Open source is done. Welcome to Open Development!

December 14, 2017

I originally published this article on SD Times, republishing it to keep it around for posterity…

If you’re looking at embracing open source today, you might be a bit late to the game. Using open-source software is mainstream now, and being involved in open-source projects is nothing to write home about either. Everybody does it, we know how it works, its value is proven.

But what’s next? Sharing source code openly is a given in open-source projects, but in the end it’s only about sharing lines of text. The real long-term power of successful open-source projects lies in how their communities operate, and that’s where open development comes in.

Shared communications channels. Meritocracy. Commit early, commit often. Back your work by issues in a shared tracker. Archive all discussions, decisions and issues about your project, and make that searchable. All simple principles that, when combined, make a huge difference to the efficiency of our corporate projects.

But, of course, the chaotic meritocracies of open-source projects won’t work for corporate teams, right? Such teams require a chain of command with strictly defined roles. Corporate meritocracy? You must be kidding.

I’m not kidding, actually: Open development works very well in corporate settings, and from my experience in both very small and fairly large organizations, much better than old-fashioned top-to-bottom chains of command and information segregation principles. Empower your engineers, trust them, make everything transparent so that mistakes can be caught early, and make sure the project’s flow of information is continuous and archived. Big rewards are just around the corner—if you dive in, that is.

What’s open development?
Open development starts by using shared digital channels to communicate between project members, as opposed to one-to-one e-mails and meetings. If your team’s e-mail clients are their knowledge base, that will go away with them when they leave, and it’s impossible for new project members to acquire that knowledge easily.

A centralized channel, like a mailing list, allows team members to be aware of everything that’s going on. A busy mailing list requires discipline, but the rewards are huge in terms of spreading knowledge around, avoiding duplicate work and providing a way for newcomers to get a feel for the project by reviewing the discussion archives. At the Apache Software Foundation, we even declare that “If it didn’t happen on the dev list, it didn’t happen,” which is a way of saying that whatever is worth saying must be made available to all team members. No more discrepancies in what information team members get; it’s all in there.

The next step is sharing all your code openly, all the time, with all stakeholders. Not just in a static way, but as a continuous flow of commits that can tell you how fast your software is evolving and where it’s going, in real time.

Software developers will sometimes tell you that they cannot show their code because it’s not finished. But code is never finished, and it’s not always beautiful, so who cares? Sharing code early and continuously brings huge benefits in terms of peer reviews, learning from others, and creating a sense of belonging among team members. It’s not “my” code anymore, it’s “our” code. I’m happy when someone sees a way to improve it and just does it, sometimes without even asking for permission, because the fix is obvious. One less bug, quality goes up, and “shared neurons in the air” as we sometimes say: all big benefits to a team’s efficiency and cohesion.

Openly sharing the descriptions and resolutions of issues is equally important and helps optimize usage of a team’s skills, especially in a crisis. As in a well-managed open-source project, every code change is backed by an issue in the tracker, so you end up with one Web page per issue, which tells the full history of why the change was made, how, when, and by whom. Invaluable information when you need to revisit the issue later, maybe much later when whoever wrote that code is gone.

Corporate projects too often skip this step because their developers are co-located and can just ask their colleague next door directly. By doing that, they lose an easy opportunity to create a living knowledgebase of their projects, without much effort from the developers. It’s not much work to write a few lines of explanation in an issue tracker when an issue is resolved, and, with good integration, rich links will be created between the issue tracker and the corresponding source code, creating a web of valuable information.

The dreaded “When can we ship?” question is also much easier to answer based on a dynamic list of specific issues and corresponding metadata than by asking around the office, or worse, having boring status meetings.

The last critical tool in our open development setup is in self-service archives of all that information. Archived mailing lists, resolved issues that stay around in the tracker, source-code control history, and log messages, once made searchable, make project knowledge available in self-service to all team members. Here as well, forget about access control and leave everything open. You want your engineers to be curious when they need to, and to find at least basic information about everything that’s going on by themselves, without having to bother their colleagues with meetings or tons of questions. Given sufficient self-service information, adding more competent people to a project does increase productivity, as people can largely get up to speed on their own.

While all this openness may seem chaotic and noisy to the corporate managers of yesterday, that’s how open-source projects work. The simple fact that loose groups of software developers with no common boss consistently produce some of the best software around should open your eyes. This works.


The Five Wisdoms of Open Development

February 15, 2013

Preparing my Open Development in the Enterprise talk for ApacheCon NA 2013 in Portland the week after, I’ve tried to capture the basic wisdoms of day-to-day work in an Open Development environment:

If it didn’t happen on the dev list, it didn’t happen.

Whatever you’re working on, it must be backed by an issue in the tracker.

If it’s not in the source code control system, it doesn’t exist.

If it’s important, it needs a permanent URL.

What happened while you were away? Check the activity stream and archives.

As usual, following recipes without understanding what they’re about won’t help – I use those wisdoms just as a reminder of how things are supposed to happen, or more precisely how people are supposed to communicate.


Open Source Communites are like gardens, says Leslie Hawthorn

June 4, 2012

Great keynote by Leslie Hawthorn at Berlin Buzzwords today – here are my quick notes.

As with a garden, you need to cultivate your community, it doesn’t just happen.

You need to define the landscape – where you want the garden to grow. For a community this means clearly defining goals and non goals.

The landscape needs to be regularly assessed – are we welcoming to newbies? Can new plants grow here?

Clear the paths. Leslie mentions the example of rejecting code patches based on the coding style – if you haven’t published a style guide, that’s not the best way to welcome new contributors. Make sure all paths to success are clear for your community members.

A garden needs various types of plants – invite various types of people. Not just vague calls for help – specific, individual calls based on their skills usually work much better.

Pluck out the weeds, early. Do not let poisonous people take over.

Nurture your seedlings. Take care of newbies, help them grow.

Like companion planting, pairing contributors with the right mentors can make a big difference.

Know when to prune. Old-timers leaving a project is not necessarily a problem, things change.

Leslie cites OpenMRS as an example of successful community management – I’ll have to have a look but I already like the “how to be a casual committer” paragraph in their different types of OpenMRS developers page.

All in all, very interesting parallels. Being quite clueless about gardening, I never thought of looking at our communities from this angle, but it makes perfect sense. Broadening one’s view – that’s what a keynote should be about!


How to fix your project collaboration model?

August 5, 2011

I’ve been studying the collaboration processes of the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) for a while [1], by observing and practicing the successful collaboration model that we use in ASF projects.

Taking the opposite angle, I’ve been reflecting lately on how to fix a broken collaboration model. How do you help teams move from an “I have no idea what my colleagues are doing, and I get way too much email” model to the efficient self-service information flow that we see in ASF and other open source projects?

As I see it, the success of the Apache collaboration model is based on six guiding principles:

  • If it didn’t happen on the dev list, it didn’t happen.
  • Code speaks louder than words.
  • Whatever you’re working on, it must be backed by an issue in the tracker.
  • If your file is not in subversion it doesn’t exist.
  • Every important piece of information has a permanent URL.
  • Email is where information goes to die.

Some of those might need to be slightly tweaked for your particular context, but I believe you can apply most of them to all collaborative projects, as opposed to just software development.

The context of an ASF project is a loose group of software developers, architects, testers, release managers and users (with many people playing several of these roles) working remotely, with no central decision authority. There’s no manager in an ASF project, no money exchanged and no common corporate culture. Decisions are made by consensus, by a group that grows organically as new members are elected based on their merit with respect to that particular project.

This may sound like a recipe for failure, yet many of our projects are very successful in delivering great software consistently. How does that work?

Let’s describe our six principles in more detail, so that you can see if they apply to your own project.

If it didn’t happen on the dev list, it didn’t happen.

In an ASF project, all decisions are made on a single developers mailing list.

Backchannel discussions are inevitable: someone will meet a coworker at the coffee machine, people attend conferences, talk on IRC, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the rule is that as soon as a discussion turns into something that has impact on the project, it must come back to the dev list. The goal is for all project participants to have the same information from a single source.

As those lists are archived, you can then go back to check why and how a particular decision was made.

Creating consensus using email only can be hard, on the other hand it forces you to clarify your ideas and express them in an understandable way, which in the case of software often promotes cleaner architectures and designs (but see also code speaks louder than words below).

Email etiquette (solid and evolving subject lines, concise writing, precise quoting etc.) plays a big role in making this work, and that’s something people have to learn.

In an ASF project, experienced members will often help beginners improve their list communications skills, by gently steering them towards more efficient writing and messaging styles. And your message might just be ignored if the subject line says “URGENT: need help!” or “Question”, which can be a good beginner’s lesson.

Top-posting is usually frowned upon on ASF lists, as that often leads to superficial discussions compared to the much more precise inline quoting.

Email is where information goes to die.

Aren’t we contradicting the previous principle here?

Not really – the dev list is for the flow of discussions and decisions, not for important information that people need to refer to in their work.

Even with good and multiple email archives like the ones we have for ASF projects, finding a specific piece of information in email is painful. That might be good enough for going back to a discussion to get more context about what happened, and to go back to decisions (marked by [VOTE] in their subject lines at the ASF) from time to time, but definitely not for the day-to-day information that you need in such a project. That’s where the issue tracker, discussed below, comes into play.

Code speaks louder than words.

No one told me that when I started working in ASF projects, but after some time trying to argue about software architecture and how my ideas would improve our project’s software, I realized that I was just wasting my time.

The best way to express a software architecture or an idea that will improve a software component is to implement it and show the code to your fellow project members.

That code might be just a rough and ugly prototype in any suitable programming language, that’s not a problem – as long as it expresses your ideas, you will often spend much less time getting that idea across when it’s backed by a concrete piece of code.

Whatever you’re working on, it must be backed by an issue in the tracker.

This might be the most important of our guiding principles – on a desert island, I think I’d be ready to work with just an issue tracker as my collaboration channel.

Many people think that issue trackers are only for bugs: you create an issue when you have run your software and found something that doesn’t work.

Although that was the original intention, I believe (and I’ve seen this fly in many different contexts) that an issue tracker can be used to back all the work that’s being done in a software or other project. Software design, implementation, test servers and continuous integration setups and maintenance, hardware upgrades, password reset requests, milestones like demos and sprints (as issues, not just dates)…and bugs of course: managing all project tasks in a single tracker makes a huge difference.

When used as your coordination backbone, a good issue tracker (we currently use JIRA and Bugzilla at the ASF) will help answer a lot of questions about your project’s status, such as

  • Who’s working on what?
  • What did Joe Developer do last month?
  • Where do we stand?
  • What prevents X from being implemented?
  • Why did we implement X in this way back in 2001?

For this to work, project members need to update their issues often, and break them down into smaller issues as needed, so that the tracker later tells the story of how the task went from A to B.

No need for big literary statements, but instead of sending an email to the dev list saying that X is ready to be used, just update the corresponding issue in the tracker. A good tracker will send events when that happens, to which people can subscribe. Together with the source code control system events (commits etc.) this creates a live activity stream for your project. Making extensive use of the tracker will help provide a complete picture of what’s happening, in that stream.

I’m also a big fan of using issue dependencies to organize issues in trees that can be used to keep track of what needs to be done to reach the project’s goals (aka “planning”, but in a more organic form).

Cygwin dependency treeAs an example, here’s the dependency tree for bug 3383 of the cygwin project. That’s not an ASF project, which shows that we’re not the only ones to use this technique.

That tree starts with “the FRYSK project” as an umbrella issue, which is broken down into issues that represent the different project areas, and so on util it reaches the actual things that need to be implemented or fixed. Combined with a tracker’s reporting functions, such a tree helps tremendously in answering the “where do we stand?” question, and in reshuffling priorities quickly in a crisis. You can also create umbrella issues for sprints or releases, to express what needs to be done to get there.

If your file is not in subversion it doesn’t exist.

The goal here is to avoid relevant files floating around – put everything in subversion, or in whatever source code control system you’re using.

If some files are really too large for that, make sure they have permanent URLs, and document those in the issue tracker or in your source code.

Every important piece of information has a permanent URL.

If you cannot point to a piece of information with a URL, it’s probably not worth much. Or you’re using the wrong system to store that information.

I also like to speak in URLs as much as possible. Saying SLING-505 (which is an agreed upon shortcut for https://issues.apache.org/jira/browse/SLING-550 in an ASF project) is so much more precise than referring to the background servlets feature.

Conclusion

Reviewing your collaboration model against the above principles should help find out where it can be improved. The most common problems that I’ve seen in the various organizations that I worked for in my career are the “split brain” problem, where testers, customers or managers use different tracking systems, and the “way too much email” problem where people send important information (or code…aaaaarghhhh) around in email as opposed to taking advantage of a tracker.

Does that sound like you? If yes you might want to have a closer look at how successful open projects work, and take inspiration from them.

[1] See previous posts: What makes Apache tick? and Open Source collaboration tools are good for you!.


Becoming an Apache project is a process, not just a decision

June 1, 2011

Zdnet.com is talking about the ASF accepting or rejecting a new project – let me mention that this is not exactly how things work.

The only way to create new projects at Apache is through the Incubator, so if project FOO wants to join the Apache Software Foundation, that can only take the form of a proposal for incubation (see examples at http://wiki.apache.org/incubator/).

That proposal is then discussed and sometimes questioned by the Incubator PMC (Project Management Committee), in the open on the general@incubator.apache.org mailing list, until consensus is reached about the proposal and initial committers and mentors team.

A so-called podling is then created to manage the incubating project, and it’s only after successful graduation (based mostly on community aspects and “legal cleanliness” of the code and podling releases) that a project becomes a “real” Apache project.

So, becoming an Apache project is not just a decision of the Apache Incubator, it’s a process that can take from a few months to much longer, depending on the code base and on the community that forms around it.

Apache Subversion is an example of a project that zoomed through the Incubator, mostly because it was already operating like an Apache project, and its code already fulfilled Apache’s legal requirements. There are also many examples of podlings which stay way too long in the Incubator, either because their code or their community isn’t developing as it should.

ZdNet is speculating about OpenOffice in this case, so you’d think that such an important project would get a different treatment? I don’t think so – the Apache process and governance rules have been proven over time on a few earth-shaking projects already (like the HTTP Server, Apache Lucene, Apache Solr and Apache Hadoop to name a few), so I don’t think any project would get a special treatment – our current process works just fine.


+1! ™ – a rosy financial future for the Apache Software Foundation

April 1, 2011

Google recently announced their +1 button, which will without a doubt make the Internet a better place. What’s not to like +1?

As everybody knows the +1 concept has been invented at the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) – and it seems like there’s event an ASF patent pending on it. (Update: see also here, via @jaaronfarr). Our voting process makes extensive use of this simple and very effective concept.

If you do your math the bandwidth (and thus power, greenhouse gas, etc.) saved by using +1 instead of I agree in all our emails does make a difference for the planet – it’s not just a fun gimmick.

In recognition of this invention, usually well informed sources tell us, Google is going to donate 3.141592654 cents (yeah that’s Pi – they’re Google, you know) to the ASF every time someone uses their +1 button, starting today!

That’s excellent news for the ASF – as with any volunteer organizations, more funds mean more action, more power and more fun! I haven’t yet been able to estimate how much money those N*Pi +1 clicks represent in a year, but that’s certainly in the pile of money range.

A small downside is that we’ll need to use +1(tm), with the trademark sign, from now on. That’s a small price to pay for what looks like a rosy financial future for the ASF.

Very impressive move. thanks Google! The Open Source world should mark today’s very special date with a white stone, as we say in French.

+1(tm)!


Why the ASF disagrees with Oracle, straight from the Anonymous Coward’s mouth

November 16, 2010

An Anonymous Coward (as they call them) on Slashdot provides the clearest explanation I’ve seen so far.

I’m only quoting the original comment here, see the discussion on Slashdot for follow-ups:

The problem is that to be a compatible Java implementation you must pass the TCK. To get a hold of the TCK you must agree that your Java implementation has a limited field of use, namely desktop computers. That means you have to add a clause to your licence that tells your users where they can use the software – no such clause exists in any open source licence I’m aware of.

Sure you can use the OpenJDK, you can even fork it, but therein lies the problem… you can’t, because if you do and you want to claim it’s a compatible implementation you have to pass the TCK. So you have to licence the TCK, then you have to add a field of use restriction to your licence, but that’s incompatible with the GPL that the OpenJDK GPL requires you to licence under.

End result, you can have Oracle Java or ‘Open’JDK

The ASF don’t have a political axe to grind with the GPL, aren’t firing a salvo in some imaginary war based on their view of free; It’s about a contractual obligation Oracle has to release the TCK to the ASF. An obligation Sun had and failed to meet and that Oracle continues to fail to meet.

The ASF was re-elected to the JCP with 95% of the vote. No other elected member had anywhere near that. The members spoke with their vote and consequently the ASF leaving the JCP would be big news in a war with Oracle, nobody else. The ASF is outside core Java and the work of the JCP probably the biggest single contributor to the Java ecosystem. Their threat to leave the JCP would seriously damage it and Oracle’s commitment to opensource’s credibility.

You can only have Oracle Java or ‘Open’JDK – there’s no way out until Oracle honors the agreement.

I have also started collecting a list of links about the whole thing, at delicious.com/bdelacretaz/oraclemess.