A CEO is a Leader: The Recent Mozilla CEO Kerfuffle

Experience comes for free. Learning takes effort.

On March 24th, Mozilla announced that they had named Brendan Eich as CEO.

On April 3rd, Brendan Eich, after much internet uproar over his $1000 donation to disallow same-sex marriage, stepped down as CEO of Mozilla.

So.

WTF happened here?

First of all, some facts…

  • FACT: Brendan Eich is well within his rights to support his personal beliefs through financial donations. Furthermore, that he did not back down from his position shows a strong sense of integrity. He was correct to do what he did. (ed. note: I very strongly disagree with Eich’s position on this matter and share Rarebit’s disappointment, but defend to the death Eich’s right to express his opinion.)
  • FACT: Team Rarebit and others were well within their rights to express outrage at the appointment. They were correct to say what they did.
  • FACT: Yet others were well within their rights to defend the appointment. They were correct to say what they did.
  • FACT: The Mozilla board of directors appointed Eich because they truly believed they were doing what was best for the organization. They, however, erred.

What appears to have happened is that the Mozilla board of directors misunderstood the role of CEO in an organization, particularly in a non-profit and mission-driven organization.

A CEO isn’t merely a leader; a CEO is a Leader. In a non-profit and mission-driven organization, a CEO is a LEADER. LEADERship extends far beyond merely setting technical and strategic direction for an organization. It includes becoming the very public face of everything for which the organization stands.

As an organization with a brilliant track record for supporting diversity and freedom of all sorts, Mozilla could not have a CEO who was on public record as opposing what a great many people see as a civil right.

Undoubtedly, as CEO, Eich would have continued his admirable track record of not allowing his personal political and religious beliefs to impact his professional performance. He had, after all, been CTO of Mozilla almost since the beginning and from all appearances his personal beliefs did not affect that performance. But being CTO is not being CEO. A CTO is responsible for setting and delivering the technical vision for an organization. One’s opinion on social issues is unlikely to come up in such a role.

A CEO, on the other hand, is responsible for setting and delivering the overall vision for an organization. This vision includes not only business strategy but also culture and mission. As such, a CEO’s beliefs must completely track with those of the organization which they lead. This is part of what makes the hunt for a new CEO so challenging. While a CEO’s personal beliefs may not affect the easily quantifiable parts of their job, (as we have now seen) they can have untold effects on responsibilities which, while more fungible, are no less important.

If there is any blame to be placed here, it is with the Mozilla board for not realizing this fact. They were aware that Eich had taken a public stance on an issue which could be seen as contrary to the Mozilla culture, yet they apparently did not see this as a potential problem for acceptance of him as a CEO. It was this ignorance and lack of awareness which led to the recent drama. Thankfully ignorance is curable. And undoubtedly Mozilla has had an effective dose of its medicine for this ailment.

There is no doubt in my mind that Brendan Eich has the experience, the vision, and the competence to lead Mozilla for years to come. He has proved that with his many years of experience as CTO. But from a cultural point of view he was, unfortunately, damaged goods. As such, the Mozilla board of directors should have refused delivery of the CEO package. If they had, they could have retained him, his passion for the open web, and his talents to help further the Mozilla mission.

Instead they are left with a learning opportunity and without the contributions of a founding father. Thankfully, the organization is populated by thousands of brilliant and insightful human beings. Mozilla will recover from this mistake, and even while recovering it will continue its work toward the open web. Those of us who agree with and believe in this mission should, now more than ever, support Mozilla. Let’s turn this experience into learning and continue to move forward.

Announcing Documentation for the Internet Archive S3 API

Back in 2011 I was hired at Internet Archive to develop a digital archive service for memory institutions. Unfortunately, after six months the project was scrapped (along with my position).

In the last month of the project, while waiting for the go-ahead to keep moving forward, I undertook documenting the Archive’s S3-like API. The project was going to need this API and, to be entirely frank, the existing documentation is laughable (sorry, IA team, but it’s a spade). My API doc was nearing completion about the same time the project was axed, but it was never published and ended up collecting dust in my Dropbox.

Fast forward a couple of years. Now, as a co-organizer for San Francisco Perl Mongers, I stream and record as many of our events as possible. Afterward, I upload them to our SF.pm Collection on Internet Archive because I believe in their mission of “Universal access to all knowledge.”

In the process of that uploading, I found myself referring frequently to that old in-progress API doc. Finally it dawned on me that I should probably share the damn thing so others could benefit as well.

It took a lot of cleanup and editing, but now I present to you:

The Internet Archive S3 API Documentation.

This API will allows for the creation and maintenance of items on Internet Archive. It also allows uploading of files to the item and, if the item has the appropriate metadata values, Internet Archive provides online viewers for this item content. For more information, have a look at the API Summary & FAQ.

It’s my hope that this documentation will allow many more user groups, individuals, and institutions to preserve and share their content via Internet Archive (for free, might I add, but donations are always welcome). I think of it as a grassroots continuation of the stillborn Digital Archive Service I once worked to produce.

NOTA BENE #1: If you have a lot of content to upload to the Archive, please be a good citizen and contact Internet Archive to coordinate with them. The crack IA Collections department will help the process be as smooth as possible.

NOTA BENE #2: This is not an Internet Archive document. They are not responsible for any shortcomings it may have. Please see the support page for more information about that.

If you use this document (and I do hope you will) and do find any shortcomings, please let me know! This doc is in Github specifically because it makes it so easy to collaborate on this sort of thing.

The Rising Costs of Aging Perlers: Part 3, The Suggestions

So, what can the Perl community do to avert this decline and potential extinction? Probably a great many things, but here are my three top suggestions:

  1. Make cool shit. Talk about it. Talk about it A LOT. What little positive image Perl retains in these modern times is primarily limited to making sysadmin/dev ops lives easier. While this is a worthy and admirable accomplishment, it’s not going to turn any heads. People will (and do) not want to learn a language with a stodgy reputation. The best way to shed that reputation is to use the language to develop cutting edge tools and services, then to shout it from the mountain tops. DuckDuckGo is written in Perl and is going toe to toe with Google. Lacuna Expanse has shattered the Perl gaming boundaries. Follow their lead. Show people what you think is possible and they’ll start proving you wrong by creating the seemingly impossible.
  2. Modernize our dilapidated online communities. As the enlightened humans we are, we like to say that looks don’t matter. Unfortunately that’s not the way our brains are wired Looks do matter, or at least they do in this case. Take, for instance, the venerable PerlMonks. The site contains a limitless source of knowledge, both historical and contemporary. But its user interface and experience are both stuck in the late 1990’s and have become punchlines for a programming language which is trying to claim relevance in the current world of technology. This perception, unfortunately, is transferred to the Perl language at large. If we want to attract new community members, we need to do it with a modern sensibility, language, and tools. Online services where you can try out Perl programming in your browser. The latest in forum and moderation technologies. An interface which uses current best practices for usability and design.

    While I was doing research for this article, I came across this quote about linguistic cultural extinction which is quite relevant to Perl’s current situation:

    On a larger, less methodical scale, linguists agree that the single most important step towards ensuring a language does not disappear is the fostering of favorable conditions for its speakers to employ the language and to ensure that it is taught to their children. Approaches to Conservation

    Perl, as it currently stands, is not fostering those favorable conditions. It needs to modernize its presentation and approach to make itself more approachable and appealing to a new generation of programmers.

  3. TPF should fund training, outreach and community building to the same level as language development (if not more). According to The Perl Foundation‘s own mission statement, it is “…dedicated to the advancement of the Perl programming language through open discussion, collaboration, design, and code.” At no point does it mention community or training as a part of its raison d’être and I find that to be a grave oversight in desperate need of correction. A language is only advanced so long as it thrives. A language cannot thrive without practitioners and a strong community to support them. TPF is dropping the ball here, allowing the language they’re sworn to advance to founder in a morass of indifference and insignificance. It does not matter how many grants they hand out for language improvements which no one is going to use. As the effective figurehead of the Perl community, I feel only TPF is in a position to make the sort of changes necessary to drag Perl back into relevance and to allow it to grow and thrive, and these changes are not predominantly technical in nature. TPF should take the reins it recently appears so reticent to accept and both guide and grow the community through outreach and grants based upon measurable milestones. TPF: Accept responsibility for increasing the ranks of Perl programmers and the overall perception of our language within the programming community. Advance our language in ways which matter (read: not solely technological) and do it now before there is nothing left to advance.

So, here’s the thing.

You don’t have to agree with much of what I say above. But agreement isn’t necessary in order to think about the issue. And that’s what I urge you to do: start thinking about this as a legitimate issue. Even this cursory look at the current landscape of Perl usage and the Perl community shows that its aging and dwindling numbers are worthy of concern. I repeat: We are becoming the Shakers of the programming world and if we do nothing to change this then we will end up the same way they did.


Postscript…
During the process of writing this article I did a lot of research into cultural extinction. The concepts there are disturbingly applicable to what the Perl community is facing now. To end, I’d like to share a particularly relevant quote from Francis X. Hezel:

The key to cultural survival, then, is not purely conservatism—hanging on tightly to all that we have received in the past—but a genuine sense of dynamism and a readiness to adapt to a changing world. Strategies for economic development that entail change, therefore, may be seen as ways of promoting survival, material and cultural. Some of what we have understood in the past as either-or dichotomies ought to be re-examined in the light of this new model of culture.

The Rising Costs of Aging Perlers: Part 2, The Business

At this point you’re entirely justified in asking, “So what?”

The fact of the matter is, the lack of junior programmers is a very big deal from a business point of view, both to companies which already use Perl and those who might otherwise consider it. This directly and strongly impacts the bottom line of any Perl-using development shop.

According to Payscale.com, in San Francisco the median pay for a junior software developer is $66,000. For a senior software developer it’s $111,000. To be honest, we’re in a boom here right now. It’s my experience as a software development manager that each of these numbers is at least $20-$30K too low, but let’s run with the Payscale numbers. It’s obvious that a senior software developer is going to cost a shop a minimum of nearly $50,000 more than a junior developer.

Now consider the structure and needs of your typical software development department. There are a number of tasks which absolutely require the skills and expertise only a senior developer can bring to bear, but the majority of the work most likely can be performed by more junior developers with appropriate supervision. You do not need every member of your team to be senior and, at an extra $50K a head, you can’t afford to do it anyway. That sort of staff expenditure is an irresponsible business practice. However, as unreasonable as it is to expect a company to pay so much more for experience they don’t need, it’s equally unreasonable to expect a senior developer to accept less pay than (s)he has earned through years of training and experience.

Companies in this position, in order to continue using Perl, will have few options available to them. One of those options is to start training all incoming developers to use the language. While this is possible (undoubtedly some companies already do this), it is itself a very expensive proposition, often costing tens of thousands of dollars in training costs, time and productivity. A number of companies may run the numbers on the investment they’d be required to make in training and decide that it provides a much lower return than undertaking the arduous task of rearchitecting the software to use a language where they are able to hire staff (and at a more reasonable rate of pay).

Alternatively, companies which do not yet use Perl may be turned away from the language for similar reasons. The harsh financial realities of running a business—rather than technological merit—will end up dictating which programming language a company will use for their product. Selecting a language for which you can only hire senior developers is a very bad business practice, which leaves Perl in a poor position from a business point of view.

From where I’m standing, it does not appear as though the Perl community is doing much to correct this issue. As I detailed in my earlier post, in many cases Perl’s new programmer outreach appears fairly crummy if not virtually non-existent. This needs to change before Perl starts to face a cultural extinction. Perl needs to start creating fledgling Perlers to help sustain and grow the language through it’s next twenty-five years. As well, this will add new blood to the community and help diversify the gene pool. The more diverse a community, the better it’s able to adapt to the changing conditions which might otherwise overwhelm it.

A diverse or deep gene pool gives a population a higher chance of surviving an adverse change in conditions. Effects that cause or reward a loss in genetic diversity can increase the chances of extinction of a species. Population bottlenecks can dramatically reduce genetic diversity by severely limiting the number of reproducing individuals and make inbreeding more frequent. Wikipedia page on Extinction

In the final post of this series, I’ll detail some suggestions for avoiding this cultural extinction. Read Part 3.

The Rising Costs of Aging Perlers: Part 1, The Data

Hello, Friendly Perl Community! You may not want to hear this, but you’re not getting any younger. This is having a dramatic effect on the bottom line of companies which do or would use Perl.

A few months ago I started helping a friend recruit Perl developers for the company where he works. Aside from talking to the many people I know in the community I also put out several open calls for developers interested in switching jobs. I’ve now met and spoken with many great people—most of whom I’d never have had the chance to meet otherwise—and I’m very grateful for that opportunity. It’s helped remind me why Perl is my open source community of choice.

However, after only a few weeks I started to notice something odd: I had yet to speak with anyone who wasn’t Senior Developer. The overwhelming majority of persons with whom I spoke had well over ten years of experience with Perl. I believe the lowest number of years of Perl experience I saw was around eight. In my town of San Francisco it’s reasonable to see Senior Developers with five or fewer years of experience with a language. You can quibble with that definition, but there’s no denying that it’s the way we do things here. And since I was recruiting for a San Francisco office, all of these candidates qualified as Senior.

When I recognized that I was only speaking with (or even hearing of) senior developers some gears started turning in my mind. To verify my suspicion that Perl is a language of aging practitioners with few people available to replenish the ranks, I gathered some data…

Exhibits A and B. Since 2009, YAPC::NA and YAPC::EU have asked the following question on their respective post-conference surveys:

How do you rate your Perl knowledge?

  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Advanced

All YAPC survey data is available online. I compiled the data from the past four years of responses to that question. The result was the following graphs. The Y-axis is the number of respondents in that year.

YAPC::EU Perl Experience by Year, 2009-2012
YAPC::NA Perl Experience by Year, 2009-2012

As the definitions of “Beginner,” “Intermediate,” and “Advanced” are left as exercises for the respondent, it’s impossible to make a direct correlation between these results and my soft definition of “senior developer” as one with five or more years of experience. Regardless, it’s very obvious from these graphs that there are remarkably few junior Perl programmers available and that issue is not being resolved as the years pass.

Because the best kind of data is MOAR DATA, I ran a very informal poll on the Linkedin Perl group. The question and results:

How many years have you been programming Perl?

70% of the respondents have more than five years of experience programming Perl. A mere 13% are new to the language. (If you tilt your head to the right you can see a graphic summary of what this might mean for the Perl community.)

Granted, there is no small amount of selection bias going on here. People who attend YAPC or participate in the Linkedin Perl group are more likely to be more experienced and comfortable in the community than more junior developers.

Regardless, after seeing these numbers I’m convinced that the practitioners of Perl are aging and not enough junior developers are being created to sustain the language as a going concern in the development world. What’s worse, Perl does not appear to have any sort of succession plan. It’s turning into the Shakers of the software development world: attempting to rely on conversion for proliferation rather than on reproduction.

In the next post, I’ll tell you why you should care about this. Read Part 2

Announcing the Perl Companies project

A month or so ago Jeff Thalhammer and I were chatting Perl over burritos. We got to discussing how many companies were currently using Perl actively and wondered whether there were a list anywhere on the web. We checked. There wasn’t (well, not any comprehensive or modern ones).

Well, now there is. Announcing the Perl_Companies project.

The list was built using postings from the entire history of jobs.perl.org and on that front owes its existence to a prior project by brian d. foy.

There are currently two versions of the list: a CSV file for downloading and manipulation and a Markdown file for human readability. The original data whence the list was drawn is also available in the repo.

I believe this list is going to be incredibly useful to the Perl community. It can be used as a source for job hunts, sponsorship requests, market research for new products, or put to any number of other purposes. If nothing else, it’s fun to browse.

Admittedly, this list still has some problems (*cough* deduping *cough*). Sure, there’s room for improvement, but it’s still a damn sight better than the diddly squat we had before. Plus, thanks to the wonders of open source and Github, we can all collaborate to build upon this good start. So bring on those pull requests. Open some issues. Let’s make it better together.

Rename Perl 5? Marketing: UR DOIN IT WRONG

Earlier this month Ovid once again raised the question: Should we rename Perl?”

As usual, the question sparked a flurry of opinions on the matter. Most of the discussion occurred in the comments of Ovid’s original post.

I’m not here to chime in on that question. Whether the name should change or should not, what it should change to, when it would happen, these questions are all closed. RJBS has said there will be no change right now and that’s that. He is driving the Perl 5 bus right now. If he says the name is not changing then that’s good enough for me. Discussion closed.

No, I’m not here to discuss that matter. I’m here to point something out:

Damn, team. That was some dismal marketing I just witnessed.

Just what exactly is the problem you’re looking to solve here? Where are the metrics to support that? Whom are you looking to convince? How will the solution be rolled out? Who’s going to do the work? What’s it going to cost? How will you know when the work is done? How will you know whether it’s working?

None of the people participating in the conversation would ever consider releasing a small patch to a CPAN module without first having a complete set of tests for it. Yet the same people seem to have no problem changing something as fundamental as the name of the language without performing some sort of market research and testing.

Despite the reputation its earned, marketing is not a crap shoot. A successful marketing or branding campaign requires just as much forethought and carefully considered execution as a good piece of software. You don’t just throw it together, put it out there and hope it does what the target audience needs. It could be impossible to recover from the damage caused by rash branding decisions.

I would welcome nothing more than more discussions about whether Perl 5 should be renamed. But I would like them to be as well researched and considered as any other change which would be made to the language itself.

Improving Perl’s New Programmer Outreach

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much demand for programmers or programming training. In an economy that’s still recovering from the recession, the remarkably low unemployment rate among programmers plus the relatively high rate of pay is drawing ever more people to the industry.

You hear it over and over again: “I want to learn to program but need help to start.” If you search on the web you can find an abundance of “learn to program” opportunities. Most of the offline/meatspace ones use Java, Ruby or Python as the language of choice. I found none that use Perl, which I see as an opportunity the Perl community should pursue.

The availability of more beginning programming training provided in Perl would be beneficial both to the trainees and to the Perl language and community. As languages go, Perl quite easy to learn (or at least no harder than the popular alternatives). The basic programming concepts are fairly straightforward in syntax, sigils can help a neophyte to keep her data structures straight, and CPAN can enable a beginner to produce remarkably functional code in a limited amount of time. This leads to higher student confidence, since (as we’ve all experienced), creating something that works makes you feel good and want to keep learning more.

Perl, for its part, could benefit by using this training as positive propaganda to help dispel the negative brand image it’s developed and been unable to shake for all these years. Pundits and wags on Stack Overflow, reddit and elsewhere enjoy repeating the chestnuts that Perl is dead or is good only for scripting and parsing text, not for “web scale” projects. An influx of new programmers—trained on Perl and in the best practices recommended and used by modern Perl developers—would help to dispel these misconceptions, even if afterward they went on to use other languages.

As an example of an organization I think really does training right, I direct you to the San Francisco Ruby community. SF Ruby puts on a training session at least once a month. At least one of these, admirably, is focused on teaching women to program. In addition to training sessions, SF Ruby also organizes several hack nights each month, providing ample opportunities for newbies to mingle with more experienced programmers and get personalized assistance.

Now, in comparison, I’m going to pick on my local Perl Mongers group. SF.pm. Before I start, please be clear that I use SF.pm here only because it’s convenient and—as you’ll see in a moment—provides a dramatic comparison. The SF Perl Mongers are a great group of people. This is not intended as a slight against them or the organization. I simply wish to show that the Perl community could increase its outreach to new programmers.

I’ve compiled data on the number of training and hacking sessions organized by SF Ruby and SF.pm in 2012. All data is drawn from the Meetup calendars for each organization. A ‘training’ event is defined as anything focused on helping people learn the language and includes beginners’ hack nights, study groups, API office hours and more formal training sessions. A ‘hacking’ event, simply enough, is anything with the word ‘hack’ in the title.

Month SF Ruby SF Perl Mongers
  Training Hacking Training Hacking
January 1 5 0 0
February 3 9 0 0
March 1 6 0 0
April 3 7 0 1
May 2 6 0 0
June 4 5 0 0
July 8 4 0 0
August 7 6 0 0
September 4 5 0 0
October 2 5 0 0
November 2 5 0 0
December 3 3 0 0
TOTAL 40 66 0 1

The numbers, as you can see, are staggeringly different. That said, there is also a huge difference in the size of each of these communities on Meetup.com. SF Perl Mongers has a membership of 380 people. SF Ruby has 5588. This naturally affords SF Ruby more resources to provide these events but does not, I believe, excuse SF.pm for providing almost none.

SF Ruby deserves everyone’s attention and commendation for all of their work in training and outreach. It’s a model which Perl should look to emulate. While the resources of my local Perl community may not allow it to scale to the level of the 44 training and 66 hacking events put on by SF Ruby in the last year (nor do I think they should attempt to do so), I would hope those resources could allow for at least one training session every month or so and a newbie-friendly hack session every few weeks[*].

If Perl wants to show people that it’s alive and well it needs to be more active in public ways like this. Outreach to help introduce novices (especially minorities) to programming would go a long way toward dispelling the out-of-date image the tech community has of the Perl language.


[*]: Full disclosure: I am guilty of not offering to help SF.pm in this effort. This is an oversight I hope to correct. This post is the first step in that process. Back to reading.

Increasing the Role of OSCON in Community Education

I recently returned from OSCON. It was, as usual, brilliant. My talk—a part of Business Leadership Day—was well-received, which is always validating. As I perused this year’s schedule I was pleasantly surprised by the number of community-related[1] talks. Nine! Nine talks about community!

My first thought was, “Attention to community! My, but isn’t this an encouraging trend!” This is, of course, an assumption. One data point does not a trend make.

But twelve of them might.

I delved into the OSCON schedules as far back as I could easily access them: 2001. The 2000 and 1999 schedules are undoubtedly available somewhere but seeking them out became a game of diminishing returns so I’ve set them aside.

My results can be found in this Google Spreadsheet, but in summary:

As you can see, the first several years tracked contain no community-related sessions whatsoever. Things pick up a little with a single session in 2005 but then take a large leap to five sessions in 2006. 2007 was lackluster, with only two sessions. But then! 2008! Eleven! Wow… Could it be that Open Source is starting to publicly recognize the value of strengthening its communities? Oh, wait…no, no it’s not. Or at least not consistently, judging by 2009-2011. The community-related sessions in these three years together totalled those in 2008 alone. And then we get to 2012. I exclaim again: Nine sessions! It’s no 2008 but it’s still fairly impressive.

That said, there is definitely not a trend here. But wouldn’t it be nice if there were?

One of the greatest strengths of Open Source is the communities which form to create and support the technologies. While the technologies themselves are undoubtedly very important the communities which build them have been given short shrift. Only 2.875% of all of the talks in this year’s OSCON [2] were at all related with community issues. Considering the undeniable importance of people and community to the success of any Open Source project it would be great to see this percentage start to creep up over the next few years.

Nota Bene: None of this is meant to diminish the work of the people at the Community Leadership Summit, which meets each year immediately before OSCON. It’s a valuable asset to Open Source, but typically it’s attended by those who already understand the importance of community. It necessary to reach a broader audience.

What I would like to see is a gradual increase in community-related sessions at OSCON itself (which by design receives a far higher attendance than CLS) to help raise awareness. Lately there has been a lot of attention given to the importance of things like Codes of Conduct for conferences. I would like to see that attention to the human side of Open Source to get more traction beyond the confines of conference administration, reaching into the communities themselves. OSCON is where Open Source comes to play and to learn, to see and be seen. When a large chunk of the community is lodged within your doors it seems the perfect opportunity to teach those people the meaning of the human side of the community of which they’re a part.

You’re never going to have strong, diverse communities if you don’t start educating everyone what a strong, diverse community is. I wholeheartedly applaud OSCON’s efforts to do so in 2012 and I hope that it continues to carry the flag and leads the charge with more even attention to community matters in future schedules.


Footnotes
[1] By “community-related” I mean talks about building and strengthening communities, not those simply about personnel or project management. [back to reading]

[2] This percentage will, in fact, be smaller. It does not include the sessions from the Education track, which don’t appear on the 2012 OSCON schedule menu. [back to reading]

Open Source: Why Can’t We Just Make It Easy On New Contributors?

As an Open Source advocate I’m frequently asked to which projects I contribute. My answer is typically, “None right now.” Why is that? There are a few reasons but they mostly boil down to:

  • As someone who does not code often (or enjoy it immensely) I do not feel welcome.
  • It’s an opaque process.

For now I’ll set aside the first reason to focus on the second: the process is opaque.

From my point of view, there is absolutely no excuse for this. Wikis, CMSs and cheap hosting all make it abundantly simple to offer plentiful guidance to new contributors, yet somehow that guidance is rarely provided. New contributors must delve and divine and guess and pester in order to figure out where to start. It’s almost as though the community does this intentionally as a sort of rite of passage for new members. “If you can figure this out then you’re smart enough to become One Of Us.” This is incredibly arrogant and exclusionist.

Why can’t we just make it easy on people? Why can’t we spend a few hours writing some documentation and tutorials up front, guiding newbies along the community-accepted path of contribution? Long time contributors may find the concept of spoon-feeding new members offensive but doing so will not only bring in more people to the fold it will also raise the quality of the contributions from the get-go.

To demonstrate how a project can make it easier for new contributors I’m going to use the Perl project. This is not because it’s such a bad example of how to do things (it’s pretty good, really) but because I’m fond of Perl and want to make some suggestions on how to make it even better. Also, I know that the Perl community is generally friendly and open to ideas on improving community involvement. That said, most of the suggestions are more generally applicable to all Open Source projects.

First of all, kudos to Perl for having a dedicated Get Involved link very prominently displayed there at the top of every page of Perl.org! This visibility is a testament to the importance of contributions and contributors to the Perl community. Involvement is key for them and they put it front and center, right where it deserves to be.

However after that things get less obvious. The site is clean and well-designed, which is a pleasant change from many project pages, but this page is essentially just a list of bullet points with no context or meaning. For instance, what would I as a new contributor be expected to do with the Bugs, testing and reviews section? Is this for reporting bugs (yes) or fixing them (not so much) or…? What is meant by “testing?” Since I pay attention to happenings in the Perl community I know that this means automatically reporting test results to the imminently cool and useful CPAN Testers when I install new CPAN modules, but what if I were entirely new to the Perl world? I may think that “testing” implies a lot more hands-on work, perhaps testing new commits to the core language. It’s not obvious and it really should be.

The tagline of this page is Whatever your skill set or level you can get involved… While I believe this must be true, speaking as a mostly-non-coder this page does not make it obvious how I could get involved with the Perl project. Are there simple bugs I could fix (and if so, how)? Maybe documentation that needs writing/editing? How about project management? Ticket review? Marketing? Event organization? Donations? Not only are these subjects a good way to capture the less technical users and supporters of your project, they’re also a brilliant way for the new coding contributors to get a feel for the project and up to speed on the processes it uses.

Here’s a quick and dirty first draft of a version of this page which would be more useful to new contributors:

Whatever your skill set or level you can get involved…

Community

Some say CPAN is the strength and heart of Perl, but they’re wrong. The people are the heart of Perl.

Getting Started

Ready to dive in? Here’s how to do it!

Everyone
  • Contributor FAQ Every project has those questions which come up repeatedly. Collect them and their answers to help remove the barrier to entry.
  • An overview of the processes used for Perl. Link to another page. Key for everyone to know the steps in the process, not only so they’ll know what to expect but also so they’ll know better what language to use when asking for help.
  • Where to go for help. While this should be an element of every bullet point here, it also should be aggregated on a single page for ease of use. Broken down by subject. Include names whenever possible (mentors would be awesome and heroic). New contributors are more likely to ask for help if it’s obvious there’s a real person at the other end.
  • Where to find the documentation. Link to another page. List every form of docs that exist. Keeping all this in one place drastically reduces frustration for new contributors.
  • Where to find the code. Link to another page. Not just where to find it, but how to get a copy and, if you wish to commit, how you’d go about doing that (including expected code style).
Non-Coding
  • Review and rate – the CPAN modules you use.
  • Send automatic reports to CPAN testers every time you install a new module.
  • Review trouble tickets. Link to a page describing the process, requirements and expectations for reviewing project trouble tickets. Ideally will include a link to a list of tickets in need of review.
  • Write or edit documentation. Link to a page describing the process, requirements and expectations for writing or editing project documentation. Ideally will include a link to a list of documentation tickets.
  • Translate documentation. Link to a page describing the process, requirements and expectations for translating project documentation. Ideally will include a link to a list of translation tickets.
  • Organize or Volunteer at an event. Calendar/list of events (locations and dates), assistance required and whom to contact for more information.
  • Donate. Link to a donation page and/or page detailing whom to contact to give a donation.
  • Have another idea how you could help? Contact us! Link to the correct contact information.
CPAN
  • Best Practices for coding for CPAN.
  • How to report a bug for a CPAN module.
  • How to contribute a fix for a CPAN module.
  • How to contribute a new CPAN module.
  • Contacting CPAN module maintainers and what to do if they don’t respond.
Core

Perl6

Want to learn more about Perl6? Have a look over here! Anticipate the question rather than forcing it to be asked or searched for.

Again, this is just a quick pass at a possible Contributors page, but as a non-contributor it’s much more inviting than the current, sparse version. I can easily look at this and see my options and the methods for performing them.

Granted, there is a lot of organization and writing which would need to be done for a page like this to work. Believe me, I know it’s not easy getting all these ducks in a row. That said, I strongly believe that any project which goes through the steps necessary to make it much easier for new contributors to join will find its quality and reputation improving by leaps and bounds. It’s an effort very much worth making.