Setting the Tone

So far we've covered one-time tasks you do during project setup: picking a license, arranging the initial web site, etc. But the most important aspects of starting a new project are dynamic. Choosing a mailing list address is easy; ensuring that the list's conversations remain on-topic and productive is another matter entirely. If the project is being opened up after years of closed, in-house development, its development processes will change, and you will have to prepare the existing developers for that change.

The first steps are the hardest, because precedents and expectations for future conduct have not yet been set. Stability in a project does not come from formal policies, but from a shared, hard-to-pin-down collective wisdom that develops over time. There are often written rules as well, but they tend to be essentially a distillation of the intangible, ever-evolving agreements that really guide the project. The written policies do not define the project's culture so much as describe it, and even then only approximately.

There are a few reasons why things work out this way. Growth and high turnover are not as damaging to the accumulation of social norms as one might think. As long as change does not happen too quickly, there is time for new arrivals to learn how things are done, and after they learn, they will help reinforce those ways themselves. Consider how children's songs survive the centuries. There are children today singing roughly the same rhymes as children did hundreds of years ago, even though there are no children alive now who were alive then. Younger children hear the songs sung by older ones, and when they are older, they in turn will sing them in front of other younger ones. The children are not engaging in a conscious program of transmission, of course, but the reason the songs survive is nonetheless that they are transmitted regularly and repeatedly. The time scale of free software projects may not be measured in centuries (we don't know yet), but the dynamics of transmission are much the same. The turnover rate is faster, however, and must be compensated for by a more active and deliberate transmission effort.

This effort is aided by the fact that people generally show up expecting and looking for social norms. That's just how humans are built. In any group unified by a common endeavor, people who join instinctively search for behaviors that will mark them as part of the group. The goal of setting precedents early is to make those "in-group" behaviors be ones that are useful to the project; for once established, they will be largely self-perpetuating.

Following are some examples of specific things you can do to set good precedents. They're not meant as an exhaustive list, just as illustrations of the idea that setting a collaborative mood early helps a project tremendously. Physically, every developer may be working alone in a room by themselves, but you can do a lot to make them feel like they're all working together in the same room. The more they feel this way, the more time they'll want to spend on the project. I chose these particular examples because they came up in the Subversion project (, which I participated in and observed from its very beginning. But they're not unique to Subversion; situations like these will come up in most open source projects, and should be seen as opportunities to start things off on the right foot.

Avoid Private Discussions

Even after you've taken the project public, you and the other founders will often find yourselves wanting to settle difficult questions by private communications among an inner circle. This is especially true in the early days of the project, when there are so many important decisions to make, and, usually, few volunteers qualified to make them. All the obvious disadvantages of public list discussions will loom palpably in front of you: the delay inherent in email conversations, the need to leave sufficient time for consensus to form, the hassle of dealing with naive volunteers who think they understand all the issues but actually don't (every project has these; sometimes they're next year's star contributors, sometimes they stay naive forever), the person who can't understand why you only want to solve problem X when it's obviously a subset of larger problem Y, and so on. The temptation to make decisions behind closed doors and present them as faits accomplis, or at least as the firm recommendations of a united and influential voting block, will be great indeed.

Don't do it.

As slow and cumbersome as public discussions can be, they're almost always preferable in the long run. Making important decisions in private is like spraying contributor repellant on your project. No serious volunteer would stick around for long in an environment where a secret council makes all the big decisions. Furthermore, public discussion has beneficial side effects that will last beyond whatever ephemeral technical question was at issue:

  • The discussion will help train and educate new developers. You never know how many eyes are watching the conversation; even if most people don't participate, many may be tracking silently, gleaning information about the software.

  • The discussion will train you in the art of explaining technical issues to people who are not as familiar with the software as you are. This is a skill that requires practice, and you can't get that practice by talking to people who already know what you know.

  • The discussion and its conclusions will be available in public archives forever after, enabling future discussions to avoid retracing the same steps. See “Conspicuous Use of Archives” in Capítulo 6, Communications.

Finally, there is the possibility that someone on the list may make a real contribution to the conversation, by coming up with an idea you never anticipated. It's hard to say how likely this is; it just depends on the complexity of the code and degree of specialization required. But if anecdotal evidence may be permitted, I would hazard that this is more likely than one would intuitively expect. In the Subversion project, we (the founders) believed we faced a deep and complex set of problems, which we had been thinking about hard for several months, and we frankly doubted that anyone on the newly created mailing list was likely to make a real contribution to the discussion. So we took the lazy route and started batting some technical ideas back and forth in private emails, until an observer of the project[14] caught wind of what was happening and asked for the discussion to be moved to the public list. Rolling our eyes a bit, we did—and were stunned by the number of insightful comments and suggestions that quickly resulted. In many cases people offered ideas that had never even occurred to us. It turned out there were some very smart people on that list; they'd just been waiting for the right bait. It's true that the ensuing discussions took longer than they would have if we had kept the conversation private, but they were so much more productive that it was well worth the extra time.

Without descending into hand-waving generalizations like "the group is always smarter than the individual" (we've all met enough groups to know better), it must be acknowledged that there are certain activities at which groups excel. Massive peer review is one of them; generating large numbers of ideas quickly is another. The quality of the ideas depends on the quality of the thinking that went into them, of course, but you won't know what kinds of thinkers are out there until you stimulate them with a challenging problem.

Naturally, there are some discussions that must be had privately; throughout this book we'll see examples of those. But the guiding principle should always be: If there's no reason for it to be private, it should be public.

Making this happen requires action. It's not enough merely to ensure that all your own posts go to the public list. You also have to nudge other people's unnecessarily private conversations to the list too. If someone tries to start a private discussion, and there's no reason for it to be private, then it is incumbent on you to open the appropriate meta-discussion immediately. Don't even comment on the original topic until you've either successfully steered the conversation to a public place, or ascertained that privacy really was needed. If you do this consistently, people will catch on pretty quickly and start to use the public forums by default.

Nip Rudeness in the Bud

From the very start of your project's public existence, you should maintain a zero-tolerance policy toward rude or insulting behavior in its forums. Zero-tolerance does not mean technical enforcement per se. You don't have to remove people from the mailing list when they flame another subscriber, or take away their commit access because they made derogatory comments. (In theory, you might eventually have to resort to such actions, but only after all other avenues have failed—which, by definition, isn't the case at the start of the project.) Zero-tolerance simply means never letting bad behavior slide by unnoticed. For example, when someone posts a technical comment mixed together with an ad hominem attack on some other developer in the project, it is imperative that your response address the ad hominem attack first, as a separate issue unto itself, and only afterward move on to the technical content.

It is unfortunately very easy, and all too typical, for constructive discussions to lapse into destructive flame wars. People will say things in email that they would never say face-to-face. The topics of discussion only amplify this effect: in technical issues, people often feel there is a single right answer to most questions, and that disagreement with that answer can only be explained by ignorance or stupidity. It's a short distance from calling someone's technical proposal stupid to calling the person themselves stupid. In fact, it's often hard to tell where technical debate leaves off and character attack begins, which is one reason why drastic responses or punishments are not a good idea. Instead, when you think you see it happening, make a post that stresses the importance of keeping the discussion friendly, without accusing anyone of being deliberately poisonous. Such "Nice Police" posts do have an unfortunate tendency to sound like a kindergarten teacher lecturing a class on good behavior:

First, let's please cut down on the (potentially) ad hominem comments; for example, calling J's design for the security layer "naive and ignorant of the basic principles of computer security." That may be true or it may not, but in either case it's no way to have the discussion. J made his proposal in good faith. If it has deficiencies, point them out, and we'll fix them or get a new design. I'm sure M meant no personal insult to J, but the phrasing was unfortunate, and we try to keep things constructive around here.

Now, on to the proposal. I think M was right in saying that...

As stilted as such responses sound, they have a noticeable effect. If you consistently call out bad behavior, but don't demand an apology or acknowledgment from the offending party, then you leave people free to cool down and show their better side by behaving more decorously next time—and they will. One of the secrets of doing this successfully is to never make the meta-discussion the main topic. It should always be an aside, a brief preface to the main portion of your response. Point out in passing that "we don't do things that way around here," but then move on to the real content, so that you're giving people something on-topic to respond to. If someone protests that they didn't deserve your rebuke, simply refuse to be drawn into an argument about it. Either don't respond (if you think they're just letting off steam and don't require a response), or say you're sorry if you overreacted and that it's hard to detect nuance in email, then get back to the main topic. Never, ever insist on an acknowledgment, whether public or private, from someone that they behaved inappropriately. If they choose of their own volition to post an apology, that's great, but demanding that they do so will only cause resentment.

The overall goal is to make good etiquette be seen as one of the "in-group" behaviors. This helps the project, because developers can be driven away (even from projects they like and want to support) by flame wars. You may not even know that they were driven away; someone might lurk on the mailing list, see that it takes a thick skin to participate in the project, and decide against getting involved at all. Keeping forums friendly is a long-term survival strategy, and it's easier to do when the project is still small. Once it's part of the culture, you won't have to be the only person promoting it. It will be maintained by everyone.

Practice Conspicuous Code Review

One of the best ways to foster a productive development community is to get people looking at each others' code. Some technical infrastructure is required to do this effectively—in particular, commit emails must be turned on; see “Commit emails” for more details. The effect of commit emails is that every time someone commits a change to the source code, an email goes out showing the log message and diffs for the change (see diff, in “Version Control Vocabulary”). Code review is the practice of reviewing commit emails as they come in, looking for bugs and possible improvements.[15]

Code review serves several purposes simultaneously. It's the most obvious example of peer review in the open source world, and directly helps to maintain software quality. Every bug that ships in a piece of software got there by being committed and not detected; therefore, the more eyes watch commits, the fewer bugs will ship. But code review also serves an indirect purpose: it confirms to people that what they do matters, because one obviously wouldn't take time to review a commit unless one cared about its effect. People do their best work when they know that others will take the time to evaluate it.

Reviews should be public. Even on occasions when I have been sitting in the same physical room with developers, and one of us has made a commit, we take care not to do the review verbally in the room, but to send it to the development mailing list instead. Everyone benefits from seeing the review happen. People follow the commentary and sometimes find flaws in it, and even when they don't, it still reminds them that review is an expected, regular activity, like washing the dishes or mowing the lawn.

In the Subversion project, we did not at first make a regular practice of code review. There was no guarantee that every commit would be reviewed, though one might sometimes look over a change if one was particularly interested in that area of the code. Bugs slipped in that really could and should have been caught. A developer named Greg Stein, who knew the value of code review from past work, decided that he was going to set an example by reviewing every line of every single commit that went into the code repository. Each commit anyone made was soon followed by an email to the developer's list from Greg, dissecting the commit, analyzing possible problems, and occasionally praising a clever bit of code. Right away, he was catching bugs and non-optimal coding practices that would otherwise have slipped by without ever being noticed. Pointedly, he never complained about being the only person reviewing every commit, even though it took a fair amount of his time, but he did sing the praises of code review whenever he had the chance. Pretty soon, other people, myself included, started reviewing commits regularly too. What was our motivation? It wasn't that Greg had consciously shamed us into it. But he had proven that reviewing code was a valuable way to spend time, and that one could contribute as much to the project by reviewing others' changes as by writing new code. Once he demonstrated that, it became expected behavior, to the point where any commit that didn't get some reaction would cause the committer to worry, and even ask on the list whether anyone had had a chance to review it yet. Later, Greg got a job that didn't leave him as much time for Subversion, and had to stop doing regular reviews. But by then, the habit was so ingrained for the rest of us as to seem that it had been going on since time immemorial.

Start doing reviews from very first commit. The sorts of problems that are easiest to catch by reviewing diffs are security vulnerabilities, memory leaks, insufficient comments or API documentation, off-by-one errors, caller/callee discipline mismatches, and other problems that require a minimum of surrounding context to spot. However, even larger-scale issues such as failure to abstract repeated patterns to a single location become spottable after one has been doing reviews regularly, because the memory of past diffs informs the review of present diffs.

Don't worry that you might not find anything to comment on, or that you don't know enough about every area of the code. There will usually be something to say about almost every commit; even where you don't find anything to question, you may find something to praise. The important thing is to make it clear to every committer that what they do is seen and understood. Of course, code review does not absolve programmers of the responsibility to review and test their changes before committing; no one should depend on code review to catch things he ought to have caught on his own.

When Opening a Formerly Closed Project, be Sensitive to the Magnitude of the Change

If you're opening up an existing project, one that already has active developers accustomed to working in a closed-source environment, make sure everyone understands that a big change is coming—and make sure that you understand how it's going to feel from their point of view.

Try to imagine how the situation looks to them: formerly, all code and design decisions were made with a group of other programmers who knew the software more or less equally well, who all received the same pressures from the same management, and who all know each others' strengths and weaknesses. Now you're asking them to expose their code to the scrutiny of random strangers, who will form judgements based only on the code, with no awareness of what business pressures may have forced certain decisions. These strangers will ask lots of questions, questions that jolt the existing developers into realizing that the documentation they slaved so hard over is still inadequate (this is inevitable). To top it all off, the newcomers are unknown, faceless entities. If one of your developers already feels insecure about his skills, imagine how that will be exacerbated when newcomers point out flaws in code he wrote, and worse, do so in front of his colleagues. Unless you have a team of perfect coders, this is unavoidable—in fact, it will probably happen to all of them at first. This is not because they're bad programmers; it's just that any program above a certain size has bugs, and peer review will spot some of those bugs (see “Practice Conspicuous Code Review” earlier in this chapter). At the same time, the newcomers themselves won't be subject to much peer review at first, since they can't contribute code until they're more familiar with the project. To your developers, it may feel like all the criticism is incoming, never outgoing. Thus, there is the danger of a siege mentality taking hold among the old hands.

The best way to prevent this is to warn everyone about what's coming, explain it, tell them that the initial discomfort is perfectly normal, and reassure them that it's going to get better. Some of these warnings should take place privately, before the project is opened. But you may also find it helpful to remind people on the public lists that this is a new way of development for the project, and that it will take some time to adjust. The very best thing you can do is lead by example. If you don't see your developers answering enough newbie questions, then just telling them to answer more isn't going to help. They may not have a good sense of what warrants a response and what doesn't yet, or it could be that they don't have a feel for how to prioritize coding work against the new burden of external communications. The way to get them to participate is to participate yourself. Be on the public mailing lists, and make sure to answer some questions there. When you don't have the expertise to field a question, then visibly hand it off to a developer who does—and watch to make sure he follows up with an answer, or at least a response. It will naturally be tempting for the longtime developers to lapse into private discussions, since that's what they're used to. Make sure you're subscribed to the internal mailing lists on which this might happen, so you can ask that such discussions be moved to the public lists right away.

There are other, longer-term concerns with opening up formerly closed projects. Capítulo 4, Infra-estrutura Social e Política explores techniques for mixing paid and unpaid developers successfully, and Capítulo 9, Licenses, Copyrights, and Patents discusses the necessity of legal diligence when opening up a private code base that may contain software written or "owned" by other parties.

[14] We haven't gotten to the section on crediting yet, but just to practice what I'll later preach: the observer's name was Brian Behlendorf, and it was he who pointed out the general importance of keeping all discussions public unless there was a specific need for privacy.

[15] This is how code review is usually done in open source projects, at any rate. In more centralized projects, "code review" can also mean multiple people sitting down together and going over printouts of source code, looking for specific problems and patterns.