(My thanks to Audrey Tang for this lyrical transcript of my talk at OSDC.tw, to Macpaul Lin for the video, and to Chia-liang Kao for proofreading the Chinese translations in my slides.)
Over the years, I’ve started thinking that participating in the open source community is like traveling on a path, toward becoming not only better programmers, but also becoming better people by working together.
You might think of it as a path toward enlightenment, growing ourselves as human beings. So what follows is really my personal philosophy which I’d like to share with you.
The first thing is this: The most important part of every open source project is the people. While code is important, the center is always the people.
There are different kinds of people involved in a project: People who code, who write documentation, who write tests. People who use your software, too, are just as important for a project.
Also there are people who work on the software that your project uses — you’re likely using projects from other people in the upstream, and you might want to send them a patch from time to time.
Or maybe you’re writing a library or a module, and so other people will be using your software, and communicating with you as their upstream as well.
So why do people work on open source software? This is a very important question to ask, in order to understand how open source works.
For people’s day jobs, they may be working with software already. And why would they take the extra effort to work on open source? Part of it is that it involves working on exciting things and new technologies.
Sharing is also a large part of it; as we share with each other, we increase the amount of fun for everyone working together on an open source project.
People also work on open source in a spirit of giving to others; in doing that we’re reaching out as human beings, and this is a very important part of being human.
There are many rewards, too. A big one is respect: As we create something new, draw people in, and share software with them that they can work on too, they recognize who you are and what you are capable of, which gives you a sense of accomplishment.
Conversely, it means that we want to make sure that we show respect to people joining our projects in any way we can, because it helps them to stay involved.
Another important aspect is appreciation; as people publish their work, if you talk with them — Even just a simple thank-you email message saying “this meant a lot of me”, it helps bring about a culture that keeps everybody motivated.
Credit is also important. As you are presenting a project, be sure to mention other people around you, saying “this person did such a wonderful thing”, so we can build a feeling of community together.
One of the things that keeps people interested in open source is that, as we work together, we become stronger and can do more.
Part of it is simple math: 2x people makes at least 2x code, and 3x people makes 3x code, although there is much more to it than that.
When we work together, we can make each other stronger and better — part of that is encouraging each other; as you see people working on a very difficult problem, you can encourage them saying “you are doing great, and I see you will do great in the future”.
You can empower people just by talking and sharing with them.
And then also there’s the fact that, when you have many people together, they’ll have different sets of skills. When you are working together, maybe you know the five things the project needs, and they know the other five things, and so you have the complete set of skills to finish the project, which wouldn’t be possible if either of you worked alone.
So the effect is not only a linear increase in productivity; there’s a multiplication effect when people start working together.
Encouraging each other to look beyond, to look into the future, is also important — We can all inspire others to solve interesting problems. Sometimes just saying “I have an idea” is enough for someone else to make it into reality.
Sometimes you’d look at what someone else is doing — you have not done all the work, but you have the critical idea they needed, and so with that idea they can reach out and go much further.
The key thing about working on open source is that we’re not just standing alone. When you are working with other people, the main thing you’d want to improve is your communication skills.
We communicate about the plans we have: How we want to make the software, personal plans such as a feature you want to work on, and so on.
One of the things I observed in open source communities is this: People often have good plans to create software, but they sometimes clash and fail to communicate with each other about plans. If you work on one plan alone, without communication, you may end up hurting people working on other plans.
So it’s like a hive of bees — a constant buzz keeps us all functioning.
We’ll also often communicate about possible futures: What’s the best way to solve a technical problem? When this happens, you may communicate in a way that’s contentious and angry, making it very hard to make actual progress.
One of the things we’re learning in our process is how to embrace all possibilities. Keep working on the possibility you’ve imagined, but remain fully open to other possibilities other people may have.
And as you make progress, you’ll also be communicating constantly about what you have done — There’s email, there’s twitter… there are many ways to let people know about your progress.
Sometimes we may feel shy, or not wanting to be seen as bragging. But that’s not what it is! It’s good for the project, and for the people as well, because they can learn from what you have done.
Another aspect of communication skills is the ability to ask questions. The advantage of having a community is that some people might have solved your problem before, and asking a question on a forum or IRC may save you days of work.
In the same way, when others are learning, you can be responsive to them too, instead of putting them down like answering with “RTFM” for simple questions.
It’s true that answering “RTFM” maybe save you a bit of time, but it is also teaching that person that they shouldn’t ask those questions in the first place. That is not what you want to teach people at all — you want to teach them to communicate with others.
Also, learn how to make answers that are helpful to people, and help them see that they can also walk down the path as well, and take the path further in the future.
Sometimes you do have to criticize people; we should be open to many ways of doing things, but sometimes one technical solution really is more correct than others. However, the best way to get people to change their ways is to answer them kindly, so they can be open to learning from you.
You have to show some grace, even to people who do not respond very well. Some people may be harsh with you, but this is also part of the path. Sometimes it helps to have a thicker skin, and even in situations when other people should have said things nicer and better, maybe there’s a bit of truth in what they are saying, and you can still learn from that.
From this perspective, even if they speak in a way that is not polite, you can still respond politely.
The other half of communication is not talking, but listening. Instead of telling others what we think, sometimes all that’s needed is just sitting very quietly, and let others talk.
It’s not just listening, though — it’s important to have empathy. As the saying goes, “If you really want to understand someone, you have to walk a mile in their shoes” — perhaps so you can get the blisters they have experienced.
Now, some people think you have to be a genius to work on open source software, but that is simply not true. There are people like Larry and Guido and Linus, yes, but there are also so many different kinds of talents that any projects needs, too.
And no matter how smart you are, it’s important to stay humble. Because with humility, you will be open to other people, and see new ways of doing things. Humility lets you welcome other people into your project. Pride, on the other hand, is essentially telling people “I don’t need you; I can do things my way.”
By being humble, we also welcome people with diversity of genders, of different cultures, creating a richness in open source by opening to different kinds of people.
The diversity also appears between different projects; it’s almost like languages and cultures of different countries. For example, the community around Linux, Perl, Ruby, and Python all communicate and collaborate differently.
And by being humble with each other, maybe we can see that our project is not the only way, and maybe we can appreciate the ways of other communities.
Now, open source is not all about fun — it’s fun, of course, but it’s also a responsibility. When you agree to participate in a project, you’re taking a weight on your shoulders, and it’s a good thing, as it teaches us to improve ourselves and become better humans.
But life can get in the way — significant others, parents, children, jobs — we may accept responsibility for a time, but there may also be a day where we can’t carry so much responsibility anymore.
So there is a cycle, where you start by assuming more and more of a role in a community, and as life goes on, you gradually take on less and less responsibility. This is entirely natural, and it’s bound to happen in a project’s life cycle.
So it’s worth keeping this question in your mind: “Who will continue my work when I no longer have the time?”
To make sure other people can continue our work, we can think of it as a continuous process: Teaching and sharing the knowledge we’ve learned, and at the same time learning more and more from other people — a continuous process of gaining and sharing knowledge.
Finally, as you work on open source, please be happy, with a smile on your face, and make other people happy! Because this happiness is what gives us the power to make great things.
Do you feel happier now? 🙂