Sunday, March 07, 2021

Open-source is like politics - show up to make a difference

Open source is like politics.
But, probably not in the way you're thinking. Not politics in a negative sense as if it's all about power, domination, and control.

hand putting voting slip in box
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

I think open source is like politics in that many people think about it in the same way as they do the politics of local government.

What do these refer to?

  • Generally, people think it's a good idea.
  • Typically, people take what they can from it and don't give back beyond what's required/forced.
  • People think about getting involved a lot more than they do.
  • Lots of people have [strong] opinions but don't act on them.
  • A few people contribute a lot (of time and effort).
  • People who contribute are rarely rewarded or compensated well.
  • When a person is directly affected, they may show up wanting action on the issue that affects them. But, their desire to look at (or consider) anything else is small, and their enthusiasm is short-lived.

Were those comments about local government or open-source software?

I hope you can see they apply to both.

I think the similarity also extends to how to make a difference in each.

Who are the people who make a difference in local politics?

They're the people who turn up. Repeatedly, regularly, and when it's not always in their immediate interest. They do things to help the community.

Four things to do:

  1. Show commitment. Turn up regularly. (Not just to be seen but also because it's often the only way of knowing what's going on.)
  2. Work for everyone's benefit. Do things that help others, not just you.
  3. Share your knowledge. Not to show off but to help others.
  4. Think long term. Not only immediate benefits.

Doing the above will build trust and a reputation that will support your big ideas down the line.

Yes, large organizations and people with a lot of money, influence, or celebrity can come in and make a big difference in a short amount of time. I'm assuming you're not one of them (I'm not either), and so you have to do what you can with what you've got.

Does this really work?

There are some examples from WinUI where community members (people) have suggested new controls and an alternate syntax that were then implemented by the team.

But what about something bigger?

The most prominent example I have of influencing a Windows-related open-source project is adding support for Visual Basic(!) in Windows Template Studio. This was a big deal as it was a significant change and would be something with long-term consequences.

This is something that I (as a non-Microsoft employee) persuaded Microsoft to add.

  • I did this for a project in which I had built a reputation for regularly participating.
  • I'd previously displayed knowledge so that the project leads valued my opinion.
  • I backed up my suggestion with data. (Not data I had but data I knew they could get access to and assumed would support my proposal.)
  • I suggested something that aligned with the larger goals of the project and organization.
  • I suggested something that wasn't in my immediate interests but would help underserved members of the community.
  • I showed how I could help make the change easy by volunteering to help with the work.

Only big changes?

Let me be clear, contributing to open-source isn't only about big changes!

Every little helps! It's not just true of supermarkets. All the small things we do add up. 

One of the great benefits and advantages of open-source software is that it can be built on many people's wisdom, knowledge, skills, and contributions. Not everyone can make large contributions (in size or number) to every project. But, all contributions help, regardless of size, when they work to build better software for everyone.

Improving documentation, giving feedback on a spec or proposed feature, adding a real-world example, and sharing details of a project. These can all be just as valuable as writing code.  

There are projects where I've only ever made small changes. Yes, even only fixing typos. I know these don't make a massive difference but they do help those who come after me and they do make a difference.

Start small and then work up. Or don't. Staying small is good too.

I drafted the first version of this post in early February.

As part of the WinUI Community Call on 17th February  2021, they included a section on "Maximizing Your Influence on WinUI." (Watch that section on YouTube)

There was lots of good advice in that call/video, and I think it complements what I've said above.

If you don't want to watch a 15-minute video, here are some screen grabs of the slides shown, or check out this document where they summarize the key points.

Phrasing Postively:- Emphasise- Constructive action (what is "won" by doing this?); Clear & detailed "why" - assume an explanation is needed.-Main benefit? -Current alternative? -comparisons can help, but shouldn't replace detail; Mutual empathy

Phrasing Positively | Before: The state of platform is disappointing. I am not going to consider WinUI until my trust has been earned.  After: Deprecation of past frameworks has left me burned. The following would go a long way in earning my trust because my company is trying to launch an app next year and will need it supported for at least 5 more: - OSS, - High confidence 5-year roadmap, - Guaranteed support timeline

Phrasing Positively | Real impact: Team's spec writing process - a story about customer feedback

Feedback shapes the product | Example areas: - Features you care about for your own real apps & projects - Ways you'd like to see the team improve community engagement & interaction - Stories of how our roadmap plans do (or don't) enable your apps - Ways we can improve the developer experience (tooling, docs, blogs, etc.) - Bugs & issues in WinUI!

Feedback that shapes the product | Less likely to shape the product: - Feedback on products beyond WinUI (e.g. Start Menu) - "Stop doing X, start doing Y" - Reaching beyond Windows | Guidance coming soon!

WinUI isn't a project where you can easily come in and make big changes, or expect dramatic changes in direction. But you can help make a difference, not only to the project but also to the lives of the developers and the people who use the software they create.

My impact on the spec process is the most significant change I've made there, but I'm not disheartened. I know I've made a difference that helps others and I hope that my contributions, suggestions, feedback, and support will continue to have a broader impact in the future.

Keep showing up.

Let's make a difference together.


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