Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Beatings Will Stop When Morale Improves

Or, The Care and Feeding of your Free Software Developer

The coming release of KDE4 will invariably ruin us all and cause paroxysms of angst among the faithful, and there possibly will be a few things not quite working as we want. It's time to remember how we can be the best user community in free software.

I am working with a piece of free software, no a whole suite of free software that I didn't pay a cent for. It arrives well endowed, with numerous surprising and delightful flourishes. And it was free. Where did it come from? Well, a bunch of computer programmers, hackers, got together by some means to write the thing. It is a result of years worth of coding, mostly done for nothing except the satisfaction of being part of something amazing. It is fun writing code. Especially when everyone else is there for the same reason.

So I as a user, without the skills to actually do things to make it work better, want this process to continue. I want a Better KDE (tm). I recognize my self-interest in this matter. I need to find a way to feed these strange people so they do more. How can I motivate these hackers so that they work even longer hours, or even better, motivate new hackers to give their time and skill to ME!

What do those who contribute to free software need? Let us make a list.

Money. Unfortunately, software hackers, like most of us have gotten into the habit of eating and wanting to sleep in a warm dry bed. Usually this takes money. How does this work with free software? Many of the core developers in KDE work for companies that benefit from KDE. The distributions sell their product. Trolltech sells developer licenses for closed development. Some developers have consulting firms that sell products. If we purchase from these firms, we benefit our beloved KDE.

A second obvious way to make sure developers have the money they need is to offer it directly to them. A case in point. KPrinter is somewhat in flux because the developer that wrote most of it is off working somewhere else. What that means is that we as a community have lost a valuable worker because someone else pays them more. Maybe we as a user community have the gained the reputation of being too cheap to keep our core assets. Hmmm. Something to think about.

Appreciation. Many who contribute don't expect or want renumeration. We all thrive when we are appreciated. Have you personally thanked the developers who wrote the software that you are using right now? If not, why not? There are many ways to get this message to them. This is the easiest and cheapest way of feeding your developers.

Keep your trap shut. This may be a bit counter intuitive to many, but may be one of the most important contributions you can make. Let me explain. Any time we use a tool we run into frustrating situations. It may not work the way you want. Frustration is one of the signs of new learning. This is normal, and I would say healthy. So what do we do with it? Do we vent our frustration on the writers of the code, who for the most part give it to us? The answer is no. If we have a dog, what would happen if we kicked it every time it came to us? It would stop coming. Same with developers. If every time we felt frustration we vented, maybe the developer would lose motivation to do anything for us.

Contributing back. We really show that we value the gift we have by contributing our skills and time to the project. Did we find a bug? File a report, and more importantly, follow up on the bug. Maybe the developer can't reproduce it. Maybe (s)he needs more information. You can measurably help the project by following up on the sometimes onerous task of tracking down a bug. KDE is open to contribution on many fronts. Translation. Testing. Packaging. Web design. Support in irc channels. Actual code contributions. etc. The project has gotten as far as it has because willing people have jumped in to contribute where they have seen a need.

And now for a personal note. I wrote the Commit-Digest for around 3 years. It was enjoyable and challenging, and I believe helped attract developers to the community. Every week someone I didn't know sent me a note saying how much they appreciated my work. Someone, I don't know who, paid the registration fees on the domain name. I didn't do it for money, or fame. I wanted to advance KDE in some way. I know my work was appreciated, and I thank everyone who made me feel that way. I wish one thing only. That everyone who contributes to KDE gets that same feeling of appreciation that I did. If they do KDE will continue to improve.

I would really like to thank you for this post. It's quite common that users of open source software state their wishes/demands in a very disrespectful and counterproductiv(!!) way.
Posts like yours are needed to remind users that they are using software developed mostly in the spare time of the developers and that they as user do not have the right to demand anything. But they do have the right to participate in improving the software.

To all OSS devs out there: hugs and thumbs up!
Well said!

And FWIW, thanks very much for those three years of the digest and your other contributions :)
hei! i've started using commitdigest recently!

thx for the tool ;)
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