Are devs contributing to OSS happier?

2010-09-24 20:18
When talking to fellow developers or meeting with students it happens from time to time that I get the question of why on earth I spent my freetime working on an open source project? Why do I spend weekends at developers' conferences like FOSDEM? Why do spent afternoons organising meetups? Why is it that I am reviewing and writing code after work for free?

Usually I point people to a post by Shalin explaining some of his reasons to contribute to open source. The post quite nicely summarises most reasons that match well with why I contribute back.

On the Apache Community mailing list Grant Ingersoll asked the question about whether devs who work on or use open source are happier in their employment.

In his response Mike posted a link to a video on what motivates people that adds another piece of information to the question of why work on open source software can be perceived as very rewarding though no money is involved: With people doing cognitively challenging tasks, motivation via payment can get you only so far. There are other motivational factors that might play an equal if not larger role in getting people to perform well on their day-to-day work:

  • Autonomy: If people are supposed to be engaged with their project they need time and freedom to chose how to solve their tasks. Many large engineering driven companies like Google or Atlassian have gone even further by introducing the concept of giving people a day a week to work on what they want how they want provided they share their results. These so-called 20% projects have shown to have high potential of turning into new, creative project ideas but also even into bugs or problems getting fixed.
  • Mastery: Great developers strive to get better at what they do - simply because realizing that you actually learn something and get better at what you do can be very satisfying. One way of achieving that goal is to work together with peers on common projects. The larger the pool of peers to draw from, the higher the probability of you finding mentors to help you out and to point out mistakes you make.

    There is one more factor why working on open source increases your coding level that should not be underestimated. Grant Ingersoll nicely described it in the thread mentioned above: "I was just talking with a friend yesterday, and fellow committer, who said he is a much better programmer since contributing. Of course, it makes sense. If your underwear is on display for all to see, you sure better make sure it is clean!"
  • Purpose: People like to work on projects for a purpose. Be it to make all information accessible to the world or to turn earth into a better place by making cheap calls available to everyone. As a counter example deploying some software only for the purpose of selling a license and not make life of your client better by recommending the best solution to help solve his problem may not be half as satisfying.

There is quite some documentation out there on what drives people who contribute to open source projects. The video shared by Mike nicely summarizes some of the motivations of people that are independent of open source work but are closely related to it.

Part 3: A polite way to say no - and why there are times when it doesn’t work.

2010-09-07 23:05
After having shared my thoughts on how to improve focus and how to track tasks eating up time this post will explain how to keep time invested at a more or less constant level. The goal of this exercise is to keep obligations at a reasonable level - be it at work or during ones spare time.

In recent time I have collected a small set of techniques to reduce what gets to my desk - I don't claim this list to be exhaustive. However some of it did help me organise conference and still have a life besides that.

Sharing and delegating tasks

Sharing and delegating are actually two different ways of integrating other people: Sharing for me means working together on a topic. That could be as easy as setting up a CMS or it could be more involved as in publishing articles on Lucene in some magazine. The advantage is that both of you can contribute to the task, possible even learn from each other: When I was doing the article series on Lucene together with Uwe it also was a great learning experience for me to have someone take the time to explain to me - well, not only to me - what flexible indexing, local search and numeric range queries are really all about, as in technically implemented. So it was not only an enormous time-saver for me, as the alternative would have been me reading through documentation, code and mailing lists to get up to date. But it also gave me the unique opportunity to learn from the very developers of these features about how they work and how they are meant to be used.

The disadvantage of sharing is that part of the work still remains on your desk. That's where delegation helps: Take the task, find someone who is capable and willing to solve it and give it to them. There are two problems here: First you have to trust people to actually work on the task. Second you probably cannot avoid checking back from time to time to see if there is progress, if there are any impediments etc. So it means less work than with sharing. But there is more risk in not getting your results and more work to be done for co-ordination. However it is a very powerful technique if applied correctly to scale what can be achieved: Telling people what you need help with and letting them take over some of that work does scale way better than micro-managing people or even trying to be part of every piece of a project. It means giving up some of your control, in return you can turn to other potentially more involved tasks. Note to self: Need to build up more trust in that area.

Both concepts however are not actually about saying no but about being able to say yes even if you already have just very few time left.


Prioritising tasks can be done on a scale from zero to any arbitrarily large number. Obviously it helps with deciding whom to say no to: It's going to be those projects rated very low. That is those you could easily do without That's the simplest case as it is easiest to explain. The strategy I usually use is to be honest with people: If there are conflicting conferences, it's easy to reject invitations. If some publication does not pay for you, it's easiest to be open and honest with people and tell them. Usually they will understand.

A second reason for a rating of zero is that the task is one of those "Does not belong on my desk" tasks. My advice for those would be to get rid of them as quickly as possible: They draw away your energy without giving back any value. This issue plays nicely with the "patches welcome" theme from open source: People working on open source projects are most successful if they are driven by their own needs. So if you want something implemented, either implement and submit it yourself - or find someone you can pay to do so. People will not work for you. You can jump up and down, complain on the mailing lists - but if the feature you would like to see is something that no-one else in the existing community needs, it won't get done until someone needs it.

Introduce barriers

A nice way of rejecting favours that works at least sometimes is to raise the barrier. The example here would be getting an invitation to give an introductory talk for a closed audience. So what I tried was to raise the bar by asking for funding for travel and accommodation.

Keep in mind though that there is the risk that the one inviting you actually accepts your conditions - no matter how high you think you have set them. Especially the example given above has the problem of being too low a bar in most cases. So be prepared to have to keep your promise. As a result the conditions you set really should lead to the task turning into something that is fun to do.

Cut off early

Imaging you have committed to some task. Later on you realise you won't actually make it: You have no time, priorities have changed, the task is too involved or any other reason you could potentially imaging.

The important way to reduce the load on your desk is to communicate this issue as early as possible. It's clear that people will be more disappointed the later they learn that something they probably depend on won't arrive in time or will never happen: They'll never be extremely happy, however the sooner they learn the more time they have on their part to react. And actually, most people don't react that disappointed at all, simply because they may have counted some risk into the equation when giving you the task - which is not to say you should lower the reliability of your commitments, simply because no-one is expecting you to meet your goals anyway. However usually the amount of trouble expected is way higher than what actually happens. Second note to self: Don't forget about this option.

Patches welcome

At least in open source: If it's nothing that helps make your world better - there are other people out there to help out. Patches being welcome may seem obvious. However in some areas it really is not: If someone asks the project member to be present at some conference, he may himself not consider himself capable of representing the project or even just making an impact by talking to people about it. That is the point where to encourage people that any input is welcome - not only code, but also documentation, communication and marketing work.

Of course as with any Pattern there are boundaries when not to apply it or when applying it would mean too much effort or loss. If that is the case and you have committed and cannot step back, than you should think about what could be a great reward if you went through the tasks: What would it take to make you happily comply and still gain energy through what you are doing? Basically it isn't about doing what you like but about loving what you do (L. Tolstoi).

There is also valuable advice on managing ones energy from the Apache Software Foundation that is specially targeted at new committers. If you have not done so yet take the time to read it.

Part 2: Tracking tasks, or - Where the hack did my time go to last week?

2010-09-03 18:22
After summarising some strategies for not loosing track of tasks, meetings and conferences in the last post, this one is going to focus on the retrospect on achievements. If at some point in time you have asked yourself "Where the hack did time go to?" - maybe after two busy weeks of work this article might have a few techniques for you.

Usually when that happens to me it's either a sign that I've been on vacation (where that is totally fine) or that too many different, sometimes small but numerous tasks have sneaked into my schedule.

Together with Thilo I have found a few techniques helpful in dealing with these kind of problems. The goals in applying them (at least for me) have been:

  • Configure the planned work load to a manageable amount.
  • Make transparent and trackable (to oneself and others) which and how many tasks have been finished.
  • Track over time any changes in number of tasks accomplished per time slot.

After hearing about Scrum and its way of planning tasks I thought about using it not only for software development but for task planning in general. Scrum comprises some techniques that help achieving the goals described above:

  1. In Scrum, development is split into sprints: Iterations of focussed software development that are confined to a fixed length. Each sprint is filled up with tasks. The number of tasks put into one sprint is defined by the so-called velocity of the team.
  2. Tasks are ordered by priority by the product owner. Priority here is influenced by factors like risk (riskier tasks should be attacked earlier than safe ones), ROI (those tasks that promise to increase ROI most should of course be done and launched first) and a few more. After priorisation, tasks are estimated in order - that way those tasks most important to the product owner are guaranteed to have an estimated complexity defined even if there was not enough time to estimate all items.
  3. Complexity here does not mean "amount of time to implement a feature" - it's more like how much time do we need, how much communication overhead is involved, how complex is the feature. A workable way to come up with reasonably sensible numbers is to chose one base item, assing complexity of one to it and estimate all coming items in terms of "is as complex as the base item", "has double the complexity" - and so on - according to the fibonacci series. Fibonacci is well suited for that task as do not increase linearly - similarly humans are better at estimating small things (be it distances or complexities). As soon as items get too big, estimation also tends to be way off the real number.
  4. To come up with a reasonable estimate of what can be done in any week, I usually just look back to past weeks and use that as an estimate. That technique is close enough to the real number to be a working approach.

To track what got done during the past week, we use a whiteboard as Scrum Board. Putting tasks into the known categories of todo, checked out and done. That way when resetting the board after one week and adding tasks for the following week it is pretty obvious which actions ate up most of the time. The amount of work that goes onto the board is restricted to not be larger than what got accomplished during the past week.

So what goes onto the whiteboard? Basically anything that we cannot track as working hours: The Hadoop Get Together can be found just next to doing the laundry. Writing and sending out the long deferred e-mail is put right next to going out for dinner with potential sponsors for free software courses at university.

Now that weekly time tracking is set-up - is there a way to also come up with a nice longer term measure? Turns out, there are actually three:

First and most obviously the whiteboard itself provides an easy measure: By tracking weekly velocity and plotting that against time it is easy to identify weeks with more or less freetime. As a second source of information a quick look into ones calendar quickly shows how many meetings and conferences one attended over the course of a year. Last but not least it helps to track talks given on a separate webpage.

It helps to look back from time to time: To evaluate the benefit of the respective activities, to not loose track of the tasks accomplished, to prioritise and maybe re-order stuff on the ToDo list. Would be great if you'd share some of your techniques of tracking and tracing time and tasks - either in the comments or as a separate blog post.

Apache Dinner DUS

2010-08-17 19:10
the evening after FrOSCon - that is on August 22nd 2010 at 7:30p.m. CEST - a combined "FSFE Fellowship meetup/ Apache dinner*" takes place in Tigges in Düsseldorf (Brunnenstraße 1, at Bilker S-Bahnhof). Given it doesn't rain, we'll be sitting outside.

Would be great to meet you there for tasty food, interesting discussions on Apache in general, as well as projects like Lucene, Hadoop or Tomcat in particular. Anyone interested in either the FSFE or Apache is welcome to join us.

One personal request: Somehow, Rainer (Kersten, FSFE) talked me into preparing a talk on what the ASF is all about - would be really great to have more people around share their experience.

See you in Düsseldorf

NoSQL summer Berlin - this evening

2010-08-11 06:38
This evening at Volkspark Friedrichshain, Café Schoenbrunn the next NoSQL summer Berlin (organised by Tim Lossen) is meeting to discuss the paper on Amazon's Dynamo "Dynamo: Amazon's Highly Available Key-value Store". The group is planning to meet at 19:30 for some beer and discussions on the publication.

Part 1: Travelling minds

2010-08-03 06:00
In the last post I promised to share some more information on techniques I came across and found useful under an increasing work load. Instead of taking a close look at my professional calendar I decided to use my private one as an example - first because spare time is even more precious then working hours, simply because there is so few of it and secondly because I am free to publicly scrutinize not only the methods for keeping it in good shape but also the entries in it.

I am planning to split the article in four pieces as follows as keeping all information in one article would lead to a text longer then I could possibly expect to be read from beginning to end:

  1. Part 1: Traveling minds - how to stay focussed in an always-on community.
  2. Part 2: Tracking tasks, or: Where the hack did my time go to last week?
  3. Part 3: A polite way to say no - and why there are times when it doesn't work.
  4. Part 4: Constant evaluation and improvement: Finding sources for feedback.
  5. Part 5: A final word on vacation.

Several years ago, I had no problem with tasks like going out reading a book for hours, working on code for hours, answering mails only from time to time, thinking about one particular problem for days. As the number of projects and tasks grew, these tasks became increasingly hard to accomplish: Writing code, my mind would wander off to the mailing list; when reviewing patches my mind would start actually thinking about that one implementation that was still lingering on my hard disk.

There are a few techniques for getting back to that state of thinking about just one thing at a time. One article I found very insightful was an essay by Paul Graham. He gave a pretty good analysis of thoughts that can bind your attention and draw them away from what should actually be the thing you are thinking about. According to his analysis a pretty reliable way to discover ideas that steal your attention is to observe what thoughts your mind wanders to when you are taking a shower (I would add cycling to work here, basically anything that lets your mind free to dream and think): If it is not in line with what you would like to think about, it might be a good time to think about the need to change.

There are a few ways to force your mind to stay "on-topic". Some very easy ones are explained in a recent blog post on attention span (Thanks to Thilo for the link):

  • Organising your virtual desktops such that applications are sorted according to tasks (one for communication, one for coding project x, another one for working on project y) helps to switch off distraction that would otherwise hide in plain sight. Who wants to work on code if TweetDeck is blinking at you next to your editor? In contrast to the original author I would not go so far to switch off multiple monitors: Its great to have your editor, some terminals, documentation in the browser open all at the same time in one workspace. However I do try to keep everything that has do with communication separate from coding etc.
  • Train to work for longer and longer periods of time on one task and one task only: The world does not fall apart, if people have to wait for an answer to your mail for longer than 30min - at least they'll get used to it. You do not need to take your phone to meetings: If anything is starting to melt down there will be people who know where you are and who will drag you out of the meeting room in no time. Anything else can well wait for another 60min.
  • When working with tabbed browsing: Don't open more tabs then you can easily scan. You won't read those interesting blog post you found four weeks ago anyway. In modern browsers it is possible to detach tabs. That way you can follow the first hint of keeping even the web pages sorted on desktops according to activity: You do not need your time tracking application next to your editor. Having only documentation and testing application open there does help.
  • Keep your environment friendly and supportive. Who has ever shared an office (or a lecture at university back when I was a student) with me knows that close to my desk the probability of finding sweets, cookies, drinks and snacks approaches one. Being hungry when trying to fix a bug does not help, believe me.

One additional trick that helps staying just focussed enough for debugging complex problems is to make use of systematic debugging by Andreas Zeller (also explained in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). The trick is to explicitly track you thoughts on paper: Write down your hypothesis of what causes the problem. Then identify an experiment to test the hypothesis - you should know how to use your debugger, when to use print statements, which unit tests to write and when to simply take a very close look at the code and potentially make it simpler for that. Only when your experiment confirms that you have found the cause of the problem you really have identified what you need to fix.

There are a few other techniques for getting things off of your head that are just there to distract you: If you ever have read the book "Getting things done" or seen the Inbox zero presentations you may already have an idea of what I am hinting at.

By now I have a calendar application that works like a charm: It reminds me of meetings ahead of time, it warns me in case of conflicts, it accepts notes, it has an amazing life span of one year and is always available (provided I do not forget it at home):
- got mine here ;) That's for organising meetings, going to conferences, getting articles done in time and not forgetting about family birthdays.

For week to week planning we tend to use Scrum including a scrum board. However that is not only for planning as anyone using Scrum may have expected already.

For my inbox the rule is to filter any mailing list into its own folder. Second rule is to keep the number of messages in my inbox to something that fits into a window with less than 15 lines: Anything I need for further reference (conference instructions, contacts, addresses that did not yet go into my little blue book, phone numbers not yet stored in my mobile phone) goes into its own folder. Anything that needs a reply is not allowed to stay in the inbox for longer than half a week. For larger projects mail gets sorted into their own project folders. Anything else simply goes to an archive: There are search indexes available, even Linux supports desktop search, search is even integrated in most mail clients. Oh and did I mention that I managed to search for one specific mail for an hour just recently, though it was filed into its own perfectly logical folder - simply because I had forgotten which folder it was?

To get rid of things I have to do "some time in the near future but not now" I keep a list in my notebook - just so my mind knows the note is there for me to review and it knows I don't forget about it. So to some extend my notebook is my personal swap space. One thing I learnt at Google was to not use loose paper for these kinds of notes - a bound book is way better in that it keeps all notes in one place. In addition you do not get into danger of throwing notes away too early or mis-place them.

The only thing missing is a real product backlog that keeps track of larger things to do and projects to accomplish - something like "I really do need to find a weekend to drive these >250km north to the eastbaltic sea (Thanks to Astro for pointing out the typo to me - hey, that means there is at least one guy who actually did read that blog post from beginning to end - wow!) and relax" :)

Series: Getting things done

2010-07-30 07:07
Probably not too unusual for people working on free software mostly (though no longer exclusively) in their spare time, the number of items that appear in my private calendar have increased steadily in the past months and years:

  • Every three months I am organising the Apache Hadoop Get Together in Berlin.
  • I have been asked (and accepted the offer) to publish articles on Hadoop and Lucene in magazines.
  • There are various conferences I attend - either as speaker or simply as participant: FOSDEM, Froscon, Apache Con NA, Devoxx, Chemnitzer Linuxtag - to name just a few.
  • For Berlin Buzzwords I did get quite a bit of time for organisation, still some issues leaked over to what others would call free time.
  • I am mentoring one of Mahout's GSoC students which is a lot of fun.
  • At least I try to spend as much time as possible on the Mahout mailing lists keeping up with what is developed and discussed there.

There are various techniques to cope with increased work load and still find enough time to relax. Some of them involve simply remembering what to do at the right time, some involve prioritization, others deal with measuring and planning what to do. In this tiny series I'll explain the techniques I employ - or at least try to - in the hope of getting your feedback, and comments on how to improve the system. After all, the most important task is to constantly improve ones own processes.

Teddy in Portugal

2010-07-08 20:32
During the past two weeks my teddy was on vacation. As destination he chose to fly to Portugal. One day was reserved for a visit to Lisboa, the capital city of the country. He also took a few really nice pictures there:

On his return, he was no longer alone. Seems like he found a cute little portugese girl friend:

In addition he brought the following image. However he promised that he was not in California, but explained that the bridge actually does exist in Lisboa, being constructed by the same company according to the same blue prints that already were used for Golden Gate bridge:

Bye, bye Germany

2010-06-20 15:27
... for the next two weeks: I'll be on vacation with strict internet interdiction. Will be a tourist exploring beaches and maybe a few hiking tracks in the next few days, so don't expect to read anything here apart from what was scheduled already ;)

Service as in real good customer service

2010-06-19 08:07
First thing to do after getting up: Go to the kitchen and switch on the coffee machine. However, one random Sunday morning that caused the fuse for exactly this kitchen to go off. After fixing that we turned on the coffee machine again - trying to finally get a first cup. All worked well until having a closer look at what the machine produced as coffee: It was cold!

We initially got the machine from Giuseppetti - a vendor in Berlin. Though it was to late to get it fixed on warranty we still took the thing over to his shop the following week. What happened than was amazing to see for us:

The mechanics unscrewed the machine, started examining it immediately. Knowing we had bought it there, the owner gave both of us a cup of coffee. Long before I had finished mine the fixed machine was brought back to us - a fuse in it had gone off as well.

So after less than half an hour we got our working coffee machine back w/o being charged for the repair. Next morning was way better than the previous Sunday morning.