communication issues

I really don’t like commenting on things going on in that relate to Gentoo internally, and I won’t, but I think I will touch upon one subject that I see coming up lately, and that is communication with users.

I was just reading a forums post where someone was mentioning how the devs “never listen to the users.” Just for once, I’d like to give my side of the story.

I’ve been working on Gentoo development for about a year and a half now. I really enjoy it, and for the most part it’s a lot of fun. I try to read the forums to keep an idea of what’s bugging people (and that I can help out with), but I can only take it so far, as long as it’s something I can fix or something I’m interested in. Admittedly, some stuff I maintain even now, I don’t use anymore, or have ever used regularly. But I know that people appreciate it so I keep working on it.

I think that communication lines can be opened, but I don’t really have any great ideas on how to do it. As an (admittedly passive) member of user relations, I want to help, but at the same time I don’t have a lot of time to drum up something dramatic. I know there needs to be an effectual communication between what users are experiencing — to a degree. For instance, I think that we should fix what we’ve already obligated ourselves to maintain, but if someone has a different vision of how things should be going, then I invite them to participate and get involved. I think the whole “get involved” thing needs a brush up howto somewhere, since I think that can be a little vague, and people may want to help, but don’t really know how. I remember that’s how it was for me as a user for a long time. In fact, I should write up a document about some good, practical ways to contribute.

One point that I wanted to address though is that communication goes two ways. I wouldn’t say that developers aren’t listening as much as no one is really talking. I’ve stated that anyone is free to contact me anytime, repeatedly, on here and on the forums … and in all this time I don’t think I’ve ever gotten one e-mail from anyone asking for help about something on Gentoo. I certainly never get pinged on Jabber even though my contact info for that is up there, although I do get poked on IRC maybe once every three months or so.

So, from my point of view, I think that some users might have unreasonable expectations of how developers are supposed to “hear” what the community wants, especially if no one is talking. Ranting on the forums doesn’t help. I think that the majority of the devs probably don’t search through the forums on their day off hoping to find problems they can fix. I, personally, look through the Multimedia ones quite a lot (whenever I’m bored), and more often than not when I see users hitting a bug that I didn’t know about, that I can fix, I’ll go and fix it. That’s gonna be the exception though, and not the rule.

I’m just rambling, and I’m tired, so take this all with a grain of salt, but in my case, feel free to ping me about anything that I’m assigned to or working on, and I’ll be glad to update you with the status. The fact is, I have no idea how “serious” a problem is unless someone tells me or I start to see side effects. We don’t have any kinds of statistics tools telling us what is most popular or important, so my priorities as far as bug fixing and general improvements are either totally random or arbitrary depending on what I want to work on. If you want something fixed, feel free to speak up, and ask nicely, either on the IRC channels (there are a lot of them devoted to sub-projects in Gentoo), the mailing lists, etc. In my case, you have my e-mail, my IRC nick, and my jabber info.

So, if there are communication issues from developers to users, I apologize. I’m going to start looking at some ideas on how to improve communication and get feedback, but I could really use suggestions. Let me know what you think. :)

Edit: I should probably add a few disclaimers.  One is that, I’m not advocating contacting developers directly, since some may not like that and I don’t want them to get mad at me.  I’m certainly okay with it, though.  Secondly, I could be completely wrong about devs watching the MLs and forums and stuff.  Maybe they do cover them frequently.  I have no idea. :)  I was thinking of forums when I wrote it, and I don’t see many developers posting there, or at least the entries I read.  Just one man’s perspective, is all.

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “communication issues

  1. Right, I search through forums for Emacs issues and people spot problems in special corner cases but never report it to us (Emacs team). That is frustating.

  2. Auz

    Perhaps this page would explain the lack of direct contact…

    http://www.gentoo.org/main/en/support.xml

    “1. Support

    Gentoo is a volunteer-driven distribution and so are our support options. It is not possible for our developers to provide support (paid or otherwise) because we simply don’t have the time or resources to do so.

    We have however a great Gentoo community that tests and helps document many aspects of the Gentoo distribution. We advise you to direct your support questions to the Gentoo Forums, Gentoo Mailinglists or Gentoo Chat Channels. Those are far better suited for support questions as they represent a major part of the “common” knowledge about Gentoo.

    Most Gentoo developers frequently visit those community channels and try their best to contribute to the ongoing discussions and questions.”

  3. Rad

    I’m an infrequent contributor, and I found it pretty easy to reach the Gentoo kde team, paludis’ devs, the sparc team, and others before – mostly on IRC.

    Also my bugs / ebuild submissions generally have been reviewed in a meaningful way, albeit that part was also usually quite slow (takes months to get a new ebuild in, in general)…

    Overall, I feel that it is not too hard to get in touch with the Gentoo devs. No idea whether I just got lucky until now or not.

  4. Alfredo

    It will be good if you write that documentation on how to contribute.

    I have tried “to get involved” for the third time and again I end up with no success.

    Regards

  5. I, personally, insofar had no problems getting in touch with the devs. But a pretty cool means of getting in touch with devs or anyone willing to help at all, used to be Qunu ( http://www.qunu.com ) — which is just being (partially) resurrected. It might be useful also for Gentoo.

    p.s. I’ll add you to my Jabber contacts, if you don’t mind :]

  6. infirit

    I can say you are wrong and leave it at that but If I explain why you are wrong people will accept it. I think most of the time the explanation is missing and “users” get frustrated and stop talking.

    Greets
    Sander

    PS: I did send you a note on the ivtv documentation you wrote but never got a reply back ;-)

  7. Qunu used to be a very cool way of getting IRL help online via Django and Jabber/XMPP. Maybe it might be a good way new way of communication between devs, active users and passive users.

    Btw, it’s been down for a few months and is just being revived.

    linkie:
    http://www.qunu.com

    p.s. I added you to my Jabber contacts.

  8. Steve

    @infirit

    Feel free to expand all you want. :)

    As for the ivtv docs, Ive really dropped the ball on that one … mostly because there didn’t seem to be much interest and things are working pretty well as-is, plus it doesn’t seem like it needs docs.

  9. Right now the only Qunu link that works is their blog: http://blog.qunu.com

    Sorry for the (temporarily) dead link.

  10. If you do write this doc on how to get involved I think that would be a really great thing, I sure would read it and see if there is any way I can contribute with my limited skills and time.

    As for communication between users and devs I think a blog post like the one you just wrote is a good step on the way. If nothing else it made me smile to read it and a smile goes a long way towards bridging any gap ;)

    All this stuff with drobbins offer have gotten me to read planet.gentoo the last couple of days and I think I might keep that up, so no matter what comes out of all of this stuff, it has certainly done some stirring in the Gentoo community as a whole which hopefully will lead to some good results.

    I hope that I have also as a user been taught a bit about acting in a more appropriate way, I guess there are times where I too have been guilty of adding to this gap between users and devs by acting stupidly. Hopefully I am getting wiser and other users also getting wiser like me.

  11. Steve

    @Arne,

    Limited skills and time is pretty much the boat that almost all of us are in … what we really need is people willing to make a committment (and fulfill it), no matter how small.

    Thanks for the note about the blog post. I forget that it might be helpful if I write posts more often about what I’m working on in Gentoo stuff, but I always consider it pretty boring, so I don’t … I’ll have to rethink that and maybe post some regular updates instead. :)

  12. I really think the problem is just there’s not enough transparency in the Gentoo development process. The community feels disconnected when there are no front page updates or GWN releases. It gives the impression that nothing is happening development wise, when in fact, there’s always lots going on. That should be apparent to anyone who visits #gentoo-dev or reads the mailing lists.
    A few devs blog quite often, but if more devs blogged about what they are working on or what they plan to work on, that would help communication a lot. Also, the voting system on bugzilla really needs to be improved and somehow get the word out to the users to use it, so bugs can be prioritized.
    BTW, I would say people don’t contact you directly with problems because they don’t want to bother you, and as someone already pointed out, according to the Gentoo website, it’s not the preferred way to communicate problems.
    Excellent blog post BTW, and I would love to see a well written doc about contributing to Gentoo. I mentioned something about this in the userrep forum over a year ago, but nothing ever came of it. I even spent days slaving on a mockup of the frontpage with the contribute link. ;)
    http://forums.gentoo.org/viewtopic-p-3658995.html#3658995

  13. jimt

    In some ways having multiple ways of contacting devs in itself doesn’t help. As you say, you’re happy to have some people contact you directly about issues, but as a user, I start out with a problem and then have to go find a way to resolve that problem. Also as a user, if it’s a real problem, I need a fix or a workaround *immediately*.

    Personally, I’m fairly resourceful and can usually find a solution via google/forums/brute force. But I don’t think I’d ever consider contacting a dev directly, for a start, to do that, I’d have to determine which dev or group my problem belonged to (this itself can be contentious), second I then have to determine HOW that dev or group wants to be contacted (directly, bugzilla, forums, irc). Then there’s always the fear of being branded a “stupid user”, by raising things in the wrong way, suggesting bad solutions, missing “obvious” information, etc.

    But that’s kind of compounded by huge breakages which are “well publicized” – a la the expat issues. User’s don’t have a single place where we can learn about these things in a nice manner, planet gentoo is great (really, I love reading the posts here), but the posts range from obscure conferences I’ll never attend to the finer points of code review, really important messages can get lost in the swell. Mailings lists can be the same. The one place you really would look, http://www.gentoo.org, has only had gwn entries recently (ok, so now I’ve got to read potentially an entire gwn article to find that nothing’s relevant), and most recently, not even the gwn’s. Ebuild notices are similarly less useful. I’ve configured them to send them to me via email, but when I run 3 gentoo machines, doing an automatic daily update, I can get a dozen emails a day, 99% of which will tell me things which are irrelevant or pure duplicates of what was said before. With the duplicates, I’m ashamed to admit that I blindly ran the upgrade scripts for certain versions of openldap for 3 minor version bumps before I realised that the whole script was pre-fixed with a “if you’re upgrading from “. Not only that, but the upgrade scripts were causing me problems …

    If I leave it and do 3monthly upgrades, not I’ve got to wade through 300 messages to find perhaps 1 or 2 that are relevant to me. I’ve spent a lot of time automating the upgrade process (for me, specifically), I just can’t automate that part.

    That said, the recent upgrade of apache which failed the ebuild because I hadn’t taken the correct update steps was VERY effective, however I had no idea at all that this was happening before the event, and I do read planet quite a lot.

    Take another example, I’ve had glame-2.0.1 failing to build every single day since at least 21-nov. It hasn’t really caused any problems and I haven’t really looked into why it fails. I’ve done a quick search on the forums and found nothing. Is this my problem? Is there something I *should* have done but didn’t – like with apache. Is this a bug I should raise? Should I talk to the devs: now I have to go find out who’s responsible for glame and whether they might like to be pinged, but hang on, I really need to look into this deeply first and do a lot of research (like what is glame and why am I building it) before I do this because I don’t want to be pinging a dev about a problem they already know about coz if everyone did that, they’d never get any work done.

    Also, I had no idea drobbins was offering “help” until tsunam replied on his blog on planet. I had heard rumours that drobbins came back briefly before, but I have NO IDEA what happened or why he left so quickly apart from bitter mutterings from some devs. You know what, googling daniel robbins doesn’t help there.

    It’s a real balancing act. For the apache thing, perhaps I should have been on the “gentoo web servers mailing list” (yes I made it up) – but I only run a webserver incidentally (I believe I’m running a couple of web-apps, not a web-server) and I’m not really interesting in all the minutiae.

    So, it’s true, users don’t really know what’s going on with the development of their favourite distro without a disproportionate amount of effort (running the distro already requires a large effort). Users also don’t have any real way of communicating to developers without a disproportionate amount of effort. Really, forums & google is the only viable option for us.

    Now, users *can’t* spend that effort on contacting devs over every potentially insignificant thing, and each individual dev *can’t* spend that effort on monitoring what’s happening from a userland perspective, perhaps they need a go-between, and when I first heard about user-rel, that’s kind of what I hoped it would be.

  14. Steve

    @jimt,

    You hit right on the head a number of issues that I specifically want to address. The fact is that for the *intermediate* users (or maybe you’re advanced, I’m guessing here), those that know what they are doing pretty well, need a bit less of the informal help and real answers.

    The problem is exactly how you specify it — what you hear from devs is highly detailed stuff, and on the forums / IRC / ML it’s usually more generalized. There’s no real middle ground of details for advanced users.

    Anyway, the short answer is to look at bugzilla and to maybe email the herds directly (sound, in the case of glame) to first submit the problem so they can look at it, and second to watch the update status. There is also (in this case) an IRC channel — #gentoo-media. Once again, all that stuff is non-obvious, which could use some clarification.

  15. infirit

    Steve, It was meant as an example of what I see a lot on bug report and (not as much) in forum posts from dev’s. It just came out pretty wrong, sorry for that.

    Lot’s of users will just stop reporting problems (stop talking to dev’s) or leave Gentoo completely if they are told they are wrong without explanation. I too am hesitant to report a bugs and won’t unless I am absolutely sure it is a real bug (and I am defiantly not an average user ;-)).

    Re the documentation, It is probably because the ivtv documentation we wrote on the wiki just rocks :-)

  16. nihilo

    I think one reason that users perceive there to be such a great disconnect between users and devs is that the users have no effective representation. The devs have the council, which speaks for the interests of the devs, but there is no analogous council for users.

    If there were such a user council, then it would be the responsibility of that council’s members to stay in contact with the users, read and respond in the forums, and bring the matters that the users care about to the trustees and the dev council.

    Of course, to have a user council would require there to be some position (one or more individuals) higher than the user and dev councils, in order to adjudicate disagreements, in the case that a decision must be made about something that affects both users and devs but the respective councils cannot agree.

  17. Steve

    @nihilo,

    That is effectively the job of the User Relations project, and we tried having an intermediate post called User Representatives which really didn’t go anywhere. It just comes back to the same point of we need someone who wants to do the middle-man work on a regular basis.

    Plus, how do you even begin to quantify what a majority of users want? My general perspective is that they all want the same thing (fix my ebuild), individiually. Tackling that, finding out what the “issues” are among users is not easy … at least, I can’t think of a good way to highlight what’s wrong. Again, just need someone to have an idea and run with it.

  18. Steve

    @infirit,

    Yah, I can relate to the whole explanation without detail thing. Personally, I think bugzilla is not the place for clarification, and I’d suggest stepping up and asking the herds directly by e-mailing them, or asking on gentoo-dev. You never know what might happen. Sorry I don’t have a better answer than that.

    Here is one tip that will help though, and this isn’t necessarily directed at you, is that in asking questions, try not to be critical of the current situation … instead just state your question and ask for clarification instead of presuming everything is wrong. There’s surely two sides. :)

  19. nihilo

    @steve:

    User Rel doesn’t work. They were elected via a poll on the forums, but how many of the concerns of the users have resulted in similar polls that User Rel has followed up on and argued for?

    One big problem is that there is nobody who oversees things like the trustees and User Rel, so if they all go awol, nothing gets done. Neither the trustees or User Rel polices itself and replaces AWOL/flaky/incompetent people with real people who will do their jobs.

    What I’m suggesting is that something like User Rel should exist, but it must have the same amount of power as the dev council, so that each provides checks and balances on the other.

    And there also needs to be mechanisms in place to ensure that they actually do their job, and to arbitrate disagreements between them.

    Anyway, it’s just a suggestion, but I don’t feel that User Rel has done its job properly. And I don’t think it has enough power that even it actually tried to do what it’s supposed to do, it would be able to do anything except what the devs approve.

    If there were such a user council, they would have been on the internal mailing list over the last week or so, and would have been communicating with users, and lots of problems about users feeling ignored over the last week or so would not have occurred.

  20. Dmitry

    As I see, the nature of communication issues is the following: Gentoo devs and users live in different dimensions of the space called #gentoo-dev and Gentoo forums. These two are faintly connected to each other.

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