the open source project runs more smoothly, the community recognizes the company's investment of resources, and yet does not feel that the company is inappropriately steering things toward its own goals.

Quality Assurance (i.e., Professional Testing)

In proprietary software development, it is normal to have teams of people dedicated solely to quality assurance: bug hunting, performance and scalability testing, interface and documentation checking, etc. As a rule, these activities are not pursued as vigorously by the development community on a free software project. This is partly because it's hard to get highly-motivated labor for unglamorous work like testing (committers have their names inscribed for all time in the history of the project, but there are fewer mechanisms for remembering the tester who found the bug a committer fixed), partly because people tend to assume that having a large user community gives the project good testing coverage, and, in the case of performance and scalability testing, partly because not all developers have access to the requisite hardware resources anyway.

The assumption that having many users is equivalent to having many testers is not entirely baseless. Certainly there's little point assigning testers for basic functionality in common environments: bugs there will quickly be found by early-adopter users in the natural course of things. But because users are just trying to get work done, they do not consciously set out to explore uncharted edge cases in the program's functionality, and are likely to leave certain classes of bugs unfound. Furthermore, when they discover a bug with an easy workaround, they often silently implement the workaround without bothering to report the bug. Most insidiously, the usage patterns of your customers (the people who drive your interest in the software) may differ in statistically significant ways from the usage patterns of the Average User In The Street.

A professional testing team can uncover these sorts of bugs, and can do so as easily with free software as with proprietary software. The challenge is to convey the testing team's results back to the public in a useful form. In-house testing departments usually have their own way of reporting test results to their own developers, involving company-specific jargon, or specialized knowledge about particular customers and their data sets. Such reports would be inappropriate for the public bug tracker, both because of their form and because of confidentiality concerns. Even if your company's internal bug tracking software were the same as that used by the public project, management might need to make company-specific comments and metadata changes to the tickets (for example, to raise an ticket's internal priority, or schedule its resolution for a particular customer). Usually such notes are confidential — sometimes they're not even shown to the customer. But even when they're not confidential, they're not very helpful to the public project.

Yet the core bug report itself is important to the public. In fact, a bug report from your testing department is in some ways more valuable than one received from users at large, since the testing department probes for things that other users won't. Given that you're unlikely to get that particular bug report from any other source, you definitely want to preserve it and make it available to the public project.

To do this, either the QA department can file tickets directly in the public ticket tracker, if they're comfortable with that, or an intermediary (usually one of the developers) can "translate" the testing department's internal reports into new tickets in the public tracker. Translation simply means describing the bug in a way that makes no reference to customer-specific information (the reproduction recipe may use customer data, assuming the customer approves it, of course).

It is definitely preferable to have the QA department filing tickets in the public tracker directly. That gives the public a more direct appreciation of your company's involvement with the project: useful bug reports add to your organization's credibility just as any technical contribution would. It also gives developers a direct line of communication to the testing team. For example, if the internal QA team is monitoring the public ticket tracker, a developer can commit a fix for a scalability bug (which the developer may not have the resources to test herself), and then add a note to the ticket asking the QA team to see if the fix had the desired effect. Expect a bit of resistance from some of the developers; programmers have a tendency to regard QA as, at best, a necessary evil. The QA team can easily overcome this by finding significant bugs and filing comprehensible reports; on the other hand, if their reports are not at least as good as those coming from the regular user community, then there's no point having them interact directly with the development team.

Either way, once a public ticket exists, the original internal ticket should simply reference the public ticket for technical content. Management and paid developers may continue to annotate the internal ticket with company-specific comments as necessary, but use the public ticket for information that should be available to everyone.

You should go into this process expecting extra overhead. Maintaining two tickets for one bug is, naturally, more work than maintaining one ticket. The benefit is that many more coders will see the report and be able to contribute to a solution.

Legal Advice and Protection

Corporations, for-profit or nonprofit, are almost the only entities that ever pay attention to complex legal issues in free software. Individual developers often understand the nuances of various open source licenses, but they generally do not have the time or resources to competently handle legal issues themselves. If your company has a legal department, it can help a project by assisting with trademark issues, copyright license ownership and compatibility questions, defense against patent trolls, etc. If the project decides to organize formally, or to join an existing umbrella organization (as described in the section called “Joining or Creating a Non-Profit Organization”), your legal department can help with issues of corporate law, asset transfer, reviewing agreements, and other due diligence matters.

Some more concrete ideas of what sorts of legal help might be useful are discussed in Chapter 9, Legal Matters: Licenses, Copyrights, Trademarks and Patents. The main thing is to make sure that communications between the legal department and the development community, if they happen at all, happen with a mutual appreciation of the very different universes the parties are coming from. On occasion, these two groups talk past each other, each side assuming domain-specific knowledge that the other does not have. A good strategy is to have a liaison (usually a developer, or else a lawyer with technical expertise) stand in the middle and translate for as long as needed.

Documentation and Usability

Documentation and usability are both famous weak spots in open source projects, although I think, at least in the case of documentation, that the difference between free and proprietary software is frequently exaggerated. Nevertheless, it is empirically true that much open source software lacks first-class documentation and usability research.

If your organization wants to help fill these gaps for a project, probably the best thing it can do is hire people who are not regular developers on the project, but who will be able to interact productively with the developers. Not hiring regular developers is good for two reasons: one, that way you don't take development time away from the project; two, those closest to the software are usually the wrong people to write documentation or investigate usability anyway, because they have trouble seeing the software from an outsider's point of view.

However, it will still be necessary for whoever works on these problems to communicate with the developers. Find people who are technical enough to talk to the coding team, but not so expert in the software that they can't empathize with regular users anymore.

A medium-level user is probably the right person to write good documentation. In fact, after the first edition of this book was published, I received the following email from an open source developer named Dirk Reiners:

One comment on Money::Documentation and Usability: when we had some money to spend and decided that a beginner's tutorial was the most critical piece that we needed we hired a medium-level user to write it. He had gone through the induction to the system recently enough to remember the problems, but he had gotten past them so he knew how to describe them. That allowed him to write something that needed only minor fixes by the core developers for the things that he hadn't gotten right, but still covering the 'obvious' stuff devs would have missed.

Funding User Experience (UX) Work

The field of user experience (UX) design has lately (as of this writing in early 2014) begun to acquire a new seriousness of purpose and consistency of professional standards. Naturally, one thing many companies think of when they want to help improve an open source project is to fund UX work, since that's just the sort of thing that projects often overlook or, in some cases, don't even know they need.

As with many other types of engagement, do not assume that a UX expert can be parachuted into the project. User experience design is not a checkbox. It is an attitude taken by a team throughout development, and one of the primary qualifications to look for in UX contractors is their ability to gain long-term credibility with the developers, and to help developers pay attention to user experience goals. For example, in addition to their innate domain knowledge, UX designers often know how to set up and incorporate feedback from user trials — but those trials will only be effective if the results are presented to the development team in a way that makes it easy for the developers to take the results seriously. This can only happen through a sustained, two-way interaction, in which UX experts are subscribed to the appropriate project forums and take the attitude that they are a kind of specialized developer on the project, rather than an outside expert providing advice. Use UX experts who have worked with open source projects before, if possible.

Providing Hosting/Bandwidth

The inexorable rise of zero-cost canned hosting sites (see the section called “Canned Hosting”) for open source projects has meant that it is increasingly unnecessary for projects to get corporate support for basic project-hosting infrastructure. It still happens sometimes, usually in cases where the company itself started the project, and is trying to create or keep an association in the public's mind between the project and the company. The most common technique for creating this association is for the company to host the project's resources under the company's domain name, thus getting association through the project's URLs.

While this will cause most users to think of the software as having something to do with your company, it can also cause a problem: developers are aware of this associative tendency too, and may not be very comfortable with having the project hosted under your domain unless you're seriously contributing to the project — not just bandwidth and server space, but significant amounts of development time. After all, there are a lot of free places to host these days. The community may eventually feel that the implied misallocation of credit is not worth the minor convenience brought by donated hosting, and may even attempt to take the project elsewhere. So if you want to provide hosting, do so — but if you are actually trying to create a public association between your company and the project, make sure that the level of support you provide is matched to the amount of credit you claim, whether you claim it via URL, banner ads, or some other means.

Providing Build Farms and Development Servers

Many projects have infrastructure needs beyond just hosting of code, bug tracker, etc. For example, projects often use continuous integration (CI) testing, a.k.a. build farms, to automatically ensure that the changes developers are committing both integrate into the mainline trunk and pass all automated tests.[57] (See the section called “Automated testing” for more details on this.)

Depending on the size and complexity of the codebase, the number of developers checking in changes, and other factors, running a responsive build farm can cost more money than any individual developer has at their disposal. A good way to help, and gain some goodwill in the process, is to donate the server space and bandwidth and the technical expertise to set up the continuous integration and automated testing. If you don't have the technical expertise available on staff, you could hire someone from the project to do it, or at the very least give some of the project's developers administrative access to the CI servers so they can set things up themselves.

Running Security Audits

If your company has a good internal security department, or can afford to hire specialists, providing in-depth security review on an open source project's code base can do the project a tremendous amount of good. Any feedback from a security audit should be provided back to the project using the precautions described in the section called “Receive the Report”. However, it is fine to be public about the fact that you are conducting the audit; there is no reason your organization should not get credit for a substantial contribution like that.

Sponsoring Conferences, Hackathons, and other Developer Meetings

A very effective use of funds is to sponsor in-person contact between developers who might not otherwise meet. The usefulness of in-person meetings — e.g., conferences, hackathons, smaller informal meetups, etc — is mainly discussed in the section called “Meeting In Person (Conferences, Hackfests, Code-a-Thons, Code Sprints, Retreats)”. Here I will simply mention that encouraging such encounters is a very good use of money in an open source project. From a corporate sponsorship point of view, nothing creates good will like a plane ticket and a hotel room. From a personnel management point of view, it is healthy for your own developers to have in-person contact with their peers in the open source projects they work on, and when those peers work at at other companies, project-centric meetups are the perfect neutral ground for such meetings.

Sending your developers to conferences is also a good way to signal commitment to a project. When others meet your developers at a conference the first time, it is a signal that your company has a real investment in the project. But when your developers show up again at the same conference the next year, still working on the same project, that's a very powerful signal that your organizational commitment to the project is long-term and strategic. This gives your developers an advantage in influencing the direction of the project, because they are seen as people who will be around for the long term, and it of course gives your company a recruiting advantage when you are looking for new developers to work on the same project.

Even when you don't have people traveling to a meetup, you can still sponsor some of the meetup's expenses. Everyone remembers fondly the company that sponsors the pizza, or lunch, or drinks or dinner for one night of the meetup.

[57] The Wikipedia page has a good description of this practice and its variants.