I hear daily about open source projects, the open source business model, what it means in terms of freedom, choice, risks, investment, etc... What I rarely hear about is what is life like for those who actually contribute and dedicate a part of their life to open source?
I do not pretend to understand how it is for most open source contributors, or even that there are patterns to understand. However I do believe that there are stories worth telling. Here is mine, I'll let you appreciate ... or not :)
First, the project is called JPPF (Java Parallel Processing Framework) and that's all I'm going to say about it. This article is not about the project itself, but about the difference it makes and the impact it has in people's lives, including mine.
Once upon a time, there was a geek with an idea and a piece of code. He was thinking, "gee, this looks cool, why don't I make it publicly available for free?".
It's one of these "what the heck" ideas that pops in our head for no reason.
Thus, the project was borne and dully registered on SourceForge. It seemed so exciting at the time, and you know what? After over 3 years of (sometimes) gruesome work, it's more exciting than ever.
The lonely work
For a long time, there was only one guy, working by himself, doing basically whatever he wanted to, a free electron with a vague sense of purpose and a particular view of what his free time was about.
This was a time of long hours, early mornings, late nights, week-ends that passed without my noticing, lots of cigarettes and coffee. Although I have since expanded my horizons and I also do jasmine tea.
Yep, that was me. I loved coding, I still do, and I always will.
From 0 to more than 1 user
There came a time of coding, releasing, coding, releasing. The project started gathering some momentum, as a small community of users started to use it, but why was it not working in this case, or why did it not have this feature, or how could I do this, etc...? You get the drift.
Oh my, now I had to start interacting with other folks! What was I to do?
That started a (thankfully short) period of intense existential self-questioning. What was the purpose of this project? Why did I actually open-source it?
I resolved this by deciding unilaterally that it would be a free contribution, for whomever would be interested enough to look into it. I also decided that it was my personal responsibility to support these brave folks into using the project, and to make it, as much as possible, a happy experience for them.
Users as contributors
Hence I started communicating with others, and really got a blast out of it. These people are great! I can't tell enough how much of a difference they have made to the project. Here's a summary of how:
- they are from all over the world, isn't that cool? I have had questions, comments and criticism from people on 5 continents
- every question they ask is a potential feature, and has often become a real feature
- every bug discovered contributes to the quality of the project
- most requests for clarification have generated an entry in the documentation
- many users were so kind, they actually thanked me and encouraged me! Every time it happens, this makes my day
Beloved Users, you are the only reason why this project is still present. If this project made a difference in your life, you undoubtedly made a huge one in mine. I love you.
From 1 guy to a team
Another wonderful effect of interacting with the users, is that some of them made the jump from contributors to active project members.
Therefore, it was no longer a one-man-show. I was no more free to do anything I wanted, and was accountable to not only myself, but also everyone in the team. It also generated additional work: we had to setup some processes, share ideas about architecture, design and implementation, ramp-up the newcomers and so forth.
Almost immediately, the flow of ideas transformed what was possible for the project, not only in the future, but right then and there. The project expanded, along with the vision we had of it. As a consequence, the team also expanded, which in turn generated its own set of issues and interrogations...
The notion of team and community is intricately tied to that of leadership. What is a leader? Here is the definition I go by: "a leader is someone who gets others into action by enrolling them into a possibility, such that they are touched, moved and inspired by that possibility".
By that definition, I can honestly tell I have had many successes and many failures. There are two huge failures that I have not yet overcome:
- I failed to keep the team excited and inspired. I'm currently the only active contributor and have not heard from the others in months. Whatever the reason, I accept this at it is. Each team member will always have a place in the project, and I thank you guys for everything you've done, thank you a thousand times
- I failed to find a leader for the project. Or is it that I failed to let go of my perceived importance? In any case, I find it dreadful that the project could just end if, for instance, I suffered a brain attack that would eradicate my last (and only) remaining neuron.
I am present to the fact that the project can only reach its full potential when these issues have been resolved.
Presenting a front to the world
The project is hosted and lives on the net. It implies that there has to be a web site to present it, explain what it does, document it, support the users, etc. Also, to attract new users and retain the existing ones, it has to be sexy, interesting, comfortable, and easy to navigate.
I'm a programmer, for goodness sake, not a web designer! Yes, I know HTML, CSS, some PHP. Yes I developed my own templating system that makes the web site maintenance so much easier. How is it that the various versions of the web site I developed always came out as ugly, crappy, boring or often all 3 at once? Hum, I definitely do not have the vision of an artist, and I need professional assistance in that area.
I didn't have to look far: my sister is a professional graphics designer, and in a couple hours came up with a design that is light years better than anything I could do in weeks (or months or years for that matter, I just don't have that talent). Isa: thank you for your generosity and for sharing your talent!
Promoting, Marketing, PR-ing, Publishing
All right! the project is working, there's a great looking web site, a lot of documentation, support forums. But what is the point, if no one knows about it?
This is where the concept of promoting the project comes into play. How does that work? I don't think it's a secret: one has to learn what the content publishers love to read. It takes time, trials and errors, finding the appropriate channels, and sometimes ... being bold and audacious. You'll never know whether the great news you have about your project can be published, unless you actually submit it to those whose job is to publish it.
Some of the channels I have been successful with in that area:
- online magazines
- blogs sites
- related technology sites
- online presentations (webinars)
- in-person presentations
I cannot emphasize enough how this promotion work allows a project to take off and make a difference at any kind of scale.
Beloved online publishers and journalists, thank you for the astonishing job you are doing at publishing about people, technology and open source. I love you.
I want to thank:
- you, beloved reader, for reading this far :)
- all those who work on and contribute to open source software. Keep the spirit alive!
- everyone who uses open source. Without you guys, there'd be nothing to use