Follow-up to “Shy Developer Syndrome”

My article on “Shy Developer Syndrome” a few weeks ago garnered quite a bit of interest, and useful feedback. Since a lot of it adds valuable perspectives to the problem, I thought I should share some of my favourite responses.

On gnome.org, Rodney Dawes argued that developers tend to stay away from mailing lists because the more public lists are very noisy:

For me, mailing lists are a huge risk vs. low return problem. They can become a time sink easily, and it’s quite often that pointless arguments get started on them, as offshoots of the original intent of the thread. Web Forums also have this problem. And, to really get much of anything out of a list, you must subscribe to it, as not everyone who replies, is going to put you specifically in the recipients headers. That means, you’re now suddenly going to get a lot more mail than you normally would for any highly active project. And for anyone trying to get involved in an open source community, 99% of the mail on that list is probably going to be totally irrelevant to them. It will just make tracking the conversation they are trying to have, much harder.

I agree with Rodney that dealing with a new level of volume of email is one of the trickiest things for new contributors. I still remember when I signed up to lkml for an afternoon in college, only to find 200 new emails 3 hours later. I panicked, unsubscribed, and gave up that day on being a Linux kernel hacker.

Since then, however, I have learned some email habits which are shared by other free software hackers I know. Everyone I know has their own tricks for working with medium or high volume mailing lists, and some combination of them may make things livable for you, allowing you to hear the signal without being drowned out by the noise. LifeHacker is a good source of tips.

Rob Staudinger says something similar, pointing the finger at bikeshed discussions as a big problem with many community lists:

Will the zealots go and suggest postgresql’s process model was poor, or samba’s memory allocator sucks? Unlikely, but they will tell you your GUI was bad or that you’re using a package format they don’t like, just because it’s so easy to engage on that superficial level.

Over at LWN, meanwhile, Ciaran O’Riordan makes a good point. Many developers working on free software want to separate their work and personal lives.

When I leave the office at 6pm, my work should have no more relevance until the following morning. Same when I quit a company. I might choose to tell people where I work/worked, but it should be a choice, and I should be able to choose how much I tell people about my work. Having mailing list posts and maybe even cvs commits might be too detailed. Maybe waaay too detailed.

Finally, here at neary-consulting.com, MJ Ray suggested that asking individuals to respond to a request can backfire:

Publicly referring to individuals on a mailing list is a double-edged sword. It might bolster the confidence of the named individual, but it also reduces the confidence of other people who might have answered the question. In general, I feel it’s best not to personalise comments on-list. Some e-democracy groups require all messages to be addressed to a (fictional or powerless) chair or editor, similar to the letters pages of The Times.

While I agree with MJ in situations where the answer is accessible to the wider community, but often only developers working for you, the manager, are in a position to reply – at that point, you have a choice: get the information off your developer and answer yourself, or ask him to answer the question. and I’ve found that asking on the list has the positive side-effects I mentioned.

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