Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Remedial Skills In Open-To-The-Public Working Groups
I'm talking in this post about wikis, political clubs, open source projects, fanvidding exchanges -- any groups where people try to work together and are open to the public.
"No, what's that?"
Some people joining your groups don't know things you take for granted.
Years ago, while helping new applicants to Google Summer of Code get into working on (I think) MediaWiki or Zulip, I was talking with a person who was (at that time) a student in an Indian engineering college. He had run into trouble and was trying to debug a setup issue. He seemed to be asking for help but not systematically investigating what the problem might be.
So I said, let me give you some tips on troubleshooting. You've heard of the scientific method?
He said: no, what's that?
I gave him a link to the Simple English Wikipedia article on it -- and to the They Might Be Giants video for their song "Put It To The Test", on forming falsifiable hypotheses and testing them. I asked him to watch and read them and then tell me when he had done so. He did.
They Might Be Giants - Put It to the Test from They Might Be Giants on Vimeo.
I then said: so, you do that. You come up with a hypothesis for what might be the problem, and figure out how you would check to see if that is the case. You run the experiment, and you use the resulting data to refine your hypothesis -- if you're wrong, you try to come up with a new hypothesis. And then you either find and fix the problem, or if you get stuck, you at least have a bunch of data to give someone so they can help you better.
He said: THIS IS AMAZING! I'M GONNA USE THIS ALL THE TIME! And I was like IT IS! And then in a separate private conversation with colleagues, I was privately very angry with the educational system that had let him get that far without teaching him this!
[This is one of the experiences that led to me writing a fairly well-regarded blog post for new open source software contributors, on the scientific method, learning from and contributing to shared notes and logs, and self-reliance and interdependence.]
Some lessons here for you:
In open source projects, I think it's also okay to exclude unskilled people from a project based on "we do not have time to help them learn remedial skills, and this is not a suitable project for novices." If you are going to do this, explicit is better than implicit. You should try to forewarn contributors with explicit "not good for beginners/prerequisite skills are [list]" language in your README and CONTRIBUTORS files. And when you need to tell contributors that they aren't ready to participate in your group yet, you should offer them a redirect to a project more suitable to their skill level, you should take care not to insult them while redirecting, and you should tell them they'll be welcome back in the future after learning more of the prerequisites.
Thanks to Dr Linda McIver for the conversation that spurred this post.