Thoughts on Running an OSS Project

One of my favorite development events is the every couple years Pablo’s Fiesta open spaces in Austin. However, I have to roll my eyes pretty hard every single time when one of the celebrity programmers here in town submits a session on running an OSS project for the express purpose of telling everyone exactly how great he is as an OSS lead.

While I’ve been heavily involved in OSS for years as the primary author and technical lead of StructureMapFubuMVC / Jasper, and the recently rebooted Storyteller, I am certainly not the awesome OSS leader that the celebrity programmer above purports to be at every single Pablo’s Fiesta.

In my own OSS efforts I’ve:

  • Taken far too long to answer user questions or completely missed questions on user lists and emails
  • Probably been a little too impatient and testy with other developers a little too frequently
  • Left pull requests to rot without decent feedback
  • Consistently failed to write adequately useful docs and getting started tutorials
  • Never been terribly successful in building community around OSS projects

But hey, there’s oodles of conference talks and blog posts about being awesome at OSS, so how about instead some frank thoughts from a guy whose made a lot of mistakes at running OSS projects.

Bugs from Users

Let’s just work under the assumption that bugs are going to be reported from your users. My experience is that even when I’m doing my best to ratchet up the test coverage and software engineering discipline on my work enough users can always find scenarios that I didn’t anticipate or adequately accommodate in the code.

In a way, getting bug reports is a good thing because it means you actually have interested users and it’s frequently useful feedback. Because you’re frequently dealing with users remotely, I think the biggest challenge many times is to make sure that you fully understand the exact problem that the user is encountering. At one extreme, it’s becoming common for me to get bug reports in StructureMap that come with failing unit tests or example code that demonstrates exactly what the problem is and how to reproduce it. My cutesy saying to describe that is:

Blessed are those who attach failing unit tests to their bug reports, for their issues shall be addressed first

Even if you don’t get concrete examples from users, I think it’s valuable to try to do that yourself and get whoever reported the bug to look at your reproduction steps.

A couple other things about bugs:

  • I try not to close issues in GitHub from other people if there’s any question about whether or not a fix resolved their problems, but I’ll still flush out old issues that have gone dormant
  • Try to pin down every reported bug with an automated test of some kind that runs in your CI build to avoid regression problems. Bugs tend to be non-obvious edge cases, so it’s even more important than most code to have some kind of test coverage. You can see the result of that philosophy here in the StructureMap testing library.
  • This is a long term play, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to embed diagnostics in my tools that users could use to export some kind of data describing their system to make my life a lot easier when I’m trying to diagnose problems with nothing but a random stack trace.

Taking Pull Requests

I’ve been getting some great pull requests to StructureMap recently for performance and some big features that I knew other people have wanted in the past but I frankly didn’t want to build. That’s been great, but in the past I’ve also brought in some pull requests that have come back to haunt me through support problems and structural problems in the code.

Some thoughts on pull requests:

  • Do a much better job than I do about giving feedback to submitters at least to say that “got it, thank you, I’ll try to get to this by…” 😉
  • And I’m sorry, but I cannot and should not take in a pull request with no tests if it impacts the code. I’m sure that your code did work when you used it, but tests are also there to demonstrate to other users how it should work and to keep me or yet more pull requests from breaking your code later
  • As much as you’d like to make everybody happy who takes the time to submit pull requests, you cannot automatically take in pull requests with spotty quality because at the end of the day you’re the one responsible. Take Harry S. Truman’s philosophy of “the buck stops here” in regards to pull requests.
  • Don’t be too quick to take in pull requests because “that looks fine to me.” I’ve been burned several times by not thinking through the implications and edge cases that get introduced by a pull request — especially when it seems well coded with tests and everything. The author of the pull request may be thinking tactically about his or her immediate problem, but you have to take the strategic view of that code change.
  • If a user is going to submit a pull request that makes a substantial change in direction or internals, I’d rather know about it early to avoid any hard feelings and wasted time on their part if you don’t want to take it in.
  • Go easy on stylistic elements of the code like naming and formatting, but my experience has been that other developers have been pretty reasonable when they get timely feedback about a pull request. I will from time to time take in a pull request that has some problems and just address those myself quietly off to the side. You have to walk a line between maintaining an acceptable level of quality and consistency within the codebase and not making it too much trouble for other folks to contribute.

Push vs Pull Features

While I can point to exceptions to this rule, I’ve consistently found that features built for a demonstrated need or use case on my project or something requested from other users have been more successful than features that started from “wouldn’t it be cool if…”

Play the Long Game

In my strong opinion and experience, the most reliable way to achieve high quality and great usability is to iterate over time in response to feedback and the problems encountered along the way. If you want your project to be good you better be ready to have a long enough attention span to improve it over time by responding to the problems that pop up and never being complacent about your current approach.

My 11-12 years and counting involvement with StructureMap is an extreme case. Maybe more relevant is my old Storyteller tool for acceptance test driven development in .Net. The first two versions of Storyteller have some severe usability problems and more friction in its usage than I care to admit. Later this month I’m going to do my first public presentation on the new Storyteller 3.0 version that’s vastly better so far in daily usage as a direct result of paying attention to all the lessons we learned in using and building it over 5-6 years.

Don’t be afraid to jettison old features that no longer make sense or you no longer want to support. My rule of thumb on StructureMap has been that any feature that makes me cringe when someone asks how to use it because I just know this is going to be trouble has to go in the next release.

Dealing with Angry Users

Let’s face it, software developers are not particularly known for having great interpersonal skills and primarily interacting through online mediums lets some of the worst behaviors leak through that would probably never happen in person. If you publish an OSS tool of any complexity it’s not unlikely that you’re going to get to deal with irate users at the end of their rope. You may be saying to yourself that your tool’s usage is so obvious that there won’t be any problem and I’m going to tell you that perfectly intelligent developers come from a lot of different backgrounds, think differently than you, and absolutely will be confused by something that’s obvious to you.

All I can tell you is to:

  • Remember that they’re probably not at their best right now and it’s almost a stereotype that developers who are unquestionably assholes online can easily be calm, pleasant people in real life
  • Not take it too personally and remember that even if it turns out to be your fault, you can’t be expected to be omniscient and cut yourself some slack
  • Really don’t worry too much about your version of “if this isn’t fixed right now I’m going to switch to AutoFac!” because that person is probably someone you just don’t need to be interacting with anyway. My internal response is usually that I’d be happy to dump that user onto someone else’s user list or gitter room;-)

I know I’ll get yelled at for this one in comments or Twitter, but my consistent experience is that the more strident and angry a developer is being online the more likely it is that they’re doing something stupid.

Ironically, some of the worst bugs and problems I’ve had uncovered by users have come from people that were very reasonable and patient. I suspect that might be because it’s just easier to communicate without the venom flying. I also know that I do try harder to help out folks that are being polite and patient.

Should I Follow My Project on Twitter or Stackoverflow?

I think it really depends on how thick your skin is and how important the stewardship of an OSS tool is to your career. I’ve gone both ways with Twitter, but I’m back to following references to StructureMap at least just to understand what people are saying about it and occasionally to lend a hand. At other times I’ve had to ignore Twitter because developers as a whole tend to be assholes on Twitter safely behind their cutesy little cartoon avatars and the online snark and griping was just too aggravating. I guess my advice is to make sure that you’re decoupling your mental and emotional well-being from any kind of online negativity from other people. You also might remember that developers probably tweet much more when they’re angry or frustrated.

No matter how competitive you happen to be, don’t you dare let it ruin your weekend when folks are extolling the benefits of a competitor tool instead of yours.

As for Stackoverflow, I have to admit that I purposely avoid following my tools on Stackoverflow because I just can’t handle the stress of trying to deal with all of the deluge. Granted, some of that is because StructureMap questions more frequently verge into needing to give software design and architectural advice more than answering simple API usage type of questions. I do try to stay on top of questions that are more or less directed to me from mailing lists, Gitter rooms, or Twitter.

If you’re making a big career bet on some kind of OSS tool, I think you’d better watch Stackoverflow just to understand what the usability problems are with your tool — and sadly enough, you may need to combat misinformation about your tool from other people.

Building an Awesome Community Around Your Project

Y’all will have to fill this section in yourself in the comments because I’ve got nothing.


6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Running an OSS Project

  1. Hey Jeremy it sounds like a thankless task sometimes. So thanks for all your hard work over the years that you’ve given to back to community.. all the guys on our team love StructureMap.

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