GREAT presentation on open source development

I highly recommend Schneem’s presentation on “Saving Sprockets”, which he has also turned into a written narrative. Not so much for what it says about Sprockets, but for what it says about open source development.

I won’t say I agree with 100% of it, but probably 85%+, and some of the stuff I agree with is really important and useful, and Schneem’s analyzes what’s going on very well and figures out how to say it very well.

Some of my favorite points:

“To them, I ask: what are the problems? Do you know what they are? Because we can’t fix what we can’t define, and if we want to attempt a re-write, then a re-write would assume that we know better. We still have the same need to do things with assets, so we don’t really know better.”

A long term maintainer is really important, coders aren’t just inter-changeable widgets:

“While I’m working on Sprockets, there’s so many times that I say “this is absolutely batshit insane. This makes no sense. I’m going to rip this all out. I’m going to completely redo all of this.” And then, six hours later, I say “wow, that was genius,” and I didn’t have the right context for looking at the code. Maintainers are really historians, and these maintainers, they help bring context. We try to focus on good commit messages and good pull requests. Changelog entries. Please keep a changelog, btw. But none of that compares to having someone who’s actually there. A story is worth 1000 commit messages. For example, you can’t exactly ask a commit message a question, like, “hey, did you consider trying to uh…” and the commit message is like, “uh, I’m a commit message.” It doesn’t store the context about the conversations around that”

“These are all different people with very different needs who need different documentation. Don’t make them hunt down the documentation that they need. When I started working on Sprockets, somebody would ask, “is this expected?” and I would say honestly, “I don’t know, you tell me. Was it happening before?” And through doing that research, I put together some guides, and eventually we could definitively say what was expected behavior. The only way that I could make those guides make sense is if I split them out, and so, we have a guide for “building an asset processing framework”, if you’re building the next Rails asset pipeline, or “end user asset generation”, if you are a Rails user, or “extending Sprockets” if you want to make one of those plugins. It’s all right there, it’s kind of right at your fingertips, and you only need to look at the documentation that fits your use case, when you need it.

We made it easier for developers to find what they need. Also, it was a super useful exercise for me as well. One thing I love about these guides is that they live in the source and not in a wiki, because documentation is really only valid for one point in time.”

I also really like the concept that figuring out how to support or fix someone else’s code (which is really all ‘legacy’ means), is an excercize in a sort of code archeology.  I’ve been doing that a lot lately.  Also how to use someone else’s code that isn’t documented sufficiently.  It’s sort of fun sometimes, but better to have better docs.

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