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Who are the active maintainers?

In the past few days, I’ve been in conversations in two different open source communities around the question: Who are the active maintainers?

There’s a variety of reasons to ask this question, mostly around who we hold accountable, how we measure the health of a project, and who to go to for answers. But in each case, it’s become clear to me that this is a much more complicated question than it appears on the surface. Let’s unpack that just a little.

Here’s a few of the things you should consider before even asking this question.

You should think a lot about why you’re even asking the question. That is, what will you do with the answer once you have it? How will it change how you interact with the project? Be specific. Because if you don’t understand that, then you’re likely measuring the wrong thing. Will you treat people differently based on how you have categorized them? Are there actual different levels of privileges, rights, or whatever, when someone switches “active” status? Does it actually matter if someone hangs around and isn’t active? (ie, does it actually have any costs – financial or social or otherwise – for someone to remain on the roll who isn’t “active”?) What *problem* are you trying to solve? If you cannot answer that, then the rest of this conversation isn’t very meaningful.

Understand that “Active” is a judgement call. What qualifies as active? Is it, in fact, something that you can measure empirically? Does it value certain kinds of actions more than others? Who does that benefit?

Keep in mind that “Active” is not binary, and changes over time. Particularly in open source where engagement is voluntary, people will be active one day, and inactive the next, which doesn’t mean that they’ll never come back.

Labels matter to people, and to their employers. Categorizing someone as an active maintainer, and putting that on your website, may have real impact on them, both personally and professionally. Not doing so, likewise. If you categorize someone as “not active”, you will likely make them feel pressured to do something that maybe they just can’t right now. This will often kill joy, rob passion, and drive people away who could be very valuable to your project. It may even have a direct impact on their employment. Maybe consider not doing this. Particularly not without the consent and knowledge of everyone involved.

Often, there is an implicit class system between people who are paid to work on $thing full time, and people who do it part time. The full time folks often look down on the part timers, who are not able to move at the same pace. This is not because they are less competent, it’s just because they have less time for it. Saying that those people are less active might be true for some definition, but it’s not True, and it’s not helpful. Be very careful what you measure.

You will feel tempted, because you are an engineer, to build tooling to measure “active”. Consider not doing that. Because any measurement that you encode in metrics makes assumptions about everyone that are sure not to be true for some people, and are likely to punish some subset for being human, and subject to human considerations.

Let people self-designate, and ask the question in a non-binary way. For example, possible answers might be:

  • Yes, I’m active
  • Yes, I’m here, but only partially paying attention. I can respond in an emergency
  • No, not really here. I peek in occasionally, but no longer feel like I can respond meaningfully
  • No, I have left, and am not coming back.
But, even then, be sure to allow people to change their answer easily. Don’t put them in a bucket forever and make them re-earn their merit before switching back. Life is chaotic, and unpredictable. People’s availability, interests, and needs change moment by moment.
Note that maybe this is the same conversation as “who is a committer/maintainer/member of my project” but it might not be, depending on what governance of your project looks like. At Apache, people gain committer status, and we have a saying that “merit doesn’t expire.” But people’s priorities, skills, and time availability, do change over time.

2112: Rush week 9

2112 is this week’s (well, actually last week’s, but I’ve been traveling) Rush album. This one, too, I originally had only on bootleg cassettes from a friend far away, mixed in with some other stuff, and so I haven’t really listened to it as an album very many times.

What I remember from that long-ago first listening was annoyance that 2112 wasn’t an adaptation of a book. Where’s the rest of the story? Wikipedia says that it is “based on a story by Peart”, but where is the rest of that story? It also says that it’s based on Anthem, by Rand, which I suppose I can buy, but I’m much too old now to read Rand. Rand is for idealistic teenagers who believe that dystopia is avoidable.

Anyways, I always enjoyed the 2112 story, and was less of a fan of the stuff on the flipside, but it’s grown on me over the years.

Last year when Lee’s book came out, there was chatter on Rush Reddit about how shocked people were that there were lots of drugs on the early tours. Makes me wonder if they ever listened to Passage to Bangkok. Really, folks?

I know a lot of folks are not fans of Tears – that the band themselves say that it’s not a favorite with them – but I like it. Something I always appreciated about Rush was that their “love songs” are not syrupy, but are actually poetry, for the most part.

The other songs on the B side are … ok. Not in my list of favorites, though.

It was good to listen with new ears, so to speak. Thanks again, Craig.

Rush: Rush week 8

What I discovered, listening to the album Rush, the first album from the band Rush, is that, other than Working Man, I’m almost completely unfamiliar with this album.

That is, I’ve heard all of the songs, of course, but they don’t really form part of my mental list of Rush songs. I listen to them, and know that they’re Rush, but they don’t sound like Rush, and when they’re over, I don’t really think of them as Rush songs.

And of course that’s often the case of a first record from a long-lived band – like the first episode of a TV series, they’re still trying to figure out who they are, and who they want to be. You can see a glimpse here and there of who they might become later, but they’re not there yet. You might say they were … finding their way, but it still needs some love.

I know that folks get yelled at for saying it on Reddit, but I really think of this debut album as an entirely different band. Which is, I suppose, just another way of saying that Rush without Neil (both before and after) isn’t *real* Rush.

On the other hand, it’s clear that some people really love it – especially folks who were fans earlier than I was. And, as always, my opinion is just an opinion. Like what you like, friend.

Counterparts: Rush week 7

Counterparts was a slow burn for me – you might say a Slow Fire. Didn’t like it at first but it grew on me. Just so much good poetry here.

There’s several tracks I still don’t care for. Animate is  … annoying. The “let’s find as many things that rhyme as possible” thing just doesn’t work for me.

But Cold Fire is wonderful, musically and lyrically.

A phosphorescent wave on a tropical sea
Is a cold fire
The pattern of moonlight on the bedroom floor
Is a cold fire
The flame at the heart of a pawnbrokers diamond
Is a cold fire
The look in your eyes as you head for the door
Is a cold fire

The juxtaposition of poetic love and actual human experience is ugly and beautiful. This is Neil at his best I think.

Double Agent is also good but I’m not always sure what it means.

Everyday Glory is just hard to listen to. Heart wrenching even. Makes me wonder what story is behind it, because there’s always a story.

Mama says some ugly words
Daddy pounds the wall
They can fight about their little girl later
Right now they don’t care at all

That verse makes my heart hurt every time.

I have no idea what Stick It Out is about. Someone tell me.

Between Sun and Moon is also great in its unexpected juxtapositions.

There is a fine line between love and illusion
A fine place to penetrate
The gap between actor and act
The lens between wishes and fact

This is a fine place
To hesitate

I think I still need to spend more time with it.

Signals: Rush week 6

I’m not going to do the track by track, because Craig already did that.

This record has a lot of good stuff on it, but far and away the best two are Losing It, and Subdivisions.

The fact that Neil was only 30 when he wrote Losing It make it all the more impressive. This song hits me harder and harder as I get older. I remember when I discovered the (yes, I know, very obvious) fact that the second half was about Hemingway, and that led me to read all of Hemingway. I think I was probably 19 or 20 at the time. I don’t suppose I could stand that much Hemingway at 50.

Subdivisions is just a great jam, but is also one of the better written, lyrically, of Rush’s songs. It’s also, I recently realized, the only time (I think – and I could very well be wrong) that Neil’s voice appears in a Rush song. (He’s the voice saying “Subdivisions.”)

Oh, and Analog Kid was, for some reason, left off of the bootleg version of Signals that I had on cassette as a kid. Maybe for space? I don’t know. But I’m less familiar with it, so it was cool to discover such a lovely memory of that edge between childhood and growing up, imagining the future. Good stuff.

And, yeah, I know Countdown is cool and all, but one thing ruins it for me. That one line – “Excitement so thick, you could cut it with a knife.” Really, Neil? With all of the great stuff that Neil wrote, he has this annoying habit of throwing in trite cliches far too often. I think Neil could have been a great poet, if he had anyone to offer him serious criticism of his work, Stuff like Losing It, The Larger Bowl, and so on, were just really well crafted, poetically. And then there’s an opportunity like Countown and he does … that. *sigh*.

His books are another example of this. So much poetical, lyrical narrative, and then there’s just lazy writing interspersed in there, and I wonder if he just never really had an editor that he trusted.

Thanks, again, Craig, for the opportuity for fresh ears on an old album. Looking forward to next week!

Roll the Bones: Rush week 5

Roll the bones is definitely in my top 3 or 4 Rush albums. The songs revolve around the topic of fate, or chance, or luck, or randoness – depending on how you look at it.

Dreamline and Bravado are, or have been at times, my two favorite Rush songs. The line “Learning that we’re only immortal for a limited time” occurs to me all the time as I get older.

You Bet Your Life is another song that occurs to me frequently, when I think about how much we trust the strangers around us – how often we bet our lives on the surety that those strangers will do the right things, even while they are not necessarily what we might consider good people.

Other great lines on this album that resound in my mind incude “Life is a diamond you turn into dust”, and “we will pay the price, but we will not count the cost” and “I’m in a groove now … or is it a rut?”

“Ghost of a Chance” is perhaps the most beautiful love song in the Rush catalog. Rush doesn’t do traditional love songs, but when they do a love song, it’s wonderful.

Where’s My Thing (part IV in the Gangster of Boats Trilogy) is another glimpse into the weird sense of humor of these guys. I often wish I could have listened in on some of their conversations.

Really, I’m not sure I can pick a least-favorite song on this album. It’s pretty much perfection. Ok, so I’m not a big fan of the “let’s list all the words we know that rhyme with -ica” section of Neurotica. But other than that, this is one that I can listen to again and again.

The many hats of a maintainer

This past weekend in Brussels I attended FOSDEM. It was one of the more productive FOSDEMs in recent memory, since I focused on valuable conversations, and attending talks that I thought directly related to what I do every day.

One such talk was Paris Pittman’s session, The Many Hats of a Maintainer: Organizational Design That Helps Reduce Them.

Paris needed more time, that much is clear. But in the time allotted, she focused on some hugely practical tips on how to empower open source community members (broadly, “maintainers”) to be more effective in things that they’re skilled at.

There’s really no way that I can summarize the talk, and I strongly encourage you to go watch it. The link above will link to the video once they are published.

But I took many pages of notes on one particular aspect of the talk, that I think I’m likely to spend a lot of time in the coming year trying to implement directly, specifically at the ASF. We have a tendency to toss people into the deep end at Apache (“Just make a contribution, everyone is welcome!!”) without much guidance, and without much recognition after the fact.

Paris talked about how titles are empowering, not just in personal affirmation, and in getting recognition from your employer for the value of open source participation, but, more basically, in terms of limiting scope. “Maintainer” (or whatever other catch-all word you like) implies doing it all, and far too many people in open source try to do it all.

Again, I don’t wish to try to summarize a brilliant talk, because there’s just too much. But this one simple idea of encouraging people to step into smaller, more narrowly defined roles (Reviewer, Documentor, Community Manager, Communications Lead, Security, and on and on) as well as celebrating folks who step down (Distinguished Contributor, Emeritus) rather than shaming them, can go a long way towards avoiding maintainer burnout, as well as encouraging beginners (I can’t do everything, but I can do *that*) to participate in roles that may grow over time.

Another note that I made, that I will hopefully be pursuing on the ASF community development side of things, is forming working groups, with regular check-in, so that the load is distrubited, and the licked cookies can be redistributed when they’re not making any progress.

I have a tendency to just go do stuff myself, because building consensus is *hard*. That leads, consistently, to three outcomes:

  1. The stuff doesn’t actually get done, because my list is long
  2. Nobody else does it either, because that’s Rich’s project
  3. I get super frustrated that nobody is helping, even though I created that situation myself, and know that I created it.

There must be a way for people to step into, and out of, a working group, to help move things along, with out it sitting solely on one person’s shoulders.

I don’t expect anyone will actually read this blog post, but I think by writing, and will follow up here over the coming months. Thank you, Paris, for an amazing talk. Every year at FOSDEM there’s one talk or conversation that makes the whole event worth it. Yours was one of several this year. (More blog posts to come on a few of the others.)

Permanent Waves: Rush week 4

I’m very late getting to this because I’ve been traveling.

I don’t have a lot to say about Permanent Waves. For one reason or another it’s not one of the albums that I think of as a coherent album. I couldn’t tell you what it’s *about* like I can for, say, Roll the Bones, Vapor Trails, or Counterparts.

It’s got some kicker songs on it, but I don’t know what they have to do with one another.

That said, it was a delight to listen to it again, afresh, over the last 2 weeks.

There’s two songs, in particular, that – I think due to the mix-tape-from-a-friend nature of my early Rush listening, I am very unfamiliar with. Entre Nous and Jacob’s Ladder, for some reason, never really entered my brain as part of the every day Rush playlist. Listening to them anew after all these years was interesting. Entre Nous is beautiful, both lyrically and musically, and I enjoyed listening to it again.

We are secrets to each other
Each one’s life a novel
No one else has read

Full lyrics here.

This sentiment is echoed in the much later song, Spindrift, as I aluded to a few weeks ago.

Jacob’s Ladder just sounds like it was a lot of fun to play, although I must admit that I don’t know what it’s about, and I need to make some time to actually read the lyrics.

Anyways, thanks again to Craig for doing this. It’s been a lot of fun.

The Hobbit (The Battle of Five Armies)

I suppose I owe my 4 readers an update on the third of the Hobbit movies.

We figured it couldn’t get worse, but we were wrong.

To quote directly from the original Hobbit: It was called the Battle of Five Armies, and it was very terrible. And boy howdy was it terrible.

At some point in the second movie we decided to try to view the movies as Hobbit-adjacent fan fiction, but in movie three they stopped even pretending that they had read the book, and just started making stuff up.

We use the term “chase scene” to refer to a scene that was gratitously added to a story to make it more exciting on screen. This comes from the bizarre chase scene that was added in the Jim Carrey animated Christmas Carol movie, which was invented from the air, and included a miniaturized Srooge (but why?) being chased by rats.

BoFA was all chase scene. Just so much chase scene. And the few parts that they got almost right, they still managed to get wrong. The wonderful scene when Thorin apologizes to Bilbo and begs him to part as friends, was beautifully acted, but happened at the wrong place and time, for no discernible reason.

Once again we kept asking ourselves, why would they change *that*?? Changes that made no sense, and added nothing to the story, the drama, or anything else. I just don’t understand.

Anyways, we’re glad it’s over, and we watched the  1977 animated made-for-TV Hobbit as a palate cleanser. It was *way* better.