Summer of Code preview

I wrote an LWN article called “Google’s Summer of Code: Past and Future.” In it, you’ll learn:

  • Why your project should apply to the program
  • How big the program is likely to be this year
  • A major change for the 2009 session, and
  • A pointer to a valuable resource for mentors.

LWN is my favorite source for the best Linux and open-source news. They write original articles and also spend a lot of time searching all over the Internet for all the latest news so that all I have to do is read it. The reader community is fantastic, too. Subscribe to LWN today!

links for 2009-02-20

  • Invariably, groups that had the bad apple would perform worse. And this despite the fact that were people in some groups that were very talented, very smart, very likeable. Felps found that the bad apple’s behavior had a profound effect — groups with bad apples performed 30 to 40 percent worse than other groups. On teams with the bad apple, people would argue and fight, they didn’t share relevant information, they communicated less.

    Even worse, other team members began to take on the bad apple’s characteristics. When the bad apple was a jerk, other team members would begin acting like a jerk. When he was a slacker, they began to slack, too. And they wouldn’t act this way just in response to the bad apple. They’d act this way to each other, in sort of a spillover effect.

    (tags: community)

links for 2009-02-17

  • Lots of good stuff, including this gem:

    Firing people isn’t just about saving money, or petty things like that. It’s the difference between a great organization and a failure. Ineffective people drag everyone else down to their level. They make it so that you can’t take pride in what you’re doing, so that you dread going into work in the morning, so that you can’t rely on the other pieces of the project getting done. And assholes, no matter how talented they may be, are even worse. Conversely, there are few things more fun than working hard with a really nice, talented group of people.

You improve your code. What about yourself?

I laid out part of a framework for improving Gentoo in my last post. As many of you kindly noted, I explained what I wanted to do but did a poor job of convincing you why it needs to happen. That’s what I’m going to begin doing in this post.

As this post’s title says, when you develop code, you generally want it to be the best code possible. You also want to improve it over time if it’s not yet up to the highest standards. This holds doubly true when you’re doing this for free in an open-source project. First, there’s no time pressure to pound out minimally working code, so you can take the time to make it beautiful. Second, everyone else can look at your work, so you can’t hide ugly code in a dusty corner somewhere as you might be able to in proprietary software.

These same concepts hold true for you, not just your code. When you’re contributing to an open-source project, everyone sees what you do and how you do it. Strive to make yourself beautiful in the context of open-source development. What’s that mean? Always challenge yourself, grow as a person, and learn new skills. Just as beautiful code perfectly suits its purpose, beautiful developers perfectly suit their purpose. Their skills and actions exemplify how open-source developers should act.

If you’re optimizing code, you know that you can’t optimize what you can’t measure. That’s why profilers and other methods of instrumentation exist. This concept has a parallel in your personal development. Your instrumentation is goals, and what you’re measuring is your performance against your own goals. The purpose of this, as with code, is to optimize performance for your relevant metrics. How do you know whether you’ve improved unless you’re profiling yourself? What you’re left with if you don’t set goals and track progress against them is that frustrating comment people always say, “It just feels faster.”

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?

Gentoo: New release, “new” leadership

I wrote an article discussing Gentoo’s new release and new council for this week’s If you’ve read my earlier blog posts and other posts on Planet Gentoo regarding 2008.0, there won’t be a whole lot of new information. It’s designed as analysis of recent Gentoo events for people who don’t already follow Gentoo development.

If you aren’t already subscribed to, get on it. It’s my #1 source for Linux- and open-source-related news, and it saves me huge amounts of time that I would otherwise spend in cesspools like Slashdot. =)

P.S. Anyone going to OSCON, let me know via a comment here or my contact info.

Developers give existing Gentoo council a mandate

I said this briefly on the gentoo-dev list, and I want to expand on it here. The council is Gentoo’s leadership, and it’s composed of 7 people elected by all Gentoo developers using a Condorcet-style ranking vote. Of the 7 people on the old council, 5 of them decided to run again and every single council member who ran was re-elected.

This is significant because the re-election was forced over miscommunication about a meeting, and this created some serious conflicts with a sentence in the Gentoo Linux Enhancement Proposal that created the current structure, including the council. I consider this a mandate, showing that Gentoo developers have confidence in the existing leadership doing what’s best for Gentoo.

This was your chance to say yes or no, and you gave us a resounding yes. Since it isn’t often we hear much from the vast majority of developers, this really means a lot to me in saying which directions we should go, based on who you voted for (graphs here). My interpretation is that you like what’s going on now and where we’re talking about going. I’d really love to hear more input from those of you who don’t normally speak up, though. What can we do for you?

P.S. The 2008.0 release is out.

Vote for the Gentoo council!

Devs, listen up–voting closes for the Gentoo council at 23:59 UTC today (Friday). Here I’m going to tell you my surprise underdog picks. By underdog, I mean people who I didn’t realize I was going to rank fairly highly for before doing research. I dig through all my mailing-list archives of -dev, -project and -core, looking at all the recent posts by each candidate. Then I decided whether they expressed enough opinion on global directions, whether they were active enough on-list, and whether I agreed with their ideas about where Gentoo should go. Based on that, here’s my underdogs:

  • jer (HPPA arch team)
  • leio (wxWidgets, GNOME maintainer)
  • ulm (emacs maintainer)
  • dev-zero (cpp, postgresql, samba, python maintainer)

Other than them, I strongly endorse our QA lead, Halcy0n (also on GCC porting, toolchain, and C++ teams). I’m not listing anyone who’s been on the council before, because that isn’t as interesting. There are other candidates who I think have the technical qualifications–I’m not voting for some of them because I think having a strong community that follows and enforces its own Code of Conduct is not just important but vital for Gentoo to move down the path of greatness.

Hot new GNOME apps in Gentoo

The inimitable Dave Neary just blogged about his favorite new GNOME apps, so I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at what it takes to get them running in Gentoo. To get a quick idea of the status, I searched our main tree and overlays using eix, then searched our Bugzilla using pybugz.

for i in gnome-do hamster tasque cheese vagalume pimlico transmission; do eix $i; bugz search $i; done

Here’s what I found (useless output removed):

* gnome-extra/gnome-do
Available versions: (~) {debug}
Description: GNOME Do allows you to search for and perform actions on items in your desktop environment

* gnome-extra/gnome-do-plugins
Available versions: (~)0.4.0 {amarok debug evo}
Description: Plugins to put the Do in Gnome Do

* gnome-extra/hamster-applet [1]
Available versions:  (~)0.6.1
Description:         Time tracking for the masses, in a GNOME applet

[1] "sunrise" /usr/local/portage/layman/sunrise

[I] media-video/cheese
Available versions:  (~)2.22.0 (~)2.22.1 (~)2.22.2 {v4l}
Installed versions:  2.22.2(03:07:37 PM 06/18/2008)(v4l)
Description:         A cheesy program to take pictures and videos from your webcam

225775 maintainer-wanted    New ebuild: media-sound/vagalume-0.6 ( radi

* net-p2p/transmission
Available versions:  1.1.0 (~)1.11 (~)1.20 {gtk libnotify}
Description:         Simple BitTorrent client

Visiting the pimlico homepage, I found that it’s actually a suite of apps. Searching for their names revealed that we also have them. So far we’ve got gnome-do, hamster, cheese, vagalume, transmission and pimlico. Not too shabby. A quick Google search for the terms “tasque ebuild” found an ebuild for that, too! Apparently that overlay isn’t part of the eix cache, perhaps because it isn’t available through layman.

It’s worth noting that out of the 7 apps, 3 exist outside the main tree but are still trivial to find. I don’t have the time or interest in trying some of them myself. If you do try ’em, let folks know how it goes in the comments!

How to run an effective meeting on IRC

Since my election to the Gentoo Council, I’ve become the de facto meeting chair and secretary. Over the past 6 months or so, I’ve learned a lot about what works well in online meetings (often by virtue of doing the opposite). By no means have I mastered this, but here’s some of my discoveries along the way.

What works well:

  • Send out a draft agenda in advance (say, 1 week). This helps avoid confusion and disorganization at the meeting, and it also allows you to have no “open floor” section at all, because all topics should have come up when you posted the draft. Settle on a final agenda a couple of days in advance.
  • On the draft, say who should attend the meeting to discuss each topic.
  • Be specific about the topic, so you stay focused during the meeting.
  • For each topic, have a very specific goal of what will be accomplished at that meeting. If it’s a decision, exactly what will the vote be? If it’s a discussion, what points do we want to get out of it, and why is it happening during the meeting instead of on mailing lists?
  • Prepare. All of the information needed to make a decision should be readily available by the time the meeting comes along. To aid this, say on the draft agenda what information will be needed.
  • Stay relentlessly on topic. Cut off diverging threads early on, before everyone gets involved.
  • During the meeting, get an action plan for each topic: What’s the next step? Who’s responsible for it? When will they have it ready? Make sure the person responsible personally commits to this–don’t just assign it to them.
  • Take notes, and post a public summary. This summary informs and reminds people of the progress made and what progress needs to be made next. By being posted publicly, it also allows for discussion, clarification and correction.
  • Keep track of unresolved topics, and keep bringing them up over and over so they can’t slip through the cracks.

What works poorly:

  • Request topics on a mailing list, but don’t collate them into an agenda until after the meeting’s started.
  • Do your best to ensure that people relevant to a topic don’t even know it’s going to be discussed, or don’t tell them what information you need from them.
  • Have vague topics, so nobody’s really sure what you’re supposed to be talking about or what you want to get out of it. Feel free to branch out into anything that seems related, or really anything at all.
  • If a topic isn’t resolved by the end of the meeting, forget about it. If it’s important, it’ll come up again, right?
  • Don’t tell anyone what the results of the meeting were. If you have to release something, make it as hard to comprehend as possible, like an IRC log instead of a summary.

It took a lot of pain and wasted time for me to figure out the value of doing things right, and I’m still working on getting some of the above points right, so I want to save you that same pain.

Do you have any more points to add? Please do so in the comments. Thanks!