Striving for greatness

Thoughts on emerging tech, open source, and life

Archive for February 14th, 2009

Steps toward improving Gentoo

Having the right people in the right places pursuing the right goals is key to Gentoo’s success. Keeping in mind the Pareto principle (20% of the effort produces 80% of the results), I’ve come up with some ideas. The core of these ideas is creating a development community composed only of top-notch contributors and putting the entire Gentoo project into a cycle of continuous improvement, from the bottom up.

Each team and project should have goals. A good goal is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound). That means “Maintain foo packages” is a poor goal, because you cannot answer it in a quantitative way and it has no time limit. One example of a good goal is “6 months from now, 90% of new bugs will be closed within 2 weeks of their report.” Another example is “3 months from now, 100% of our packages will be bumped within 1 week of release, or a bug will exist describing why not.” Progress toward goals should be checked once a month by the team lead and reported to the project lead (or to the council, if no project lead exists).

Each team member should have goals. The performance of that contributor in the context of that team should be measured. People who aren’t up to the team’s high standards (measured by failure to meet goals) should receive coaching from the team lead. There should be a concrete plan for improvement, committed to by both sides, for how these people will reach the high standards they aren’t hitting yet. After a plan exists, failure to improve within 3 months will result in their departure from the team. At the team lead’s judgment, people may be removed without going through coaching if they are considered a lost cause. Progress toward goals should be checked once a month by the team lead.

To minimize the chance that an underperforming developer was simply not in the right place, each developer gets 3 chances to find the right place in Gentoo. Upon removal from the first 2 teams, the team lead will report what happened to the project lead (or to the council, if no project lead exists) and to developer relations. On the 3rd strike, you’re out.

Council members and project leads should take responsibility for mentoring the next generation of leaders. Just as team leads are helping to improve individual developers, so the next tier of leadership should be developing team leads into strong project leads and council members. Nobody sticks around forever, and we need to be ready for when even our most critical developers move on. It’s far better to have too many strong potential leaders than to have a vacuum that’s filled by a poor leader.

Finally, all of our goals should flow downward in a logical manner from the Gentoo mission & vision through projects to teams and individual developers. Gentoo’s perennial problem is a lack of focus. Any work that is inconsistent with our goals should be stopped, and we should rededicate our time to things that tie in with where we want to be next year and 5 years from now. To ensure this, goals at each level should be reviewed by whoever’s at the next level up to make sure things make sense at a global level all the way down, like a waterfall.

Now is a good time to re-read the Gentoo philosophy. I find it extremely powerful and compelling, and I hope you feel the same. We should live this philosophy every day in our work with Gentoo, and every aspect of our work should grow from it:

Every user has work they need to do. The goal of Gentoo is to design tools and systems that allow a user to do that work as pleasantly and efficiently as possible, as they see fit. Our tools should be a joy to use, and should help the user to appreciate the richness of the Linux and free software community, and the flexibility of free software. This is only possible when the tool is designed to reflect and transmit the will of the user, and leave the possibilities open as to the final form of the raw materials (the source code.) If the tool forces the user to do things a particular way, then the tool is working against, rather than for, the user. We have all experienced situations where tools seem to be imposing their respective wills on us. This is backwards, and contrary to the Gentoo philosophy.

Put another way, the Gentoo philosophy is to create better tools. When a tool is doing its job perfectly, you might not even be very aware of its presence, because it does not interfere and make its presence known, nor does it force you to interact with it when you don’t want it to. The tool serves the user rather than the user serving the tool.

The goal of Gentoo is to strive to create near-ideal tools. Tools that can accommodate the needs of many different users all with divergent goals. Don’t you love it when you find a tool that does exactly what you want to do? Doesn’t it feel great? Our mission is to give that sensation to as many people as possible.

I’ve run out of time for tonight. Most of what I’ve written is about forward progress rather than improving individual developers, so I’ll try to write more about that another time. I think we need know how we’re doing if we ever want to improve, so this investment into goals and thinking about performance is worthwhile. What do you think?

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Written by Donnie Berkholz

February 14, 2009 at 10:26 pm

links for 2009-02-14

Written by Donnie Berkholz

February 14, 2009 at 10:13 pm

Posted in Blog