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: What Is Maintainership?: Yesterday, at my first LibrePlanet conference, I delivered a somewhat impromptu five-minute lightning talk, "What is maintainership? Or, approaches to filling management skill gaps in free software". I spoke without a script, and what follows is what I meant to say; I hope it bears a strong resemblance to what I actually said. I do not know whether any video of this session will appear online; if it does, I'll update this entry.

What is Maintainership?

Or, approaches to filling management skill gaps in free software

Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset Consulting
LibrePlanet, Cambridge, MA, 20 March 2016

Why do we have maintainers in free software projects? There are various different explanations you can use, and they affect how you do the job of maintainer, how you treat maintainers, how and whether you recruit and mentor them, and so on.

So here are three -- they aren't the only ways people think about maintainership, but these are three I have noticed, and I have given them alliterative names to make it easier to think about and remember them.

Sad: This is a narrative where even having maintainers is, fundamentally, an admission of failure. Jefferson said a lot of BS, but one thing he said that wasn't was: "If men were angels, we would have no need of government." And if every contributor contributed equally to bug triage, release management, communication, and so on, then we wouldn't need to delegate that responsibility to someone, to a maintainer. But it's not like that, so we do. It's an approach to preventing the Tragedy of the Commons.

I am not saying that this approach is wrong. It's totally legitimate if this is how you are thinking about maintainership. But it's going to affect how your community does it, so, just be aware.

Skill: This approach says, well, people want to grow their skills. This is really natural. People want to get better, they want to achieve mastery, and they want validation of their mastery, they want other people to respect their mastery. And the skill of being a maintainer, it's a skill, or a set of skills, around release management, communication, writing, leadership, and so on. And if it's a skill, then you can learn it. We can mentor new maintainers, teach them the skills they need.

So in this approach, people might have ambition to be maintainers. And ambition is not a dirty word. As Dr. Anna Fels puts it in her book Necessary Dreams, ambition is the combination of the urge to achieve mastery of some domain and the desire to have your peers, or people you admire, acknowledge, recognize, validate your mastery.

With this skills approach, we say, yeah, it's natural that some people have ambition to get better as developers and also to get better at the skills involved in being a maintainer, and we create pathways for that.

Sustain: OK, now we're talking about the economics of free software, how it gets sustained. If we're talking about economics, then we're talking about suppply and demand. And I believe that, in free software right now, there is an oversupply of developers who want to write feature code, relative to an undersupply of people with the temperament and skills and desire to do everything else that needs doing, to get free software polished and usable and delivered and making a difference. This is because of a lot of factors, who we've kept out and who got drawn into the community over the years, but anyway, it means we don't have enough people who currently have the skill and interest and time to do tasks that maintainers do.

But we have all these companies, right? Companies that depend on, that are built on free software infrastructure. How can those with more money than time help solve this problem?

[insert Changeset Consulting plug here]. You can hire my firm, Changeset Consulting, to do these tasks for a free software project you care about. Changeset Consulting can do bug triage, doc rewriting, user experience research, contributor outreach, release management, customer service, and basically all the tasks involved in maintainership except for the writing and reviewing of feature code, which is what those core developers want to be doing anyway. It's maintainer-as-a-service.

Of course you don't have to hire me. But it is worth thinking about what needs to be done, and disaggregating it and seeing what bits companies can pay for, to help sustain the free software ecology they depend on.

So: sad, skill, sustain. I hope thinking about what approach you are taking helps your project think about maintainership, and what it needs to do to make the biggest long-term impact on software freedom. Thank you.

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: Two Conferences, Three Talks: Last week I took the train to Atlanta to speak at the Great Wide Open conference, which I'd never visited before. I particularly appreciated the chance to share my lessons learned with an audience that was diverse on gender, ethnic, speciality, and other dimensions, the cozy and delightful speakers' dinner, and the organizing team's consistent approachability and helpfulness. If Atlanta is an easy trip for you, and if you're interested in growing your skills in free and open source software, I suggest you consider attending next year.

I spoke on underappreciated features in HTTP, and my slides are available as a PDF. If you're going to be at PyCon North America in Portland, Oregon this year, I'll be presenting a more Python-specific version of this talk there on May 31st. If neither of those works for you, check out the video of the very similar "HTTP Can Do That?!" presentation I delivered at Open Source Bridge last year.

Then I rode the train north to Boston; along the way I got to converse with a neat seatmate, a military veteran who loves taking family walks after dinner to play Ingress with his kids. Awww. His son loves Minecraft so I got to recommend the NYPL historical-map Minecraft worlds to him.

Then, this past weekend, I attended my first LibrePlanet. What a lovely time I had! I saw rockin' talks by people whose thoughts I was already eager to hear, and I met dozens of people who are working on promising projects like a nonprofit, transparent search for the web and a browser extension that lets users share their internet connections with people whose connections are censored. I especially commend the organizers for running the conference, including the video streaming, using entirely free and open source software! Since we knew that all of us are dedicated to software freedom as a goal in itself and towards a more just and a freer world, we could have complex conversations that advanced beyond first-contact advocacy and into details and long-term planning.

I spoke on "Inessential Weirdnesses in Free Software"; the written remarks I spoke from are now available as a text file. It is not the most legible page in the world, because I will be further revising this talk before presenting it at OSCON in Austin, Texas, on May 18th.

I also delivered a somewhat impromptu five-minute lightning talk, "What is maintainership? Or, approaches to filling management skill gaps in free software". I've now posted the textual version of that talk.

LibrePlanet participants told me they really liked both my talks; the latter especially spurred some to talk with me about potential contracts with my firm, Changeset Consulting, which was a big morale injection since I'm definitely seeking leads and referrals right now.

Thanks to both LibrePlanet and Great Wide Open for having me speak! I've also updated my Talks webpage with links to my upcoming appearances. My calendar's open after August, in case you know anyone looking for a speaker who makes a lot of jokes and gestures.

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This work by Sumana Harihareswara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by emailing the author at sh@changeset.nyc.