I was checking out this fabulous new book called Open Advice after seeing a link on a mailing list. The book is a collection of reflections by experienced (and often well-known) free and open source software contributors on things they wish they’d known when they started in FOSS.
I found a particularly wonderful section among a wealth of other wonderful text. In fact, I probably could have opened the book at random and found something just as quotable and insightful. But this piece struck a sympathetic nerve, probably because one of my pet issues is treating each other with kindness. This excerpt is from the chapter called “Good Manners Matter” by the amazing Rich Bowen, and I’ll reproduce it here, thanks to the author’s and editors’ enlightened use of the CC BY-SA 3.0 license:
Well said, Rich. Any of us helping users or newcomers to any endeavor, whether it’s Fedora, some other FOSS project, or a volunteer organization in your town, can learn from Rich’s experience above, assuming that we haven’t already lived it ourselves. Any user can be the contributor of tomorrow. It pays real dividends to extend them a helping hand.
I do highly recommend you check out Open Advice at the website. It’s chock full of insight, anecdotes, and lessons about the powerful, transformational, and exciting journey of free and open source software. The book is a free download, but you can also purchase a copy from Lulu (and, according to the site, from Amazon soon).
Bruce Byfield has published an article on burnout in community projects, to which I was happy to contribute some thoughts. Overall I believe the thoughts people shared in that article, while not surprising or radical, can help people avoid putting themselves in a burnout situation. Moreover, they can potentially help someone realize that a friend may need a helping hand before they run smack-dab into burnout themselves.
One of the striking (but again, not surprising) bits Bruce wrote in the article was this:
The stress may be increased because the first generations of community members are now well into middle-age, and some are starting to have trouble working the hours to which they are accustomed, either because of reduced stamina or family obligations.
This statement really hit home with me, because in a very time-compressed way I went through a seismic shift in my work/life balance twice in just the space of a couple years. I was feeling somewhat in a confessional mood today, so I figured I’d try and write about my brush with burnout in an honest and not overly edited way. Like Linus, I don’t think I ever really hit a wall. Whether by luck or conscious introspection, I was able to avoid that disaster. But I did see it approaching in the distance, and maybe an explanation of what I did about it will help someone else who sees a reflection in my story.
I started in FOSS long after the very early, pioneering days. I joined the Fedora Project in 2003, by which point my wife and I were already expecting our second child. Since I was more of a homebody by that point, I found it convenient to work in a community software project. I was already hanging around the house more than I used to, but now I could plop down with a laptop and do something extra for my fellow man at night or on the weekend. Meanwhile, my day job was fairly regular, and no remote work was possible, so my work ended when I left the office.
Taking a job with Red Hat made open source the focus for most of my waking hours starting in 2008. By then my son was 4, my daughter was almost 7, and there was plenty to get done every single day on both the home and work fronts. During the next two and a half years, my work schedule became radically different. 12-14 hour days were the norm, and still there was always more to do. I would say that working from home made it easy for me to focus too much on work, and not enough on other important things, like my family. My wife, thankfully and far beyond the call of duty, took up the slack at home.
I joke sometimes to others that one of my purposes in life is to be a cautionary tale, and that definitely applies to my work/life balance problems my first 18 months at Red Hat. I only saw my kids for a small amount of time daily, and to this day I worry that I don’t have enough memories of my daughter’s early grade school or my son as a preschooler. I made it to the obligatory stuff, of course, but it wasn’t real quality time. Mostly when I wasn’t working, I was thinking or worrying about work. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were rushed events after which I’d practically sprint back to the computer, fearing about all the things I wasn’t getting done. It was a very unhealthy approach to work.
At some point partway through my job as FPL, I came to a realization: One day I’d wake up and my kids would be going off to college, and I’d be thinking, “Wait, you can’t go yet, I’m not ready.” Something had to change, and that something was me. But it couldn’t be as simple as just working less. There were lots of people counting on me for different things in Fedora, and many of them were giving their precious spare time for our project. So I had to figure out not how to work less, but how to work smarter.
I ended up overhauling a lot of my tools, for one thing. I tried to find more efficient ways of getting things done, so I could maximize my output per hour. I changed physical and network setup of my office so I had more flexibility and fewer interruptions. I also tried to refocus my work on critical path topics — for instance, trying to spend the majority of my day working on problems that would allow volunteers to get things done. And I started hitting the gym almost every weekday so I could energize the rest of my day. (I’ve fallen off the wagon the last couple of months, but I’m heading back this fall, since I’ve definitely noticed the difference in my mental attitude and energy without it.)
But that’s all mechanical, and not really as difficult as the psychological aspects. I also had to confront my own focus on trying to get everything right, and learn to forgive myself for making mistakes. (Especially since I tend to make so many.) Rather than spend a lot of time each day trying to make everything 95% correct, I needed to spend far less time to get things 75% or 80% correct, and trust other people to help me figure out the rest. When you think about it, that’s part of the open source way, really. We often say “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” and I found that was equally applicable to several parts of my life, including my approach to working in an open source oriented job. Amber Graner talks about “letting go” in Bruce’s article, which I think accurately describes the conscious approach I had to take.
There’s an old saying that you’ll never hear someone on his deathbed say, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” I agree with that — in general, I don’t want to have regrets about how I live my life. After all, that’s why I came to Red Hat when the opportunity of chairing the Fedora Project arose. I didn’t want to look back and think, “If only….” Now I realize for me to be at my best for open source, I’ve got to be better at balancing my obligations. I have to let go of the things I can’t do, or can’t do well, and focus on the areas where I can make a difference.
Not all those areas are in work, either. I can make a big difference in my family’s quality of life by doing a better job focusing on the important parts of being a parent. Over the last couple of years, and especially this past year, I’ve started to take better advantage of opportunities to be off the keyboard and building experiences with my family. That might mean going to historical sites or museums, traveling to visit friends, or just doing fun things together, but I feel it’s made me better equipped to deal with job stress when I know I’m doing well by my family.
Of course, it’s not like I’m doing this perfectly. I still have problems with balance, but at least I feel like I have the experience now to identify them and hopefully deal with them. As I mentioned, this is somewhat a confessional article, but I’m not looking for pep talk (or, obviously, the opposite). Rather, I just wanted to share something I care deeply about, which is that I want you, Gentle Reader, to be happy in what you do and find a balance that suits you. I’d love to hear your story about how you’ve found balance, or the challenges you face in doing that. Feel free to write a comment, but I’d love to see trackback posts where you don’t feel constrained by a little comment box.
In a previous post, I mentioned something I really feel strongly about — pet adoption. If you’re looking for a pet, adoption is absolutely your best bet.
Many of the animals in shelters are in perfect health, have sparkling personalities, and want nothing more than to be loved and cared for in a real home. There are an incredible variety of breeds, ages, and personality types (such as energetic, laid-back, or curious). Usually they’re in a shelter for reasons that have nothing to do with them
Believe it or not, I just saw a beautiful lab mix dog last weekend, “Blackie,” who was turned out by his family. They quite literally threw Blackie out of the house. This sweet dog, though older, is housebroken and in good health (though with diminished sight since he’s getting on a bit). Thankfully these people’s neighbors rescued him and brought him to the shelter where he’d have a chance at a good life with a new family.
That’s a pretty awful story in my book. I don’t know the family that threw out this lovely dog, but even if they were under a hardship, they could have simply brought him to a shelter themselves. Instead they basically abandoned him to the elements, which is even more terrible given how unusually cold it’s been here for the last month. I really hope Blackie can find a new family.
Our dog, Dixie, ended up in a shelter through terrible misfortune. Her owner died, and there was no one to take care of her so she ended up at the Orange County Humane Society (here’s their official web site). When I first met Dixie, she had been in the shelter for three months and I’m sure she was despondent, in her own doggie way about the way her quality of life had diminished. (I know the shelter volunteers are wonderful, caring people who do their best to provide for the dogs and cats that end up there, but there’s only so much they can do with a small budget and many unfortunate animals to care for.)
It was obvious that Dixie was a good match for us. She had a lot of spark and personality even though she was a little “down in the dumps” from being in the shelter so long. She was gentle and basked in attention, and when my family came to the shelter display to meet her, it was clear she was good with the kids too. We were definitely taken with this wonderful dog and wanted to give her a permanent home.
She was fully vaccinated, tested, spayed, and microchipped* when we got her, and she’s great with the kids, loves attention and play, is bubbly and effusive, and just an all-around fantastic dog.
I still can’t figure out how we lucked out with such a wonderful dog — and why Dixie had been in the shelter for so long, over three months, without being adopted! But I think a big part of it is there are so many people who don’t understand just how many beautiful, loving animals are in shelters waiting for a family to love and care for them. Seriously, there are a lot of them! And with so many wonderful animals in need of a “forever family,” it makes absolutely no sense to me to buy a “new” pet.
Sure, I’ll freely admit that Dixie’s and Blackie’s stories really touch a sympathetic nerve. But I’ve always thought that we as a society should not be encouraging the sales or breeding of “new” animals when there are so many abandoned or unfortunate pets out there who need homes. Personally, I think buying “new” animals supports a system that encourages the attitude that domestic animals are disposable. It makes it convenient for us to forget the hundreds of thousands of pets in need who want nothing more than someone to love and care for them.
Completely putting aside the emotional appeal of taking in an unfortunate pet, and just looking at a practical aspect like finances, it’s even more incredible that people will pay outrageous amounts of money for bred animals, when an equally wonderful or even superior pet from a shelter is so inexpensive. For example, Dixie cost us something like $200 to adopt from the Humane Society. She was already spayed, tested, and so on — all costs that we saved by adopting this loving girl into our home.
Of course, just because a pet is previously owned doesn’t mean they come to you with no work required on your part — you still have to be a good owner. But they do have memory and can re-adjust quickly, and a lot more easily than training a young animal from scratch. For instance, during her three month stay in the shelter, Dixie had forgotten a good deal of her housebreaking training. (If you were forced to stay in a tiny prison cell for a long time, and were only allowed use of a separate bathroom facility once a day or less, you’d probably be a little off-kilter in your toilet habits, too.) So there were a couple weeks after we got her where we had to make a special effort to re-housebreak her. But it was certainly no harder than what anyone would have to do with a “new” puppy; in fact, it was a lot easier because Dixie quickly adjusted, remembering that there are some behaviors a dog should save for outside.
OK, I know I’ve rattled on here a bit, but I really feel strongly about this subject. I hope if you’re considering buying a pet you’ll visit the shelters in your area. In fact, you don’t even have to go anywhere. You can use online search systems like Petfinder to find a compatible critter that’s waiting for someone just like you. It’s practically a guarantee that if you look, you’ll find a wonderful companion who will give you years of unconditional love.
By the way… if you look at the OCHS web page, you’ll find Dixie on their “Furry Tails” page, which features pets who’ve found their forever homes and families.
* A lot of pets have subcutaneous microchips, implanted relatively painlessly by a veterinarian. If a pet is lost and picked up by a shelter or animal control, they can be returned to their owners, or at least their records can be located to more effectively find them a new home.
A couple unrelated comments and discussions I saw over the past few days prompted me to write about how the open source way should affect conversations in Fedora. Our modus operandi in Fedora is “default to open.” It keeps us accountable to each other, honest in our assessments, and (hopefully) constructive in our relations with each other.
Most importantly, though, open communication lets others know what we’re thinking and doing, and gives everyone a chance to participate and assist. Without open conversation, it’s infinitely harder to tell what people are up to in Fedora, or any open source work. Sure, you could watch myriad commit lists or RSS feeds, but the trouble with that is there’s no human context around it. And often those automated messages can be confusing or surprising unless someone’s established a prior context around them. The cornerstone of collaboration is communication, and the success of open source depends on collaboration.
Here are some of the opportunities I’ve sometimes observed in open source efforts (not just Fedora) to encourage positive growth toward openness. Sometimes I run into these opportunities personally, and regularly remind myself that increasing communication (rather than simply work output) can often be the best answer.
Do you feel like a lot of work is hanging on you personally? Nothing contributes to burnout quite like when you feel you’re a single point of failure. Making your work more open forces you to confront areas where you’re having trouble, and to ask for help. You can’t be a force for positive change unless you embrace the fact that you can’t do everything yourself. Lydia Pintscher hosted a wonderful article by Asheesh Laroia the other day about how Fedora Design team lead Máirín Duffy avoids this problem by effectively turning “to do” items into open calls to action for the community.
At times it may take more time to tell people about the work than it would to do it. But explaining and documenting are, more often than not, the key to spreading knowledge of, and participation in, an activity. Yes, it is possible no one will help even after you explain and document how to do something. But it’s certain no one will help if you don’t. Building an architecture of participation is to create opportunities for others.
Do you see an area that’s not getting enough attention in your team, even though it’s assigned to someone? The best answer isn’t necessarily to cajole that person, even if you feel like they’re responsible for it. Sometimes the best thing you can do for them is to ask for help on their behalf. There are numerous outlets where you can call out for help: (1) write a blog post that’s carried on one or more aggregators (like Planet Fedora), (2) send status messages on social networking using identifying hash tags about your subject, or (3) make contact with other open source groups outside your project that work on related material, to see if someone’s interested in helping.
Real life happens to all volunteers, and it’s not always possible for them to cover all their responsibilities — volunteer activities frequently take a backseat when available time shrinks, whatever the reason. In Fedora, our teammates are our friends, and we do what we can to make them and our team successful. That might mean helping them find someone to take over for them, if they’re too swamped to follow through.
If you see this happening as a pattern on a team, perhaps it’s worthwhile to examine the scope of the work you’re doing. Do you have enough people to cover it? Consider contracting efforts around a smaller target for a time, while you look for new contributors who are interested in participating. Doing a few things well can be much more rewarding for the team than leaving lots of things incomplete or finishing lots of tasks in a less satisfactory way. (This is also true in the scope of a single contributor — each of us can likely get more satisfaction and pride out of a few jobs well done, rather than many jobs not so well done.)
Are you having substantial conversations privately where the community can’t participate? You could unknowingly be sapping energy from your own team! Remember, one of the reasons we’re involved in free and open source software is that more eyeballs, heads, and hands are inevitably better than a few. Agree on the problem you’re trying to solve first, so you can have a productive conversation about how to solve it. Then make sure you have that conversation in a mailing list, where everyone can see it’s going on, and offer input and assistance.
Community maven/wunderkind Mel Chua has frequently written, “If it didn’t happen on the list, it didn’t happen.” More and more I’ve come to appreciate that wisdom, because frequently the biggest frustrations, confusions, and misunderstandings arise simply because people don’t know what their teammates are thinking or doing. The more open we are in our communications, the less likely we’ll cause those types of problems. Of course, open communication doesn’t equal “no arguments.” But you can choose to have an argument purely about the merits of different types of solutions, rather than arguing about that, plus conflicts over perceived slights, plus issues of hidden agendas, plus… Get the picture?*
Do you feel the need to encourage teammates toward positive transparency? You can help others be transparent by simply asking non-loaded questions in a public forum. Make it clear you’re supportive of their work, and that you’d like to know more about it so you help either by participating, or encouraging others to participate. You don’t even need to mention transparency, since it’s implicit in your public question. In fact, doing so can often be detrimental, with the exact opposite effect of what you intended. If someone communicates with you privately, let them know you’d like to share that with the community, and if it meets with approval, do so promptly and fully. It usually only takes a couple of minor, non-judgmental efforts to help teammates understand the value of “default to open,” so everyone can benefit.
Many times, I find people aren’t transparent simply because they’re tentative. No one wants to be publicly embarrassed, after all! This is why it’s so important to nurture a culture of positivity and constructive behavior in an open source team or project. No one should be afraid to speak up for fear they’re wrong. Being wrong is an opportunity to learn, and not just for the people involved in the conversation. The opportunity also exists for those reading along on the list, or who come across the conversation later thanks to a search engine. Encouraging people toward transparency requires both halves of this strategy to be effective — you can’t simply make requests unless people feel they (not just their open communications) are welcome.
Anyway, these are just some idle thoughts I was having today while exercising and thinking about open communication. I’d love to hear trackbacks and comments from people about their personal experiences and approaches with communicating more openly and transparently, especially specific experiences and how it improved the outcome.
* Admittedly, it’s much easier to defuse those problems later if everyone assumes good intentions, but in my experience, most forms of electronic communication make that quite difficult. But that’s a behavior we can all still aim to practice every day!
To Ian’s post I can only say, “right on.”
There’s an even deeper underlying concern for free software’s desire to have an unencumbered way to create content. It’s to restore the ability of people to use moving pictures as part of their voice in the processes around them. Codecs are not just the “-dec” component — the decoder that allows people to consume content. It’s also very much about the “Co-,” the encoder component that lets people create content and then share it as desired.
In free software communities like Fedora, we use these codecs to share information about innovations and the communities that create them. But they are just as powerful applied to social and political processes. If we ever want to have a hope of sharing the benefits of global information economy with cultures around the world, people must be able to express themselves without costs being applied by systems into which they have no input. That means having freely available codecs to create and share content.
Red Hat has contributed substantial work in partnership with Mozilla and Xiph.org to improving the capabilities of free codecs for audio and video support, which HTML5 can use. Most free softies know these as Ogg Vorbis for audio and Ogg Theora for video. Their capabilities are excellent now, and are highly competitive with the best closed-source or patent-encumbered formats. Don’t believe me? Check out Greg Maxwell’s enlightening page about how good Ogg Theora looks at some typical YouTube transmission rates.
Free content must not end up another victim thrown under the blundering, driverless train of software patents. The results would be disastrous, quashing freedom for people around the world, especially those who most desperately need a free path to content creation. The Open Video Alliance is concerned with this situation (Mozilla is a major partner in OVA), and Red Hat continues to do its part in the fight against software patents too. I hope that others will “get on board” as well.
So it was written, so shall it be done. I contacted both of Virginia’s Senators, Mark Warner and Jim Webb, to show my support for the Open College Textbook Act of 2009. It did, indeed, take under five minutes to exercise some of my power as a voting constituent beyond showing up at the polls every couple of years.
What about the rest of you USA readers? Honestly, it couldn’t be easier — visit this site, choose your state and Senator, and fill in their “Contact” form (always featured prominently on their web page) to send them a quick note. Check out Greg’s post for a sample; staffers and Senators do not mind receiving the same note many times, because they still know the issue was important enough to you to bother contacting them at all.
(I’m not ready for International Talk Like a Pirate day to be over, apparently, given the subject line.)
Spot, in response to your insightful post, your experience at Atlanta Linux Fest seems a bit different from the many distribution-agnostic events that happen every year, like SELF, UTOSC, LinuxTag, and Ontario Linux Fest. I don’t think anything billing itself as a “Linux” event should favor distros, whether they’re Fedora, Debian, Ubuntu, openSUSE, or what have you — especially when the majority of what’s covered (how to write better Django apps, tweaking Apache, kernel driver hacking, etc.) is completely independent of your chosen brand of Linux.
When Fedora gives money to Linux events, it’s generally because we believe the event is a cost-effective way for us to deliver a benefit to the whole Linux community. Of course we try to put Fedora Ambassadors and a booth at such an event, and welcome other distribution projects to do the same. It’s a supportive gesture, not an exclusive one! All of us are there ultimately to show people how easy, reliable, and socially responsible free software is for everyone.
At the same time, Fedora is continuing to move away from putting our FUDCon events next to major Linux events, for a couple reasons. One is to avoid the distraction of trying to essentially participate in two events at once. That’s hard not just on attendees, who want to be able to participate in both events, but also on organizers who themselves are eager not just to educate and contribute at FUDCon, but also to promote Fedora, Linux, and FOSS at the neutral event itself. Another reason is to avoid the appearance of “swarming” a distribution neutral event, because there are people for whom that reduces the incentive to attend, for whatever reason. Yet another reason is so we can seek out cost-effective venues at locations and times where people are looking for a FOSS event, so that we don’t end up repeatedly preaching to the choir.
In response to your point about upstream policy, the way Canonical has opened up pieces of the Ubuntu production system have been a direct result of the community’s continuing conversation with them, so I hope that conversation continues and spreads into areas such as upstream policies. I think that distros can benefit from a model of eschewing distribution-specific patches wherever possible, in favor of working directly with upstream to improve the consistency of Linux globally.
And on the subject of creepiness, Fedora has always shied away from “star worship,” where that equates to promoting one person (and/or that person’s “brand”) over the rest of the community. While there are people who lead various teams, what we’ve consistently found about their leadership is that it promotes everyone else around them as opposed to themselves. That also means our community efforts are scalable, and don’t hinge on name recognition as much as mission recognition. In Fedora, anyone is capable of being a rockstar, and we’d rather promote all of them than just one or two.
Star worship has other negative side effects as well. Since taking the job of FPL and, as a result, having the opportunity to travel around the world to different FOSS events, I’ve witnessed some really scurrilous or just plain rude hijinks from “stars” who seem blind to the damage they are ultimately causing their communities by reflecting negatively on them, or the way those actions can turn off potential free software contributors.
Individual egos, no matter how well-intentioned the owner, are just too susceptible when they don’t answer to a peer group. Any time you represent a larger community, you have a responsibility to govern your actions accordingly, because it reflects on everyone. The more representatives there are, and the more peers you have, the easier it is to be consistent between principle and action, because that’s what peer groups can reinforce between their members.
I think it greatly reduces the creepiness factor when you can be in the same room with the attendees and give them the opportunity to ask questions freely, much as Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst did at the last FUDCon in Boston. Personally, I have done video chats over projector to audiences, but they’re always live, so community members (or potential members) have their chance to be part of a conversation, as opposed to just listeners. So much of what makes FOSS work requires conversation, not dictation! The honesty and spontaneity of that conversation makes it a human connection and hopefully much lower on the Creepy-O-Meter.
But fortunately, negative incidents really are in the minority against the many wonderful experiences I’ve had of meeting and talking to FOSS users and contributors. There are so many people out there eager to get involved with Linux and FOSS that we have a great opportunity to influence in a positive way, teaching them through our deeds (not just words) to honor upstream projects; to avoid old, outmoded hoarding behaviors; and to become leaders and rockstars in their own right through what Spot referred to as a combination of transparency and courage. These lessons are ones that we continually need to keep in mind going forward, and continue honestly reassessing where we’re succeeding or failing at making good on them, and act accordingly.
For a few minutes it seemed like much of the world — as seen from my little vantage point in the intartubez — stood still, as the U.S. inaugurated its 44th President in customary, non-violent, and celebratory fashion. There was an enormous crowd, a stirring speech and call to action, a warm blessing and a day to remember. The inauguration of Barack Obama was momentous and at times heart-warming: a great day as with all Inaugural Days, the peaceful transition of power and the eagerness of the entire public to see what changes the new administration brings.
Today is for celebrating; tomorrow is the day to put away the sensational headlines, the sneering, the rejoicing, and the gushing. Tomorrow we put our shoulders to the wheel and PUSH. That is what the President has called on us to do, and that is where we must prove, rather than proclaim, the words “Yes We Can.” When we look back on this day years from now, let us not have squandered its significance on petty power squabbles or the pointing of fingers. Let us take the opportunity we have today to reaffirm the promise of this great nation.