Chapter 8. Managing Volunteers

Table of Contents

Getting the Most Out of Volunteers
Delegation
Distinguish clearly between inquiry and assignment
Follow up after you delegate
Notice what people are interested in
Praise and Criticism
Prevent Territoriality
The Automation Ratio
Automated testing
Treat Every User as a Potential Volunteer
Meeting In Person (Conferences, Hackfests, Code-a-Thons, Code Sprints, Retreats)
Share Management Tasks as Well as Technical Tasks
"Manager" Does Not Mean "Owner"
Patch Manager
Translation Manager
Documentation Manager
Issue Manager
Transitions
Committers
Choosing Committers
Revoking Commit Access
Partial Commit Access
Dormant Committers
Avoid Mystery
Credit
Forks
Handling a Fork
Initiating a Fork

Getting people to agree on what a project needs, and to work together to achieve it, requires more than just a genial atmosphere and a lack of obvious dysfunction. It requires someone, or several someones, consciously managing all the people involved. Managing volunteers may not be a technical craft in the same sense as computer programming, but it is a craft in the sense that it can be improved through study and practice.

This chapter is a grab-bag of specific techniques for managing volunteers. It draws, perhaps more heavily than previous chapters, on the Subversion project as a case study, partly because I was working on that project as I wrote the first edition of this book and had all the primary sources close at hand, and partly because it's more acceptable to cast critical stones into one's own glass house than into others'. But I have also seen in various other projects the benefits of applying—and the consequences of not applying—the recommendations that follow; when it is politically feasible to give examples from some of those other projects, I will do so.

Speaking of politics, this is as good a time as any to drag that much-maligned word out for a closer look. Many engineers like to think of politics as something other people engage in. "I'm just advocating the best course for the project, but he's raising objections for political reasons." I believe this distaste for politics (or for what is imagined to be politics) is especially strong in engineers because engineers are bought into the idea that some solutions are objectively superior to others. Thus, when someone acts in a way that seems motivated by outside considerations—say, the maintenance of his own position of influence, the lessening of someone else's influence, outright horse-trading, or avoiding hurting someone's feelings—other participants in the project may get annoyed. Of course, this rarely prevents them from behaving in the same way when their own vital interests are at stake.

If you consider "politics" a dirty word, and hope to keep your project free of it, give up right now. Politics are inevitable whenever people have to cooperatively manage a shared resource. In the case of an open source project, even though the code itself is not a shared resource (since it can be copied by anyone), attention, credibility, and influence in the project are very much shared resources: they are by definition not copyable, not forkable.

Thus it is quite reasonable that one of the considerations going into each person's decision-making process is the question of how a given action might affect his own future influence in the project. After all, if you trust your own judgement and skills, as most programmers do, then the potential loss of future influence has to be considered a technical result, in a sense. Similar reasoning applies to other behaviors that might seem, on their face, like "pure" politics. In fact, there is no such thing as pure politics: it is precisely because actions have multiple real-world consequences that people become politically conscious in the first place. Politics is, in the end, simply an acknowledgment that all consequences of decisions must be taken into account. If a particular decision leads to a result that most participants find technically satisfying, but involves a change in power relationships that leaves key people feeling isolated, the latter is just as important a result as the former. To ignore it would not be high-minded, but shortsighted.

So as you read the advice that follows, and as you work with your own project, remember that there is no one who is above politics. Appearing to be above politics is merely one particular political strategy, and sometimes a very useful one, but it is never the reality. Politics is simply what happens when people disagree on the use or allocation of a shared asset, and successful projects are those that evolve political mechanisms for managing such disagreement constructively.

Getting the Most Out of Volunteers

Why do volunteers work on free software projects?[55]

When asked, many claim they do it because they want to produce good software, or want to be personally involved in fixing the bugs that matter to them. But these reasons are usually not the whole story. After all, could you imagine a volunteer staying with a project even if no one ever said a word in appreciation of her work, or listened to her in discussions? Of course not. Clearly, people spend time on free software for reasons beyond just an abstract desire to produce good code. Understanding volunteers' true motivations will help you arrange things so as to attract and keep them. The desire to produce good software may be among those motivations, along with the challenge and educational value of working on hard problems. But humans also have a built-in desire to work with other humans, and to give and earn respect through cooperative activities. Groups engaged in cooperative activities must evolve norms of behavior such that status is acquired and kept through actions that help the group's goals.

Those norms won't always arise by themselves. For example, on some projects—experienced open source developers can probably name several off the tops of their heads—people apparently feel that status is acquired by posting frequently and verbosely. They don't come to this conclusion accidentally; they come to it because they are rewarded with respect for making long, intricate arguments, whether or not that actually helps the project. Following are some techniques for creating an atmosphere in which status-acquiring actions are also constructive actions.

Delegation

Delegation is not merely a way to spread the workload around; it is also a political and social tool. Consider all the effects when you ask someone to do something. The most obvious effect is that, if he accepts, he does the task and you don't. But another effect is that he is made aware that you trusted him to handle the task. Furthermore, if you made the request in a public forum, then he knows that others in the group have been made aware of that trust too. He may also feel some pressure to accept, which means you must ask in a way that allows him to decline gracefully if he doesn't really want the job. If the task requires coordination with others in the project, you are effectively proposing that he become more involved, form bonds that might not otherwise have been formed, and perhaps become a source of authority in some subdomain of the project. The added involvement may be daunting, or it may lead him to become engaged in other ways as well, from an increased feeling of overall commitment.

Because of all these effects, it often makes sense to ask someone else to do something even when you know you could do it faster or better yourself. Of course, there is sometimes a strict economic efficiency argument for this anyway: perhaps the opportunity cost of doing it yourself would be too high—there might be something even more important you could do with that time. But even when that kind of comparative advantage argument doesn't apply, you may still want to ask someone else to take on the task, because in the long run you want to draw that person deeper into the project, even if it means spending extra time watching over them at first. The converse technique also applies: if you occasionally volunteer for work that someone else doesn't want or have time to do, you will gain her good will and respect. Delegation and substitution are not just about getting individual tasks done; they're also about drawing people into a closer committment to the project.

Distinguish clearly between inquiry and assignment

Sometimes it is fair to expect that a person will accept a particular task. For example, if someone writes a bug into the code, or commits code that fails to comply with project guidelines in some obvious way, then it is enough to point out the problem and thereafter behave as though you assume the person will take care of it. Also, if they have stated publicly that they will do something, it is reasonable to depend on that. But there are other situations where it is by no means clear that you have a right to expect action. The person may do as you ask, or may not. Since no one likes to be taken for granted, you need to be sensitive to the difference between these two types of situations, and tailor your requests accordingly.

One thing that almost always causes people instant annoyance is being asked to do something in a way that implies that you think it is clearly their responsibility to do it, when they feel otherwise. For example, assignment of incoming tickets is particularly fertile ground for this kind of annoyance. The participants in a project usually know who is expert in what areas, so when a bug report comes in, there will often be one or two people whom everyone knows could probably fix it quickly. However, if you assign the ticket over to one of those people without her prior permission, she may feel she has been put into an uncomfortable position. She senses the pressure of expectation, but also may feel that she is, in effect, being punished for her expertise. After all, the way one acquires expertise is by fixing bugs, so perhaps someone else should take this one! (Note that ticket trackers that automatically assign tickets to particular people based on information in the bug report are less likely to offend, because everyone knows that the assignment was made by an automated process, and is not an indication of human expectations.)

While it would be nice to spread the load as evenly as possible, there are certain times when you just want to encourage the person who can fix a bug the fastest to do so. Given that you can't afford a communications turnaround for every such assignment ("Would you be willing to look at this bug?" "Yes." "Okay, I'm assigning the ticket over to you then." "Okay."), you should simply make the assignment in the form of an inquiry, conveying no pressure. Virtually all ticket trackers allow a comment to be associated with the assignment of an ticket. In that comment, you can say something like this:

Assigning this over to you, jrandom, because you're most familiar with this code. Feel free to bounce this back if you don't have time to look at it, though. (And let me know if you'd prefer not to receive such requests in the future.)

This distinguishes clearly between the request for assignment and the recipient's acceptance of that assignment. The audience here isn't only the assignee, it's everyone: the entire group sees a public confirmation of the assignee's expertise, but the message also makes it clear that the assignee is free to accept or decline the responsibility.

Follow up after you delegate

When you ask someone to do something, remember that you have done so, and follow up with him no matter what. Most requests are made in public forums, and are roughly of the form "Can you take care of X? Let us know either way; no problem if you can't, just need to know." You may or may not get a response. If you do, and the response is negative, the loop is closed—you'll need to try some other strategy for dealing with X. If there is a positive response, then keep an eye out for progress on the issue, and comment on the progress you do or don't see (everyone works better when they know someone else is appreciating their work). If there is no response after a few days, ask again, or post saying that you got no response and are looking for someone else to do it. Or just do it yourself, but still make sure to say that you got no response to the initial inquiry.

The purpose of publicly noting the lack of response is not to humiliate the person, and your remarks should be phrased so as not to have that effect. The purpose is simply to show that you keep track of what you have asked for, and that you notice the reactions you get. This makes people more likely to say yes next time, because they will observe (even if only unconsciously) that you are likely to notice any work they do, given that you noticed the much less visible event of someone failing to respond.

Notice what people are interested in

Another thing that makes people happy is to have their interests noticed—in general, the more aspects of someone's personality you notice and remember, the more comfortable he will be, and the more he will want to work with groups of which you are a part.

For example, there was a sharp distinction in the Subversion project between people who wanted to reach a definitive 1.0 release (which we eventually did), and people who mainly wanted to add new features and work on interesting problems but who didn't much care when 1.0 came out. Neither of these positions is better or worse than the other; they're just two different kinds of developers, and both kinds do lots of work on the project. But we swiftly learned that it was important to not assume that the excitement of the 1.0 drive was shared by everyone. Electronic media can be very deceptive: you may sense an atmosphere of shared purpose when, in fact, it's shared only by the people you happen to have been talking to, while others have completely different priorities.

The more aware you are of what different people want out of the project, the more effectively you can make requests of them. Even just demonstrating an understanding of what they want, without making any associated request, is useful, in that it confirms to each person that she's not just another particle in an undifferentiated mass.

Praise and Criticism

Praise and criticism are not opposites; in many ways, they are very similar. Both are primarily forms of attention, and are most effective when specific rather than generic. Both should be deployed with concrete goals in mind. Both can be diluted by inflation: praise too much or too often and you will devalue your praise; the same is true for criticism, though in practice, criticism is usually reactive and therefore a bit more resistant to devaluation.

An important feature of technical culture is that detailed, dispassionate criticism is often taken as a kind of praise (as discussed in the section called “Recognizing Rudeness” in Chapter 6, Communications), because of the implication that the recipient's work is worth the time required to analyze it. However, both of those conditions—detailed and dispassionate—must be met for this to be true. For example, if someone makes a sloppy change to the code, it is useless (and actually harmful) to follow up saying simply "That was sloppy." Sloppiness is ultimately a characteristic of a person, not of their work, and it's important to keep your reactions focused on the work. It's much more effective to describe all the things wrong with the change, tactfully and without malice. If this is the third or fourth careless change in a row by the same person, it's appropriate to say that—again without anger—at the end of your critique, to make it clear that the pattern has been noticed.

If someone does not improve in response to criticism, the solution is not more or stronger criticism. The solution is for the group to remove that person from the position of incompetence, in a way that minimizes hurt feelings as much as possible; see the section called “Transitions” later in this chapter for examples. That is a rare occurrence, however. Most people respond pretty well to criticism that is specific, detailed, and contains a clear (even if unspoken) expectation of improvement.

Praise won't hurt anyone's feelings, of course, but that doesn't mean it should be used any less carefully than criticism. Praise is a tool: before you use it, ask yourself why you want to use it. As a rule, it's not a good idea to regularly praise people for doing what they usually do, or for actions that are a normal and expected part of participating in the group. If you were to do that, it would be hard to know when to stop: should you praise everyone for doing the usual things? After all, if you leave some people out, they'll wonder why. It's much better to express praise and gratitude sparingly, in response to unusual or unexpected efforts, with the intention of encouraging more such efforts. When a participant seems to have moved permanently into a state of higher productivity, adjust your praise threshold for that person accordingly. Repeated praise for normal behavior gradually becomes meaningless anyway. Instead, that person should sense that her high level of productivity is now considered normal and natural, and only work that goes beyond that should be specially noticed.

This is not to say that the person's contributions shouldn't be acknowledged, of course. But remember that if the project is set up right, everything that person does is already visible anyway, and so the group will know (and the person will know that the rest of the group knows) everything she does. There are also ways to acknowledge someone's work by means other than direct praise. You could mention in passing, while discussing a related topic, that she has done a lot of work in the given area and is the resident expert there; you could publicly consult her on some question about the code; or perhaps most effectively, you could conspicuously make further use of the work she has done, so she sees that others are now comfortable relying on the results of her work. It's probably not necessary to do these things in any calculated way. Someone who regularly makes large contributions in a project will know it, and will occupy a position of influence by default. There's usually no need to take explicit steps to ensure this, unless you sense that, for whatever reason, a contributor is underappreciated.

Prevent Territoriality

Watch out for participants who try to stake out exclusive ownership of certain areas of the project, and who seem to want to do all the work in those areas, to the extent of aggressively taking over work that others start. Such behavior may even seem healthy at first. After all, on the surface it looks like the person is taking on more responsibility, and showing increased activity within a given area. But in the long run, it is destructive. When people sense a "no trespassing" sign, they stay away. This results in reduced review in that area, and greater fragility, because the lone developer becomes a single point of failure. Worse, it fractures the cooperative, egalitarian spirit of the project. The theory should always be that any developer is welcome to help out on any task at any time. Of course, in practice things work a bit differently: people do have areas where they are more and less influential, and non-experts frequently defer to experts in certain domains of the project. But the key is that this is all voluntary: informal authority is granted based on competence and proven judgement, but it should never be actively taken. Even if the person desiring the authority really is competent, it is still crucial that she hold that authority informally, through the consensus of the group, that the exact boundaries of the authority remain fuzzy and subjective, and that the authority never cause her to exclude others from working in that area.

Rejecting or editing someone's work for technical reasons is an entirely different matter, of course. There, the decisive factor is the content of the work, not who happened to act as gatekeeper. It may be that the same person happens to do most of the reviewing for a given area, but as long as he never tries to prevent someone else from doing that work too, things are probably okay.

In order to combat incipient territorialism, or even the appearance of it, many projects have taken the step of banning the inclusion of author names or designated maintainer names in source files. I wholeheartedly agree with this practice: we follow it in the Subversion project, and it is more or less official policy at the Apache Software Foundation. ASF member Sander Striker puts it this way:

At the Apache Software foundation we discourage the use of author tags in source code. There are various reasons for this, apart from the legal ramifications. Collaborative development is about working on projects as a group and caring for the project as a group. Giving credit is good, and should be done, but in a way that does not allow for false attribution, even by implication. There is no clear line for when to add or remove an author tag. Do you add your name when you change a comment? When you put in a one-line fix? Do you remove other author tags when you refactor the code and it looks 95% different? What do you do about people who go about touching every file, changing just enough to make the virtual author tag quota, so that their name will be everywhere?

There are better ways to give credit, and our preference is to use those. From a technical standpoint author tags are unnecessary; if you wish to find out who wrote a particular piece of code, the version control system can be consulted to figure that out. Author tags also tend to get out of date. Do you really wish to be contacted in private about a piece of code you wrote five years ago and were glad to have forgotten?

A software project's source code files are the core of its identity. They should reflect the fact that the developer community as a whole is responsible for them, and not be divided up into little fiefdoms.

People sometimes argue in favor of author or maintainer tags in source files on the grounds that this gives visible credit to those who have done the most work there. There are two problems with this argument. First, the tags inevitably raise the awkward question of how much work one must do to get one's own name listed there too. Second, they conflate the issue of credit with that of authority: having done work in the past does not imply ownership of the area where the work was done, but it's difficult if not impossible to avoid such an implication when individual names are listed at the tops of source files. In any case, credit information can already be obtained from the version control logs and other out-of-band mechanisms like mailing list archives, so no information is lost by banning it from the source files themselves.[57]

If your project decides to ban individual names from source files, make sure not to go overboard. For instance, many projects have a contrib/ area where small tools and helper scripts are kept, often written by people who are otherwise not associated with the project. It's fine for those files to contain author names, because they are not really maintained by the project as a whole. On the other hand, if a contributed tool starts getting hacked on by other people in the project, eventually you may want to move it to a less isolated location and, assuming the original author approves, remove the author's name, so that the code looks like any other community-maintained resource. If the author is sensitive about this, compromise solutions are acceptable, for example:

# indexclean.py: Remove old data from a Scanley index.
#
# Original Author: K. Maru <kobayashi@yetanotheremailservice.com>
# Now Maintained By: The Scanley Project <http://www.scanley.org/>
#                    and K. Maru.
# 
# ...

But it's better to avoid such compromises, if possible, and most authors are willing to be persuaded, because they're happy that their contribution is being made a more integral part of the project.

The important thing is to remember that there is a continuum between the core and the periphery of any project. The main source code files for the software are clearly part of the core, and should be considered as maintained by the community. On the other hand, companion tools or pieces of documentation may be the work of single individuals, who maintain them essentially alone, even though the works may be associated with, and even distributed with, the project. There is no need to apply a one-size-fits-all rule to every file, as long as the principle that community-maintained resources are not allowed to become individual territories is upheld.

The Automation Ratio

Try not to let humans do what machines could do instead. As a rule of thumb, automating a common task is worth at least ten times the effort a developer would spend doing that task manually one time. For very frequent or very complex tasks, that ratio could easily go up to twenty or even higher.

Thinking of yourself as a "project manager", rather than just another developer, may be a useful attitude here. Sometimes individual developers are too wrapped up in low-level work to see the big picture and realize that everyone is wasting a lot of effort performing automatable tasks manually. Even those who do realize it may not take the time to solve the problem: because each individual performance of the task does not feel like a huge burden, no one ever gets annoyed enough to do anything about it. What makes automation compelling is that the small burden is multiplied by the number of times each developer incurs it, and then that number is multiplied by the number of developers.

Here, I am using the term "automation" broadly, to mean not only repeated actions where one or two variables change each time, but any sort of technical infrastructure that assists humans. The minimum standard automation required to run a project these days was described in Chapter 3, Technical Infrastructure, but each project may have its own special problems too. For example, a group working on documentation might want to have a web site displaying the most up-to-date versions of the documents at all times. Since documentation is often written in a markup language like XML, there may be a compilation step, often quite intricate, involved in creating displayable or downloadable documents. Arranging a web site where such compilation happens automatically on every commit can be complicated and time-consuming—but it is worth it, even if it costs you a day or more to set up. The overall benefits of having up-to-date pages available at all times are huge, even though the cost of not having them might seem like only a small annoyance at any single moment, to any single developer.

Taking such steps eliminates not merely wasted time, but the griping and frustration that ensue when humans make missteps (as they inevitably will) in trying to perform complicated procedures manually. Multi-step, deterministic operations are exactly what computers were invented for; save your humans for more interesting things.

Automated testing

Automated test runs are helpful for any software project, but especially so for open source projects, because automated testing (especially regression testing) allows developers to feel comfortable changing code in areas they are unfamiliar with, and thus encourages exploratory development. Since detecting breakage is so hard to do by hand—one essentially has to guess where one might have broken something, and try various experiments to prove that one didn't—having automated ways to detect such breakage saves the project a lot of time. It also makes people much more relaxed about refactoring large swaths of code, and therefore contributes to the software's long-term maintainability.

Regression testing is not a panacea. For one thing, it works best for programs with batch-style interfaces. Software that is operated primarily through graphical user interfaces is much harder to drive programmatically. Another problem is that the regression test suite framework itself can often be quite complex, with a learning curve and maintenance burden all its own. Reducing this complexity is one of the most useful things you can do, even though it may take a considerable amount of time. The easier it is to add new tests to the suite, the more developers will do so, and the fewer bugs will survive to release. Any effort spent making tests easier to write will be paid back manyfold over the lifetime of the project.

Many projects have a "Don't break the build!" rule, meaning: don't commit a change that makes the software unable to compile or run. Being the person who broke the build is usually cause for mild embarrassment and ribbing. Projects with regression test suites often have a corollary rule: don't commit any change that causes tests to fail. Such failures are easiest to spot if there are automatic nightly runs of the entire test suite, with the results mailed out to the development list or to a dedicated test-results mailing list; that's another example of a worthwhile automation.

Most volunteer developers are willing to take the extra time to write regression tests, when the test system is comprehensible and easy to work with. Accompanying changes with tests is understood to be the responsible thing to do, and it's also an easy opportunity for collaboration: often two developers will divide up the work for a bugfix, with one writing the fix itself, and the other writing the test. The latter developer may often end up with more work, and since writing a test is already less satisfying than actually fixing the bug, it is imperative that the test suite not make the experience more painful than it has to be.

Some projects go even further, requiring that a new test accompany every bugfix or new feature. Whether this is a good idea or not depends on many factors: the nature of the software, the makeup of the development team, and the difficulty of writing new tests. The CVS (cvs.nongnu.org/) project has long had such a rule. It is a good policy in theory, since CVS is version control software and therefore very risk-averse about the possibility of munging or mishandling the user's data. The problem in practice is that CVS's regression test suite is a single huge shell script (amusingly named sanity.sh), hard to read and hard to modify or extend. The difficulty of adding new tests, combined with the requirement that patches be accompanied by new tests, means that CVS effectively discourages patches. When I used to work on CVS, I sometimes saw people start on and even complete a patch to CVS's own code, but give up when told of the requirement to add a new test to sanity.sh.

It is normal to spend more time writing a new regression test than on fixing the original bug. But CVS carried this phenomenon to an extreme: one might spend hours trying to design one's test properly, and still get it wrong, because there are just too many unpredictable complexities involved in changing a 35,000-line Bourne shell script. Even longtime CVS developers often grumbled when they had to add a new test.

This situation was due to a failure on all our parts to consider the automation ratio. It is true that switching to a real test framework—whether custom-built or off-the-shelf—would have been a major effort.[58] But neglecting to do so has cost the project much more, over the years. How many bugfixes and new features are not in CVS today, because of the impediment of an awkward test suite? We cannot know the exact number, but it is surely many times greater than the number of bugfixes or new features the developers might forgo in order to develop a new test system (or integrate an off-the-shelf system). That task would only take a finite amount of time, while the penalty of using the current test suite will continue forever if nothing is done.

The point is not that having strict requirements to write tests is bad, nor that writing your test system as a Bourne shell script is necessarily bad. It might work fine, depending on how you design it and what it needs to test. The point is simply that when the test system becomes a significant impediment to development, something must be done. The same is true for any routine process that turns into a barrier or a bottleneck.

Treat Every User as a Potential Volunteer

Each interaction with a user is an opportunity to get a new volunteer. When a user takes the time to post to one of the project's mailing lists, or to file a bug report, she has already tagged herself as having more potential for involvement than most users (from whom the project will never hear at all). Follow up on that potential: if she described a bug, thank her for the report and ask her if he wants to try fixing it. If she wrote to say that an important question was missing from the FAQ, or that the program's documentation was deficient in some way, then freely acknowledge the problem (assuming it really exists) and ask if she's interested in writing the missing material herself. Naturally, much of the time the user will demur. But it doesn't cost much to ask, and every time you do, it reminds the other listeners in that forum that getting involved in the project is something anyone can do.

Don't limit your goals to acquiring new developers and documentation writers. For example, even training people to write good bug reports pays off in the long run, if you don't spend too much time per person, and if they go on to submit more bug reports in the future—which they are more likely to do if they got a constructive reaction to their first report. A constructive reaction need not be a fix for the bug, although that's always the ideal; it can also be a solicitation for more information, or even just a confirmation that the behavior is a bug. People want to be listened to. Secondarily, they want their bugs fixed. You may not always be able to give them the latter in a timely fashion, but you (or rather, the project as a whole) can give them the former.

A corollary of this is that developers should not express anger at people who file well-intended but vague bug reports. This is one of my personal pet peeves; I see developers do it all the time on various open source mailing lists, and the harm it does is palpable. Some hapless newbie will post a useless report:

Hi, I can't get Scanley to run. Every time I start it up, it just errors. Is anyone else seeing this problem?

Some developer—who has seen this kind of report a thousand times, and hasn't stopped to think that the newbie has not—will respond like this:

What are we supposed to do with so little information? Sheesh. Give us at least some details, like the version of Scanley, your operating system, and the error.

This developer has failed to see things from the user's point of view, and also failed to consider the effect such a reaction might have on all the other people watching the exchange. Naturally a user who may have no programming experience, and no prior experience reporting bugs, will not know how to write a bug report. What is the right way to handle such a person? Educate them! And do it in such a way that they come back for more:

Sorry you're having trouble. We'll need more information in order to figure out what's happening here. Please tell us the version of Scanley, your operating system, and the exact text of the error. The very best thing you can do is send a transcript showing the exact commands you ran, and the output they produced. See http://www.scanley.org/how_to_report_a_bug.html for more.

This way of responding is far more effective at extracting the needed information from the user, because it is written to the user's point of view. First, it expresses sympathy: You had a problem; we feel your pain. (This is not necessary in every bug report response; it depends on the severity of the problem and how upset the user seemed.) Second, instead of belittling him for not knowing how to report a bug, it tells him how, and in enough detail to be actually useful—for example, many users don't realize that "show us the error" means "show us the exact text of the error, with no omissions or abridgements." The first time you work with such a user, you need to be specific about that. Finally, it offers a pointer to much more detailed and complete instructions for reporting bugs. If you have successfully engaged with the user, he will often take the time to read that document and do what it says. This means, of course, that you have to have the document prepared in advance. It should give clear instructions about what kind of information your development team wants to see in every bug report. Ideally, it should also evolve over time in response to the particular sorts of omissions and misreports users tend to make for your project.

The Subversion project's bug reporting instructions are a fairly standard example of the form (see Appendix E, Example Instructions for Reporting Bugs). Notice how they close with an invitation to provide a patch to fix the bug. This is not because such an invitation will lead to a greater patch/report ratio—most users who are capable of fixing bugs already know that a patch would be welcome, and don't need to be told. The invitation's real purpose is to emphasize to all readers, especially those new to the project or new to free software in general, that the project runs on participation. In a sense, the project's current developers are no more responsible for fixing the bug than is the person who reported it. This is an important point that many new users will not be familiar with. Once they realize it, they're more likely to help make the fix happen, if not by contributing code then by providing a more thorough reproduction recipe, or by offering to test fixes that other people post. The goal is to make every user realize that there is no innate difference between himself and the people who work on the project—that it's a question of how much time and effort one puts in, not a question of who one is.

The admonition against responding angrily does not apply to rude users. Occasionally people post bug reports or complaints that, regardless of their informational content, show a sneering contempt at the project for some failing. Often such people are alternately insulting and flattering, such as the person who posted this to a Subversion mailing list:

Why is it that after almost 6 days there still aren't any binaries posted for the windows platform?!? It's the same story every time and it's pretty frustrating. Why aren't these things automated so that they could be available immediately?? When you post an "RC" build, I think the idea is that you want users to test the build, but yet you don't provide any way of doing so. Why even have a soak period if you provide no means of testing??

Initial response to this rather inflammatory post was surprisingly restrained: people pointed out that the project had a published policy of not providing official binaries, and said, with varying degrees of annoyance, that he ought to volunteer to produce them himself if they were so important to him. Believe it or not, his next post started with these lines:

First of all, let me say that I think Subversion is awesome and I really appreciate the efforts of everyone involved. [...]

...and then he went on to berate the project again for not providing binaries, while still not volunteering to do anything about it. After that, about 50 people just jumped all over him, and I can't say I really minded. Retaliatory rudeness should be avoided toward people with whom the project has (or would like to have) a sustained interaction. But when someone makes it clear from the start that he is going to be a fountain of bile, there is no point making him feel welcome.

Such situations are fortunately quite rare, and they are noticeably rarer in projects that make an effort to engage users constructively and courteously from their very first interaction.

Meeting In Person (Conferences, Hackfests, Code-a-Thons, Code Sprints, Retreats)

24 March 2013: If you're reading this note, then you've encountered this section while it's undergoing substantial revision; see producingoss.com/v2.html for details.

poss2 tbd

Some examples to use: Ubuntu community sprints, Adam Hyde's flossmanuals doc sprints, and the Danese/Noel-style public hackathons. Distinguish between purely dev events and dev+user+funder+enterprise events — all are useful, but don't confuse audiences.



[55] This question was studied in detail, with interesting results, in a paper by Karim Lakhani and Robert G. Wolf, entitled Why Hackers Do What They Do: Understanding Motivation and Effort in Free/Open Source Software Projects. See freesoftware.mit.edu/papers/lakhaniwolf.pdf.

[57] But see the mailing list thread entitled "having authors names in .py files" at groups.google.com/group/sage-devel/browse_thread/thread/e207ce2206f0beee for a good counterargument, particularly the post from William Stein. The key in that case, I think, is that many of the authors come from a culture (the academic mathematics community) where crediting directly at the source is the norm and is highly valued. In such circumstances, it may be preferable to put author names into the source files, along with precise descriptions of what each author did, since the majority of potential contributors will expect that style of acknowledgement.

[58] Note that there would be no need to convert all the existing tests to the new framework; the two could happily exist side by side, with old tests converted over only as they needed to be changed.