The Mistakes I’ve Made as an OSS Author

Personally, I think the ability to admit and face up to your mistakes is a valuable side effect of gaining experience and confidence as a developer. I can’t help you get out of “Imposter Syndrome Jail” per se, but I can say to younger developers that you’ll be able to be much more sanguine about the mistakes you make in your technical decision making once you get over thinking that you need to prove your worth to everyone around you at all times. 

This post might be nothing but navel gazing, but I’d bet there’s something in here that would pertain to most developers sooner or later. I’ve had some of these mistakes rubbed into my face this week so this has been on my mind.

A couple years ago I would have said that my biggest mistake was a failure to provide adequate documentation and example usages. Today I’ll happily put the Marten, StructureMap, or Storyteller documentation against almost any OSS project, so I’m going to pass on being guilty about those past sins.

Don’t Fly Solo on Big Things

I think it’s perfectly possible to work by yourself on small, self-contained libraries. If you’re trying to do something big though, you’re going to need help from other folks. Ideally, you’ll need actual coding and testing help, but at a minimum you’ll need feedback and feature ideas from other folks. If you have any desire to see your project attract sizable usage, you’ll definitely want other folks who are also invested in seeing your project succeed.

I can’t help you much here in regards to how to accomplish the whole “build a vibrant OSS community” thing. Other than Marten, I’ve never been very successful at helping grow a community around any of the tools I’ve built.

FubuMVC did have a great community at first, but I attribute that much more to Chad Myers and Josh Arnold than anything I did at the time.

 

Thinking that Time is Linear

Every single time I make a StructureMap release I feel like “that’s it, I’m finally done with this thing, and I can move on to other things now.” I thought that the 3.0 release was going to permanently solve the worst of StructureMap’s structural and performance flaws. Then came ASP.Net Core, the CoreCLR, and a desire to speed up our application bootstrapping time, so out came StructureMap 4.0 — and this time I really was finished, thank you. Except that I wasn’t. Users found new bugs from use cases I’d never considered (and wouldn’t use anyway, but I digress). Corey Kaylor and I ended up doing some performance optimizations to StructureMap late last year that unclogged some issues with StructureMap in combination with some of the tools we use. Just this Monday I spent 3-4 hours addressing outstanding bugs and pull requests to push out a new release.

My point here is to adopt the mindset that your activity on an OSS project is cyclical, not linear. Software systems, frameworks, or libraries are never completed, only abandoned. This has been my single biggest error, and it’s really an issue of perspective.

 

Be Realistic about Supporting Users

I’ve had issues from time to time on StructureMap when I get wound up feeling like I was too backlogged with user questions and problems with a mix of guilt and frustration. I think the only real answer is to just be realistic about how fast you can get around to addressing user issues and cut yourself a little bit of slack. Your family, your workplace, and you have to be a higher priority than someone on the internet.

 

Building Features Too Early

In the early days of Agile development we talked a bit about “pull” vs. “push” approaches to project scope. In the “push” style, you try to plan out ahead of time what features and infrastructure you’re going to need, and build that out early. In a “pull” style, you delay introducing new infrastructure or features until there’s a demonstrated need for that. My consistent experience over the past decade has been that features I built in reaction to a definite need on an ongoing project at work have been much more successful than ideas I jammed into my OSS project because it sounded cool at the time.

 

Dogfooding

Try not to put anything out there for consumption by others if you haven’t used it yourself in realistic situations. I probably jumped the gun on the Storyteller 4.0 release and I’ll need to push a new release next week for usability concerns and a couple bugs. All of that stress could have been avoided if I’d just used the alpha’s in more of my own projects before cutting the nuget.

 

On the other hand, sometimes what you need most is feedback from other folks. I wonder if I made a mistake adding the event sourcing functionality into Marten. The project I had in mind that would have used that at work has been put off indefinitely and I’m not really dogfooding it at all myself. Fortunately, many other folks have been using it in realistic scenarios and I’m almost completely dependent upon them for finding problems or suggesting enhancements or API changes. I think that functionality would improve a lot faster if I were the one dogfooding it, but that’s not happening any time soon.

 

Inadequate Review of Pull Requests

I try to err on the side of taking in pull requests sooner rather than later, and it often causes trouble down the road. In a way, it’s harder to process code from someone else for new features because you’re not as invested into seeing your way through the implications and potential gotchas. I see a pull request that comes with adequate tests and I tend to take it in. There have been several times when I would have been better off to stop and think about how it fits into the rest of the project.

I don’t know what the exact answer is here. Too stringent of requirements for pull requests and you won’t get any. Too little oversight leads to you supporting someone else’s code.

Overreach and Hubris

I hate to say you shouldn’t chase your OSS dreams, but I think you have to be careful not to overreach or take on a mission impossible. Taking my spectacular flameout with the FubuMVC project as an example, I think I personally made these mistakes:

  • Being way too grandiose. An entirely alternative web development and service bus framework with its own concepts of modularity far outside the .Net mainstream was just never going to fly. I think you’re more likely to succeed by being part of an existing ecosystem rather than trying to create a whole new ecosystem. I guess I’m saying is that there just aren’t going to be very many DHH’s or John Resig’s.
  • Building infrastructure that wasn’t directly related to the core of your project. FubuMVC at the end included its own project templating engine, its own static file middleware, a Saml2 provider, and various other capabilities that I could have pulled off the shelf instead of building myself. All that ancillary stuff represented a huge opportunity cost to myself.
  • Just flat out building too much stuff instead of focusing on improving the core of your project

 

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4 thoughts on “The Mistakes I’ve Made as an OSS Author

  1. Pingback: Dew Drop - February 24, 2017 (#2429) - Morning Dew

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