29 December 2011

Getting contributors

A slow day near the New Year break, calm and silent. Then I get a private message on IRC from a total stranger: he wants to know if is possible to join the Fedora design team. I start by making clear I am not part of the team currently (he supposedly saw may name on the contributors list) and then say is an open community, anyone can join, and point to the instructions on the wiki.

The guy insists in learning the name of the "maintainer", I direct him to the mailing list and #fedora-design, insist on my turn about using normal, open, channels, not people who can be busy or away for the holidays but still tell him the name of the team leader, is public information after all. He want a "chance to join", I repeat joining is open for everyone and point to the mailing list again.

Passing briefly the part about which software is used, my alarm signal is triggered by the next one "in this field coding is not need ?". I answer calmly and now, half an hour into the talk, is my time to ask "what are your skills? what do you know to do? why do you want to be part of the project?" and learn he is a college student with the hobby of doing graphic design.

Then comes the icing of the cake, his following question "after contribution , money will be got or not?" Now is crystal clear my interlocutor knows nothing about Free Software, open source, community, Fedora, Linux and such. Is the time for me to point to our homepage and tell directly we are a volunteer project (duh! we have poor wording on the front page, a poor English speaker is confused).

As a last item, he is stunned to learn I do not work for Fedora and Fedora is not a corporation hiring people. I have the feeling I won't hear from him any more and he won't post to the list. Should I call this over a half an hour wasted time or should I call it a learning experience? Anyway, my current confidence in new contributors is quite low at this minute.


  1. Just a wild guess: The person in question was from India or at least from Asia, right?

    It seems that we still have a lot of work ahead of us explaining the concepts of Open Source and Free Software, especially in these parts of the planet.

  2. You are right, Cristoph, it was like a dialogue of deaf people, not understanding each other. And of course is not something new to me, I often see people sending the introductory mail to the list and never returning.

    And as the guy insisted to me to tell him mizmo's name, I suspect he was also sent to me by someone else.

  3. I think I can understand the guy.

    My first foray into open source involved me getting in touch with one of the developers of Quanta, an old WYSYWIG html editor for KDE in the early 2000s.

    You see, I had heard of this Linux thing on a BBC programme, jumped through flaming hoops to acquire a copy Redhat Linux, survived the torture of partitioning to get a working system, and landed on the KDE desktop. By some happy coincidence, I stumbled upon HTML and CSS, and thus, wound up at quanta in my search for an editor to practice with.

    Realizing that everything I was using was open source, and looking at the philosophy, and haunted by the "anyone can join" message, I looked in the About box, saw an email address, and composed an email.

    I'm sure the recipient of my email must have felt puzzled and a bit resigned like you do, but he managed to explain to me, guessing correctly that I was a newbie, that I needed to know C++ programming, and needed to be familiar with whatever Qt was called back then.

    Subsequent efforts merely made me realize better that I was not good enough, which made me pursue further knowledge fervently, eventually learning C and C++ and a boat load of other things, many of which have not really revolutionized my life.

    The main hurdle for me at the time was rather unrelated to the difficulty of understanding the concept and overcoming the difficulty of getting another volunteer on the other side of the globe to mentor you through the completely unintuitive process of "joining" (which involved in my case acquiring the relevant skills as much as finding something to contribute to).

    It was the simple fact that for an African teenager, internet access was a huge and luxurious expense. The expense, plus the effort required both skill-wise and socially owing to the unexpected lack of "welcoming" in the "open" community, made it seem like too much effort for a vague goal, one that wasn't even close to being relevant to my immediate problems... I stayed in love with open source but never quite belonged.

    I eventually contributed a few simple patches to hal-info, mobile broadband provider info and a short lived program Advanced GNOME menu, but that was it. A far cry from what I think myself capable...

    I don't know how to improve the situation, but I imagine I have presented a perspective that may assist more capable people.

  4. Fanen, if I understand correctly, your motivation was getting some work done and learning, I suspect you were not jumping fast to the "am I paid for it?"

  5. I think I understood that I wasn't going to be paid for it.

  6. Hey Nicu, thanks for trying anyway - it was really nice of you. It is a shame that this person didn't work out, but maybe for every couple of folks like this there is one great potential contributor. Like baseball maybe - a 30% average is considered excellent.

  7. Yeah, that's somewhat the case with potential contributors here too. I have met people who enquired me about 'how much fedora was paying me' before I moved to [My current firm]. I simply smile sometimes and at other times I just point them to the Fedora homepage. I was 'new' too - not a long time back for that matter and was indeed a learning phase for me. I believe there's some initial inertia to open technologies, but it will soon pass. Its good to b positive and keep trying :)