The Maintainer’s Paradox: Balancing Project and Community

By May 4, 2018Blog, Video
maintainer

At Embedded Linux Conference, Sony’s Tim Bird discussed some of the challenges faced by maintainers of open source projects.

What are some of the challenges open source project maintainers face? One common issue is “The Maintainer’s Paradox,” which refers to the fact that open source maintainers are presented with more ideas along with more challenges as their communities grow. This occurs even when they take very minor patches from contributors. This topic was recently tackled by Tim Bird, Senior Software Engineer at Sony, in a keynote address at the Embedded Linux Conference.

The Maintainer’s Paradox is referenced in Eric Raymond’s seminal work “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” and Bird opened his keynote address by citing the reference. “Raymond said that with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow,” Bird noted, adding that the reference applies to large open source communities.

Diversity of thought

“When I do training at Sony, I use a light bulb metaphor for this,” he said. “If you have five or 10 light bulbs that are similar to each other and you turn them on, there will be some good ideas represented by those light bulbs. But if you have a thousand light bulbs of different shapes and sizes, it’s more likely that there are going to be thousands of good ideas represented. So there are probabilities involved here. It’s the diversity of thought that is important. Diversity has a lot of upside.”

“Of course diversity has costs,” he added. “It takes time to assimilate different ideas and integrate them into the existing code path.”

Bird is the maintainer of the Fuego test system, which provides a framework for testing embedded Linux. During his keynote, he provided examples of challenges that maintainers face,  within the context of maintaining Fuego.

Tread carefully

“I learned things becoming a maintainer,” he said. “The Maintainer’s Paradox is that the maintainer is really excited about new contributions, but there is also fear and trepidation. Sometimes when I see a patch set on the mailing list I say, ‘Oh no, another patch set.’ I just might not have time to look at it. You want to review patches carefully and give appropriate feedback, but being a maintainer is sometimes overwhelming.”

Bird displayed a large photo of a puppy as he said: “Every time you get a patch that implies a new feature branch, that is something that has to be cared for indefinitely. As a maintainer, your incentive can be to not take too many of these things.”

Bird also noted some important social dynamics involved with how maintainers interact with community members. For example, differing personalities can create challenges. “People can get frustrated, and there can be miscommunications.” Additionally, although many maintainers want to reward contributions on a meritocracy basis, it can be difficult to achieve that goal.

What are Bird’s recommendations for optimizing tasks and communications? He supplied the following tips:

  • Call out negative communication
  • Route around offenders
  • Listen carefully, actively clarify and act on feedback
  • Assist by helping others
  • Become a maintainer

Finally, for more on active management of open source projects, including free tools, check this post.

Watch the entire presentation below:

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