About me: My name is Solène Rapenne, pronouns she/her. I like learning and sharing knowledge. Hobbies: '(BSD OpenBSD h+ Lisp cmdline gaming internet-stuff). I love percent and lambda characters. OpenBSD developer solene@.

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Opensource from an author point of view

Written by Solène, on 23 March 2021.
Tags: #opensource

Comments on Mastodon

Hi, today's article will be a bit different than what you are used to. I am currently writing about my experience as an open source author and "project manager". I recently created a project that, while being extremely small, have seen some people getting involved at various level. I didn't know what it was to be in this position.

Having to deal with multiple people contributing to a project I started for myself on one architecture with a limited set of features is surprisingly hard. I don't say it's boring and that no one should ever do it, but I think I wasn't really prepare to handle this.

I made my best to integrate people wishes while keeping the helm of the project in the right direction, but I had to ask myself many questions.

Many questions

Should I care about what other people need? I could say no to everything proposed if I see no benefit for my use case. I chose to accept some changes that I didn't use because they made sense in some context. But I have to be really careful to accept everything if I want to keep the program sane.

Should I care about other platforms I don't use? Someone proposed me to add some code to support Linux targets, which I don't use, meaning more code I can't test. For the sake of compatibility and avoiding extra work to packagers, I made a very simple solution to fix that, but if someone wanted to port my program to Windows or a platform that would require many many changes, I don't know how I would react.

Too much changing code situation. My program changed A LOT since my initials commits, and now a git blame mostly show no lines from me, this doesn't mean I didn't review changes made by contributors, but I am not as comfortable now that I was initially with my own code. That doesn't mean the new code is wrong, but it doesn't hold my logic in it. I think it's the biggest deal in this situation, I, as the project manager, must say what can go in, what can't and when. It's fine to receive contributions but they shouldn't add complexity or weird algorithms.

Accepting changes

I am not an expert programmer, I don't often write code, and when I do, it's for my own benefit. Opening our work to other implies making it accessible to outsiders, accepting changes and explaining choices.

Many times I reviewed submitted code and replied it wasn't fine, and while it compiles and apply correctly, it's not the right way to do, please rework this in some way to make it better or discard it, but it won't get into the repository. It's not always easy, people can submit code I don't understand sometimes, I still have to review it thoroughly because I can't accept everything sent.

In some way, once people get involved into my projects, they get denatured because they receive thoughts from other, their ideas, their logic, their needs. It's wonderful and scary at the same time. When I publish code, I never expect it to be useful for someone and even less that I could receive new features by emails from strangers.

Be prepared for this is important when you start a project and that you make it open source. I could refuse everything but then I would cut myself from a potential community around my own code, that would be a shame.

Responsibility

This part is not related to my projects (or at least not in this situation) but this is a debate I often think about when reading dramas in open source: is an open source author responsible toward the users?

One way to reply this is that if you publish your content online and accept contributions, this mean you care about users (which then contribute back), but where to draw the limit of what is acceptable? If someone writes an awesome program for themselves and gather a community around it, and then choose to make breaking changes or remove important features, what then? The users are free to fork, the author is free to to whatever they want.

There are no clear responsibility binding contributors and end users, I hope most of the time, contributors think about the end users, but with different philosophies in play sometimes we can end in dilemma between the two groups.

Epilogue

I am very happy to publish open source code and to have contributors, coordinate people, goals and features is not something I expected :)

Please, be cautious with this writing, I only had to face this situation with a couple of contributors, I can't imagine how complicated it can become at a bigger scale!