How to disagree

Paul Graham‘s writing is hit-or-miss for me. His most recent posting, called “How to Disagree,” definitely hit home. Everyone involved in a community should read it. It describes a hierarchy of disagreement types from irrelevant insults to arguments that actually refute to the main point. After you read it, you will recognize which responses are baseless claims and which ones deserve consideration. This will also help in understanding debates of all sorts that you aren’t involved in but just observe.

Redux: Gentoo’s top 3 issues

People were so busy complaining about my pie chart that most of them apparently didn’t have a chance to think about the meaning of the actual data. To try helping people look at the information rather than its presentation, here’s a bar chart of the same information:

I don’t recommend looking at it because you may go blind, but I’ve made available the (extremely ugly) script that created this.

What are the top 3 issues facing Gentoo?

I ran a quick, informal poll on the internal Gentoo developers’ list last week, and tonight I began analyzing the results. 50 developers responded to my 9-question survey, and I’m going to post the results of 1 question at a time.

First question: What are the top 3 issues facing Gentoo?

Pie chart

Technical issues are way down on the list. Developers’ top 5 issues are manpower, publicity, goals, developer friction, and leadership. It’s good to see that we’ve been addressing at least a couple of them with the newly energized public relations project and work on the Code of Conduct. Other issues that have been ongoing for quite a while now are the lack of distro-wide vision and goals. The Council could provide those by increased activity and taking stronger stands in particular directions, and that’s part of the reason I did this survey—to figure out which directions our developers care about. I think part of the problem is that nobody sits around pondering directions and ideas. Everybody’s busy working in their own little areas and not thinking about the big picture. Manpower, or lack of it, is another issue I’m indirectly addressing in my push for greatness, which I’m going to post more about at some point (I promise!).

To create this chart, I used Google’s excellent chart API. The neat part about the API is that it’s simply a URL, so you can construct it with any language. I used a shell script since I was already fiddling around with awk. Any answer with less than 4 respondants was grouped into Other to make the rest of the chart readable.

Improving Gentoo’s PR

This won’t be a long post, because I’m tired. Sorry for the dearth of posts on here, but I’ve been busy writing other things—see below.

For anyone who hasn’t heard, I took over as lead of Gentoo’s public relations efforts a little over two weeks ago. Three days earlier, I wrote an LWN article concluding that Gentoo isn’t falling apart, but it’s totally failing to communicate. After writing that article, I realized that somebody had to step up to deal with this problem—who better than me?

My focus right now is showing people that Gentoo development is just as alive as it’s ever been. I’m doing this by opening windows into development through more frequent news postings, with links to discussion forums to respond to the posts. Doing this, combined with writing to people (“You will”) rather than about them (saying “Users will…”), will help build better relationships with our users.

Another part of improving the perception of a lively, active community is updating the look of our website. The old website redesign never made it to fruition, so a few of us have begun taking a look at how far it got, what happened, and what to do now. At a minimum, I’d like to make some slight changes to give our site a face lift. The design hasn’t changed for 6 years now, and it shows.

One major, easily fixable problem with our website is that there’s no obvious place to go for users who want to contribute. There should be a big “Get involved!” or “Help Gentoo!” link right up at the top of the page, next to “Get Gentoo!” All this requires is a little webpage that describes all the ways people can help. In fact, the whole website isn’t task-oriented enough. This needs to change.

In the future, I’m going to begin improving the “press” aspect of PR, based on my notes from an excellent talk by Josh Berkus at OSCON 2006 on public relations for OSS projects. The main ideas here are providing a press kit for reporters with all the basic info they want, building relationships with local reporters by using local Gentoo contacts, putting together some case studies of people and businesses using Gentoo in interesting ways, and improving our process for creating and posting news and press releases.

Finally, any Gentoo users can help improve Gentoo by simply advocating it to Linux users you know, giving demos and talks at Linux user group meetings or conferences, promoting it in articles, or writing in your blog about something Gentoo does really well.

HOWTO make Gentoo great

Gentoo is good. How do we make it great?

Over the past year or so, I’ve read a few books, and I want to use those ideas to build a better Gentoo. The books:

I plan to write a short series of posts discussing the lessons in these books and how to apply them to Gentoo. In this post, I’m going to summarize the concepts of “Good to Great.” I’ll discuss how we can apply them to Gentoo in a later post. The book explains what it takes to transform a good company into a great one. It’s a comparison of companies that made a transition from good to great (thus the title) with companies that remained merely good. Jim Collins and his group reduced the differences to a remarkably small set:

  • Level 5 leadership: The leaders of great companies aren’t charismatic, big-name CEOs. They’re humble, and their ambition is for the company, not for themselves.
  • First, get the right people: Before you decide what to do and where to go, get the right people in the right spots. Otherwise, you’ve got the wrong people creating the wrong vision, strategy, etc., which the right people are then forced to implement. Concrete implementations:
    • “When in doubt, don’t hire—keep looking. (Corollary: A company should limit its growth based on its ability to attract enough of the right people.)”
    • “When you know you need to make a people change, act. (Corollary: First be sure you don’t simply have someone in the wrong seat.)”
    • “Put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not your biggest problems. (Corollary: If you sell off your problems, don’t sell off your best people.)”

    The right people have the right innate abilities and character traits, not necessarily the specific knowledge and skills. For example, look for work ethic, dedication, and problem-solving ability, not ebuild-writing skills and knowledge of bash.

  • Confront the brutal facts: Don’t deny reality, or you can’t make the right decisions. To do this, create an environment where everyone can be heard, so the truth can come out. Don’t lose faith that you will win eventually, but accept the reality of now.
  • The Hedgehog Concept: Only do things that overlap in the three circles:
    • You’re passionate about it
    • You can be the best in the world at it
    • It drives your resource engine

    The resource engine is a combination of time (how well we attract contributors), money and brand (how well we create a community), drawn from an accompanying monograph for the social sectors.

  • Build a culture of discipline: Create a culture of self-disciplined people who are “fanatically consistent with the three circles.” Bureaucracy arises to compensate for incompetence and poor discipline due to having the wrong people. If you’ve got the right people, you don’t need the bureaucracy.
  • Technology accelerators: If a new technology fits into your Hedgehog Concept, become a pioneer. If not, settle for decent, or drop it altogether if you can.
  • The flywheel and the doom loop: Transforming from good to great is not quick. It’s a flywheel, slowly building momentum. From outside, all people see is the breakthrough, but from inside there’s a prior buildup. Merely good companies couldn’t build momentum—they jumped around from focus to focus, never getting anywhere with any of them. You don’t need to spend effort getting people behind your idea. Show them the results, and they’ll follow you.

Democracy as education in OSS projects

Reading the PressThink blog, I came across a couple quotes that apply well to open-source projects:

I kept thinking about a famous passage from Christopher Lasch, the great social critic and historian who died in 1994— before the rise of the Web. In the Revolt of the Elites, he said we learn more from argument than from information, not because opinions are weighter than facts, but because to argue for your ideas (in public) puts those ideas at risk. And that is how we learn. …

Lasch in his book:

If we insist on argument as the essence of education, we will defend democracy not as the most efficient but as the most educational form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and sound judgment… small communities are the classic locus of democracy— not because they are “self-contained,” however, but simply because they allow everyone to take part in public debates. Instead of dismissing direct democracy is irrelevant to modern conditions, we need to re-create it on a large scale.

Improving Gentoo as a tool

Gentoo is a metadistribution, meaning you’re supposed to built whatever you want with it. And we provide some of the tools to make that a reality, but we stop short. We still make it too hard to do what you want with Gentoo. Here’s some of the ideas I want to explore over the next year:

  • Increased binary package support: We already have an experimental tinderbox setup to build packages for a variety of architectures. I want to investigate increasing our collection of binary packages to make a fairly complete installation possible using only binaries.
  • Repositories for user-created distributions: We have tools like Catalyst to create basic installations with stage3 or stage4 tarballs, but it’s still hard to get what you want with them. We should make a repository of Catalyst spec files for a variety of purposes, and we should also add an accompanying mirror of the created tarballs so anyone can use them. We could also revive the Seeds project to create not just vanilla stage4 tarballs but fully fledged, preconfigured installations customized for specific purposes like LAMP servers, development machines, various cluster nodes, GNOME/KDE/Xfce desktops, etc. We already have the possibilities; we need to share our tools.
  • Creating the Gentoo metacommunity: In addition to letting you create your own distribution from Gentoo, I want Gentoo’s community to be what you want it to be. We’re in the middle of adding a few new mailing lists because our primary development list is drowning in noise. We made gentoo-project for non-technical general talk and gentoo-dev-announce for development-related information so developers don’t need to slog through gentoo-dev. I want to take that a step further by forming stronger Gentoo microcommunities around specific areas and moving discussion about those areas to their IRC channels and mailing lists. Our development community has grown too big to keep everything on a general development list. Everyone tries to chip into every discussion, even if they have no relation to it or are unaffected by it.
  • Excellence: Gentoo’s QA is not the greatest. What can we do to improve this? Some automated tools exist for pre-commit checking; can we add anything server-side? Can we add some build servers for critical system packages, so they don’t make it to users before building in a predefined set of common configurations? Can we improve our developer recruitment or add new training for existing developers? How can we renew and strengthen our commitment to excellence? You can’t create a tool with Gentoo if it’s broken.
  • New tools for new places: This is more of an exploratory idea. I’d like a team of contributors to research all the places people use Gentoo, and put together a collection of tools we’re missing. Further, we need to do more extensive research on other distributions to see what sorts of tools they have that we lack. I have no symptoms of NIH syndrome, so I’m happy to pull in working tools written for other distributions; I already did this for many of Fedora’s system-config-* tools last year.
  • Resolving the meta vs. specificity conflict: Gentoo’s status as a metadistribution sometimes produces conflicts between the goals of various projects and teams within Gentoo. Sometimes a person simply needs to make a decision of how to deal with it: pick one, or find a way to do both? Many people remarked over the past couple of years that we’re lacking strong leadership and overarching goals, which would give us some consistent way to decide which projects will “win.” As Seemant has said, Gentoo is a framework, a metadistribution, not a place that forces people to go a certain way. We should strive to enable contributors to follow whichever path beckons to them. But where is Gentoo going, and where should it go? You decide. The innovators and leaders can only suggest places for it to go, so the rest of the community has to follow them to our destination.

Why I volunteer to work on open-source software

A big ruckus came up on the Gentoo development list in the past couple of weeks, and part of it involved Gentoo contributors and their motivations. I’m sure most of us have heard that open-source software is about scratching your own itches, but I’m not sure that everyone really understands what that means.

For me, what it means is that my time on Gentoo needs to fulfill me in some way. If not, then I’ve got tons of other places to invest my free time. It does not mean every change I make fixes a problem I encountered. It does mean every change I make has some return in value. What’s value?

  • Functionality: A feature or bug fix that directly affects a program I use
  • Pride: My reputation as a developer relies upon clean, bug-free code. It’s important that my code is beautiful and functional.
  • Gratitude: Thanks from someone else for the time I spent on their problem
  • Reciprocity: An expectation that others will contribute in areas I care about if I work on things they care about
  • Stimulation: Spending time around other smart people who care about the same things

All of these are selfish, because I’m directly getting some sort of value out of my time and contribution. Many times, Gentoo developers have said they develop for themselves. That’s what they mean. Consequently, the people I care about making changes for are people who give me something I value in return. If you’re contributing in some way, I want to help you. If not, what’s my motivation?