My FOSS Story


I’d like to break from my normal tradition of focusing almost strictly on technical content and share a bit of my own personal relationship with Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). While everyone is different, my hope is that sharing my perspective will help build understanding, empathy and trust.

This is not meant to be a direct response to the behavior of any other maintainer. Nor should it be read as a prescription on the ideal behavior of someone in FOSS. This is meant more as a personal reflection with the hope that others will use it to reflect on their own relationship with FOSS. There is no one true path to being a good FOSS maintainer. We all have our own coping mechanisms.

This is also emphatically not meant as a call for help. This is about understanding. This is not about a plea to change the economics of FOSS. This is not about brainstorming ways to improve my mental health. This is not about bringing on more maintainers. It’s about sharing my story and attempting to increase empathy among the denizens of FOSS.

Target audience: Anyone involved in FOSS.

Table of contents

History

My very first FOSS project was released almost 16 years ago. It was a bulletin board system written in PHP. Pretty much everyone was building those things back then, and it was also how I learned to program. The project originally started as a school project to host online discussions. (This was before schools had anything to do with the web, other than host crappy web sites.) But that quickly became less of a focus as I ran into my very first failure of estimation. It took much longer than one semester to build it. It turned into a labor of love beyond just a school project.

I’ve personally always found writing code to scratch an itch to be intrinsically rewarding to me. I love all phases of it. Whether it’s background research, determining feasibility, laying out my initial plan of attack, obsessing over writing the code and even dreaming about it, I love every minute of it.

When I write code, I don’t need to share it to enjoy it. But as my involvement in FOSS increased, it quickly became a natural part of my process that I’ve mostly continued for 16 years in one form or another. At its core, the thing I love most about it is the act of sharing my code with others in a way that lets them solve a problem more efficiently and effectively than they would have without it. The more utility my code gets, the greater my enjoyment is. It generally doesn’t matter to me whether it’s just another hacker scratching an itch or a giant corporation doing something interesting at incredible scales.

My FOSS history continued for several years with various releases of my bulletin board and wtcSQLite, which was a cheap clone of phpMyAdmin, but for SQLite.

When I moved to Linux from Windows sometime around 2009, I started scratching more itches, but with Python and X11. This included PyTyle for bolting window tiling onto a stacking window manager, and openbox-multihead, which added my own flavor of support for multiple monitors to Openbox. These projects, combined with doing some research work in Go, led to me building my own window manager in Go, which I still use today.

That brings me to about 6 years ago, which is around the time that I started writing Rust. My first Rust library was quickcheck, but that was followed by a flurry of others: regex, docopt.rs, rust-csv, fst, termcolor, walkdir and many more over the next 6 years.

While the vast majority of my Rust projects are libraries, some of them are command line tools, such as xsv and ripgrep.

While many of my older projects (non-Rust) are effectively dead or maintained by others at this point, I have, for the most part, continued to maintain most of the Rust projects I’ve started. Those that don’t receive maintenance have generally been supplanted by better crates built by others. (Such as crossbeam-channel supplanting chan.)

These days, while I still spend a lot of time coding because I love doing it, I also spend a lot of time reviewing code, debugging issues with end users, responding to feature requests and other such things. Invariably, this means interacting, working and communicating with other humans.

Damned Emotions

When I was a young adult, I’d pride myself on being “logical” and “free of emotional decision making.” Like all good lies we tell to ourselves, there’s a kernel of truth to it. But for the most part, at least for me personally, I am a deeply emotional being.

Emotions run deep and can be a really useful well to tap for intrinsic motivation. For example, for some time after ripgrep was released, I began to immediately hate touching the code that was responsible for printing search results. It was convoluted, buggy and difficult to change. While rewriting is a perfectly logical decision to make on purely technical grounds only, I was motivated to do it because I didn’t like the way it made me feel. My emotion helped drive me to make things better for myself. For example, now that printing is de-coupled and isolated into its own distinct library with thorough tests, I feel a heck of a lot better any time I need to journey into that code and do something. It’s still not my best work, but it’s a big improvement—at least from an emotional perspective—over the previous state.

Emotions are funny things because they can put you into really surprising states. Sticking with our previous example, would re-writing the printing code on purely technical reasons alone be enough? It’s a fine decision to make, but if I’m not motivated to do it, then it might never get done. If it doesn’t get done, then the most likely outcomes are that the software stagnates or becomes buggy, or some combination of both. If the emotional reasoning can motivate me to do it, then the rewrite could lead to a much better future where more features are implemented without sacrificing reliability.

Emotions cut both ways. For anyone who has released and maintained some moderately popular piece of software, you will have invariably made contact with other humans. The impact that another person can have on your emotional state can be staggering. A positive gesture or comment can really brighten your day. It’s that feeling: yes, sharing my code was so worth it just to help that one person. But as anyone who has been a FOSS maintainer can attest, positive comments are almost always dwarfed by negative comments.

Negative comments aren’t intrinsically bad. But they are the natural consequence of sharing your code and inviting others to use it and report problems. When a bug gets reported, you feel that twang of having let that user down. When you wrote the code, you were sure you tested it well enough, but it was still wrong. Will the bug reports never end? How much time did that user just waste because of the bug? How much time will it take me to fix it? Forget that, how much time will take me to just context switch into a mode where I even have a hope of fixing it?

These thoughts can encourage emotions that will eat away at you. And these are pretty much the best case scenario when it comes to negative comments.

Festering Negativity

I quickly learned to get over the feelings of inadequacy after a bug report was filed. Indeed, good bug reports with easy reproductions quickly turn into positive things because they tend to be so rare. Most bug reports lack reproductions at all, even when you provide an issue template that explicitly asks for one. The submitter probably means well, but there’s just not enough information to make the bug actionable. And so begins the back-and-forth to determine how to isolate the bug.

For me personally, this is an area where I struggle the most. My emotions get the best of me, because all I can think is: why didn’t this person take the time to read and fill out the issue template? Or, in cases where bugs are user errors that could be resolved by just reading the documentation, all I can think of is: I spent this time gifting this user some software, but they can’t even read the README before filing a bug report?

It can be maddening. But that’s emotions for you. They certainly aren’t always rational. The documentation could probably be clearer. Or the user could have just missed that part of the documentation. Or the user doesn’t have experience maintaining FOSS projects or filing bug reports and maybe does not know how to provide an easy reproduction. These are all perfectly reasonable things to have happen, and it’s why I do my best not to let my emotions get the best of me. While the way I feel is important, empathizing with the person on the other end of the wire is important too.

In particular, while I never write the words, “I invite you to use my code,” there are a ton of things I do only because my intent is for others to use my code. I write more thorough documentation than I would otherwise. I write examples for others to follow. I set up continuous integration testing. I write a README that usually explains how to get started. I share a link to my project with others in various places on the Internet. If people accept this invitation to use my code, or an invitation to file bugs by keeping the issue tracker open, then I should also do my best not to punish them when they do. When poor issues are filed, the reporter probably thinks they did the best they could. And so long as they are filed in good faith, I really do try to respond in kind.

This underscores the asymmetry of maintainers and users. For many users who file bug reports, they might have one or two interactions with me. To them, a single poorly written bug report isn’t a big deal. But I’m on the wrong end of this deal, because this plays itself out over and over again across all my projects. All the time. Almost every day. Empathizing in this scenario can be extraordinarily difficult, especially if you are already have a bad day. Which happens sometimes.

Sometimes I let my impatience show through with curt replies. I am trying hard to be better about this. It’s a work in progress.

Dealing via Boundaries

One of the things that comes from maintaining not just one popular project, but several, is that there is an almost constant stream of bug reports and pull requests coming in daily. Keeping up with it is almost impossible. My brain’s cache size is unusually small, so my ability to context switch between projects is generally pretty poor. The general result of this phenomenon is that projects I’ve touched recently tend to get its issues and pull requests dealt with more quickly, since the project is probably mostly paged into my brain.

But other projects begin to pile up with issues and pull requests. The inbox gets longer. Each day you see a new issue come in, and you say to yourself, “yes, I will really look at it this time once I get home from work.” But more just keep coming in. Eventually you work up the motivation to context switch back into that project because That User has pinged you once a month for four months and their pull request is probably Really Important.

Sorry, that last sentence had a bit of snark in it, but it’s also sincere. The asymmetry of users and maintainers strikes again, but I do genuinely want to clear the pull request queue and keep the project moving. I want to bring in That User’s contribution because I not only want them to keep using my code, but I want them to be happy about it too. In many cases, it might only take me an hour or so to work through the pull requests and actionable issues.

But those 4 months weren’t pleasant because I felt bad seeing those issues languish in my inbox.

The solution that I’ve adopted for this phenomenon is one that I’ve used extremely effectively in my personal life: establish boundaries. Courteously but firmly setting boundaries is one of those magical life hacks that pays dividends once you figure out how to do it. If you don’t know how to do it, then I’m not sure exactly how to learn how to do it unfortunately. But setting boundaries lets you focus on what’s important to you and not what’s important to others.

Obviously, a balance must be struck. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean you get to focus only on what’s important to you to the exclusion of everyone else 100% of the time. But the ability to put up that wall and say, “No, I’m not doing X but I’d be happy to do Y” has really done wonders for me. The secret, for me, is to give reasons that are impossible for others to argue with by grounding them in your own experiences and preferences.

So what does this have to do with FOSS? The key, for me anyway, was being able to put up a boundary between myself and unattended issues and pull requests. I had to find a way to say to myself: “I am volunteering my time and it is okay if I don’t respond in a timely manner. I trust that most other people will understand this and be reasonable about it.”

Another dimension of this appears through feature requests. Sometimes a feature request might generally make sense for your project, but the maintenance burden it implies could be large. I taught myself to set boundaries: it’s okay to say no to a feature solely on the grounds that you don’t want the added maintenance that comes from it. As has happened with me many times, you might change your mind in the future! For example, if the relevant code improves to become more maintainable, then you might find your willingness to adopt more features increase. But if not, then I do my best to recognize my boundaries and decline to give myself more work that is emotionally unfulfilling.

I wish I could write down the process I went through that allowed me to set firm boundaries and stop feeling bad about issues piling up. It doesn’t alleviate the bad feelings completely, but it goes a long way.

Rudeness

The obvious trolls are generally pretty easy for me to deal with, assuming their volume isn’t too high. Low effort trolls are just other people with an obvious agenda to try to make you feel bad. Trolls generally don’t have anything invested and so their commentary has little weight. Or at least, that’s what I say to myself as a coping mechanism. Typically, I deal with trolls by reporting them to GitHub staff and blocking them. In general, I appear to be fortunate in the sense that I deal with these sorts of trolls very infrequently.

Rudeness, on the other hand, comes in all shapes and sizes. My emotions compel me to have a fairly rigid sense of decorum, so some might not consider all of these things rude. But I do. Or at least uncouth.

  • “Your tool doesn’t work [for my niche use case], therefore it is broken.”
  • “Just chiming in to say that I would also really like this feature.” (N.B. Some folks seem to be getting hung up on me calling this “rude.” Rude is perhaps too strong of a word, but when these sorts of +1s pile up in an issue, it just adds more noisy email notifications and can get annoying. Instead, emoticons or perhaps adding a bit more detail to your specific use case is welcome. But of course, this is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, and I do see this as partially on me to just let slide more.)
  • Insisting that implementing a feature is “just a simple matter of doing X.”
  • Passive aggressiveness when you opt to pass on a feature request.
  • Unconstructively whining about software on [insert social medium here].
  • Some low effort variation of “why are you reinventing the wheel” or “why not contribute to an existing project instead.”

In many cases, rudeness is the result of genuine frustration on behalf of the user. How many times have your cursed under your breath when a tool you were using didn’t behave like you think it should? It doesn’t matter that the tool was probably gifted to you for free. You’re just trying to solve a problem and the tool is getting in your way. I’ve certainly felt this way, and in my opinion, it seems like a totally normal human emotion to have.

Sometimes this rudeness gets the better of us and ends up being expressed in less than productive ways. I know I’ve certainly done it, and I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of it as well. It’s incredibly frustrating for all those involved.

In other cases, some people are rude without knowing it. This could be because of a language barrier, or because they just weren’t aware of how their words might make someone else feel. It’s totally innocent, but it doesn’t change how it makes me feel when I’m on the receiving end of it.

Tackling this sort of rudeness can be really difficult. You might be someone who is unaffected by it. I am not one of those people. I could pretend I’m unaffected by it, but I’m pretty sure that would lead to resentment towards FOSS and more frustration.

This is where setting boundaries has helped me again. Again, putting aside trolls, the vast majority of people who are rude generally turn out to respond fairly well if you politely call them out on it. I’ve done it many times on my issue trackers, and it has generally improved the situation. I don’t feel resentment because I’m doing something to defend myself, and I feel better when the other person apologizes, which is the case the vast majority of the time.

Doing this can be as simple as, “I don’t appreciate the way you said X. I think it would be much more productive if we left that sort of thing out in the future.”

Now, in some cases, folks don’t respond well to this. In my experience, they usually ignore it. If they keep on being rude, I might repeat myself a couple times, because sometimes folks need to hear something more than once for it to sink in. At least, I know I sometimes do (much to the displeasure of my wife). If this still doesn’t work, and I am still bothered by how they’re talking to me, then I end the interaction. It might be as easy as closing or locking an issue/pull request, or might be as extreme as blocking them on [insert social medium here].

Entitlement

A long time ago, I was talking to some of my closest friends after they had traveled abroad. They had just recently come back to the United States and shared a small story of culture shock. The punch line?

I had never realized how much Americans like to should you to death.

Now, whether this is actually a property of American culture—or perhaps a property of the company we keep—is not a point I wish to belabor. The point is that, as humans, we love to talk about what other people should be doing. I grew up on the receiving end of this—especially from people in various positions of authority—and have a really innate distaste for it.

I’m pretty convinced that most people don’t even realize they’re doing it. Or more charitably, they’re probably not trying to inject themselves into your life to tell you that they know better, but rather, are just trying to offer advice. At least, that’s what I’m told if I call people out in particularly egregious cases of being should’ed.

Backing up a bit, using the word “should” isn’t necessarily bad on its own. One thing that I think really changes its dynamic is whether it’s invited or not. If you ask someone for advice on a topic, and they use phrases like “yeah you should do X,” then it doesn’t quite sound as bad. But when it’s uninvited, it has a completely different feeling to it.

I’ve seen or experienced this in FOSS in a number of different ways:

  • You should put out a new release.
  • You should rewrite this in [insert programming language here].
  • You should rename your project.
  • You should [insert major architectural change here].
  • You should change the license of your project.

The almost universally common thread here is the drive-by low-effort nature of the advice. The advice might actually be something that’s a really good idea. But there’s a certain entitlement that’s showcased here’s that’s hard to overlook when someone spends so little time making a suggestion that has potentially huge ramifications for your project. Thoughtful advice is almost always welcome from my perspective, but when someone thoughtlessly tells me I should do something that would imply me spending lots of time on it, it can be really grating.

While I still haven’t mastered my ability to respond to this sort of commentary, I do my best to continue to establish boundaries. I have two coping strategies for this:

  • For particularly common ones, like “when is the next release?", I declare that my free time is unscheduled. It helps to put it in a FAQ-like document.
  • Otherwise, I try to apply the principle of proportion. If you give me one or two sentences thoughtlessly asking for something huge, then I’m only going to spend one or two sentences in response.

To reiterate, this type of commentary can sometimes lead to productive things happening. For example, when I first started open sourcing projects in Rust, I used the UNLICENSE exclusively. On one occasion, I got a drive-by comment effectively telling me to use a “working” license instead, along with some (what felt like) condescending lecture on how licensing works. I didn’t respond well to this and was incredibly frustrated by it. It turned out the general advice was good, however, it wasn’t until someone else more thoughtfully brought it up that I actually decided to act on it.

In retrospect, it could seem like I was being petty. Like I was refusing to do something that was better just because I didn’t like the commenter’s tone. But that wasn’t how I lived it. Since I immediately took the defensive, my emotions just did not let me think clearly about it.

The lesson here is that being thoughtful in one’s communication is important to advance your cause. If you’re thoughtless, even if you’re correct, you risk working against your own ends because the person on the other end might not be able to look past your thoughtlessness.

Other Thoughts on Entitlement

I don’t think I’ve seen anyone (other than obvious trolls) sincerely claim a real entitlement to my labor. That is, I’ve never had to actually quote the “AS IS” warranty disclaimer in my licenses. Laws are not often good tools to explain social norms. As a maintainer with open issue trackers, I am implicitly inviting others to file bugs. At some level, even the act of opening a bug is a form of entitlement, since there’s some expectation—or perhaps hope—that by reporting the bug, it will get fixed and benefit everyone. Indeed, that is my intent with having an open issue tracker: I want people to file bugs and submit pull requests, with the hope that they will get fixed and merged.

There is no legal relationship here. There is nothing in my licenses that say I ought or have to do this. At least for me, it’s an implied agreement among humans acting in good faith.

Trust

And that brings us to trust. Trust is an important value in FOSS. Not only do I do my best to be discriminating in who I trust, but I also try to act in a way that allows others to trust me.

One of the benefits of FOSS is its decentralized nature. You have tons of people working in their own little corners with their own little specialties. Using FOSS has an amplifying effect, because it lets you build on what tons of us have already done. It absolves you from needing to build literally everything you need, and instead lets you start focusing on solving your particular problem more quickly.

As someone who uses FOSS and tries hard to be discriminating with the dependencies I use, it is just not possible for me to review every line of code I depend on. Even if I could somehow manage to read it all, I certainly wouldn’t be able to understand it all in enough detail to be confident that it was doing what I thought it was doing.

This is where trust plays a huge role. Trust serves as a proxy for evaluating some dimensions of the code I use. It helps me answer questions like:

  • Is there a reasonable expectation that the code will behave as advertised?
  • Will bugs be fixed in a reasonable time frame?
  • Will the project continue to be maintained going forward?
  • Does the project use good judgment when it comes to balancing competing concerns?

These are hefty things to levy upon a FOSS maintainer that performs their duties in their free time. Regardless, these are table stakes for being a trustworthy maintainer. Now, I do not need to use dependencies exclusively from maintainers that I trust. That wouldn’t be practical. Instead, trust is just another criterion I use to evaluate which code I use. If the code is written by someone I trust, then I’m much more likely to bring in a library written by them that tries to solve a hard problem, or otherwise tries to walk a fine line when it comes to balancing trade offs.

For example, I might not be willing to use a JSON parsing library written by someone that I don’t know that also used questionable performance optimizations. But I could be convinced to overlook the lack of trust by either reviewing the code myself, and/or the documentation for the project was excellent. Still, it’s a risk.

Either way, as a FOSS maintainer, I want to be seen as someone who is trustworthy. That is, I care about my reputation. This is dangerous business in this day and age, since social media is able to destroy a reputation almost instantly. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a constant fear gnawing at the back of my mind. But it’s important, for me, not to let fears like that prevent me from doing what I love.

Having people trust me as a programmer is an enormous responsibility and one that I do not take lightly. But that trust means others are going to be more willing to use my code, which is ultimately what I want through my participation in FOSS.

Better Than It Sounds

So far, I’ve focused a lot on the negative. Any reasonable person might ask, “why do you subject yourself to this?” In fact, the vast majority of my communication with others in FOSS is fairly neutral. There’s a good amount of overtly positive communication as well. And when negativity arises, most folks are quick to apologize when I enforce my boundaries. On one occasion, someone felt bad enough to send me a gift card (which I donated) along with an apology.

In order to be concrete, here are some of the things I enjoy about being a FOSS maintainer:

  • Hearing how people are using my code. And especially, hearing about how it helped them. I think my favorite anecdote was, “Yeah, we dropped your library into production and it pretty much just worked. No complaints.”
  • Getting a good bug report with an easy reproduction.
  • Getting a good bug report that is hard to get a reproduction for, but with a reporter that is eager to help me debug with them. The best cases are almost like an asynchronous pair programming session, each trying to solve a mystery.
  • The feeling of updating a changelog, no matter how small, just before a release. It’s nice reflecting back on the work that has been done, not just by myself, but by others.
  • While my time constraints usually prevent me from doing this, I love mentoring eager learners, no matter the experience level. I wish I could do this more.
  • When contributors help me find simple solutions to thorny problems. This happens a lot more than you might expect, and it’s lovely when it does.
  • Writing regression tests. There’s nothing like encoding the knowledge that a user’s bug cannot re-appear.

I think what ends up happening—and this isn’t exactly an original insight—is that the negativity eclipses the neutral and the positive. The negative interactions stick in my memories and make it difficult to remember all the good that has come from being a FOSS maintainer. Even sitting down and writing the list above helped me remember how much positivity there is in FOSS. It was almost cathartic.

Conclusion

Being a FOSS maintainer has given me a lot of interesting experiences. Some bad, some good. I’ve tried to express some of those experiences in this article with the goal of helping everyone understand each other better. This article doesn’t necessarily generalize because these experiences are told through my perception of the world. For example, my individualist perspective on life greatly colors how I perceive FOSS. Namely, it’s largely a personal endeavor for me, rather than a more altruistic attempt at improving a public good. A different perspective could greatly change how one experiences FOSS.

My hope is that others will use these experiences to reflect on their own and perhaps the experiences of others. I think this process can lead to greater empathy and an overall better experience for everyone.

In this article, I listed a lot of behaviors that I considered negative. Not everyone will see them as negatively as I do. That’s okay and expected. More to the point, I am certainly guilty of committing some of those negative behaviors myself. We are not perfect and we will never be able to be purely empathetic 100% of the time. This is a game of inches and my hope is that we can do better, even if it’s just a little bit.