lack, amount and willingness of transparency

There’s one other issue that seems to be a problem that users are talking about on the forums, and that’s a lack of transparency. I guess the belief is that everything is secret and since there’s little to no communication of what’s going on with the outside world, that developers therefore don’t really care about the users interest’s at all … or something like that. On the contrary, I believe that there is a great willingness to be transparent, but there is actual little amount of it simply because no one is tapping it.

For the most part, I think if you asked any developer or team what it is they are working on, what their plans are for the future, and what they’d like to see, that they will tell you. I know I’m more than willing to do a braindump on anyone who comes by asking questions on projects I’m poking at. Just because the information isn’t being voluntarily organized and presented doesn’t mean that they are withholding information — it just means that nobody is doing the organization and asking. So here you have two groups — people working on stuff and people wanting to know what’s being worked on — but no middle man to communicate from one to the other. The reasons for that, I think, are simple. One, it’s hard work, and two, it’s boring.

The newsletter is a good example to examine, though to be honest I don’t know much about the process that goes into providing one. I do know that having one on a regular basis has really raised the standard of living for users, and I also know that it’s a lot of hard work putting it together. I have on ocassion written articles for it, which is fun at first, but gets tiresome really fast. Maintaining the status quo is never simple. Even keeping a tree full of stable ebuilds for an architecture is an incredible amount of work, and it doesn’t always fall into the “this is fun” category. The reality is, someone is giving of their time voluntarily to do a lot of work to keep people’s boxes up to date or to keep the documentation nice and clean or whatever the task may be.

One thing that I think is a misconception as well is that there is always this mysterious group of people behind the scenes who are all working together to magically make this happen. As sad as it is, the reality is quite different — more often than not, it is just *one* person working on an entire project to see it through from start to finish. Generally speaking, you’ll have people contribute small amounts here and there, but for the most part, it’s always going to be one person doing a lot of the brunt work.

That’s why we need volunteers. The spirit is always willing, but the flesh is also always weak. I’m hoping to bridge that gap a little bit by writing up some ideas that will hopefully lower the entry barrier of how to help, and who to talk to about what, but that’s not going to change the fact that people need to get involved if they want to see things done right. Lack of manpower probably always has been and probably always will be the most critical element to deciding how sustainable and reliable a community project will be. There’s just a lot of stuff that requires maintenance that isn’t glamorous, but still needs to be done.

Anyway, I’m rambling again, I just was hoping to clear up some misconceptions. My main point though, is to get involved somehow. I know it’s a little difficult to find out how, and can be confusing at first, but I would suggest persistence. If you don’t get any answers the first time around, then try asking somewhere else or someone different. I’ll offer myself again as a personal guide to anyone who wants to get started helping out on Gentoo, but doesn’t know where to start.

I also don’t want to make things sound glum, and I realize this post was a partial rant, but I think it helps to realize the situations at hand. A lot of stuff simply doesn’t get done unless someone who is interested in seeing it done steps up themselves and sees to it, or helps it along. If you have a great idea of how Gentoo could improve, then run with it. Setup an overlay. Write some documentation. Become a developer. Get a blog. Submit a patch. Help out on the forums. Hang out on IRC. As cliched as it is, it really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something.

I still think Gentoo is a great little distro, and I’m really positive in the direction things are heading. I don’t know how useful, entertaining or interesting my take is on the whole thing, but I’ll try to do a little bit of a better job to be more transparent myself and post more regularly what it is I’m working on within Gentoo. For the record, right now I’m fixing some bugs in GPNL so I can add some stuff onto it. I don’t want to go into details right now since it’s still a work in progress (and I’m not sure how feasible it is), but I think it will help by gathering some user statistics.

Sorry for the dramatic, sad tone to this whole post — this is why I don’t like writing these things. I really do think the future looks good, though. There’s some cool stuff on the horizon, and I think Gentoo is just going through some growing pains. I’m confident that it’ll all work out in the end. :)

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “lack, amount and willingness of transparency

  1. “Just because the information isn’t being voluntarily organized and presented doesn’t mean that they are withholding information — it just means that nobody is doing the organization and asking. So here you have two groups — people working on stuff and people wanting to know what’s being worked on — but no middle man to communicate from one to the other. The reasons for that, I think, are simple. One, it’s hard work, and two, it’s boring.”

    I think users are doing the “asking” part, in the form of the outcry for GWN updates and gentoo.org frontpage news posts. Personally I try to read the mailing lists, but much of it is way over my head because I’m not immersed in it every day and I don’t have the apparently huge amount of contextual knowledge to understand what’s going on sometimes. That doesn’t mean I don’t care what’s going on. Only that someone needs to dumb it down 10 notches so the average user can understand it.

    As I posted on tsunam’s blog (http://tsunam.org/2008/01/16/user-relations/ ), I think something like http://archives.gentoo.org/gentoo-dev/msg_150039.xml is what I’d personally like to see. Solve the “it’s hard” part by distributing the work, have all the projects submit (email someone?) a very very short summary of what’s going on in their world every so often. Compile the info and post it. It doesn’t have to be pretty or written as an edited news “article”. Just make the info accessible. Just an idea.

    I don’t think your post sounded glum or dramatic, and I appreciate your posting it.

  2. Steve

    @Brian,

    Dude, I totally agree with you, in fact one area I’ve been racking my brains for ideas is to somehow automate or organize a process of getting information and out there.

  3. In terms of transparency and communication, the one place I really think the ball was dropped big time was the issue of the 2007.1 release that never was. As far as I recall there were no updates leading up to the day, and then there was no post mortem to explain what had happened. You can argue about a lot of smaller things, but for a release to just disappear like this is a big deal for a distro, I should think. It also impacts people’s perception in a big way I should think.

    Personally I don’t have a big stake in the matter. I’ve used the gentoo install/livecds as rescue cds for years because they were excellent and I didn’t have to look any further. But now the images are out of date, they don’t run well on my hardware and that option is no longer open. Okay, not such a big deal to me personally, but all the same a clear sign that something is not as it used to be.

  4. Eddward

    I’m not very up-to-date with all the political stuff going on and with the devs vs. whoever. I do know I’m sick of reading that if I want something done, then “do something” myself. I tried a while back with a setup issue that made non-vital server less secure than necessary. I figured it would be an easy starting place. I submitted a bug. Got some advise on how to fix it, submitted an ebuild to fix it. I got a couple of critiques that I think I’ve addresses and I haven’t really heard anything back in well over a year. No comment on what I need to change or if I should give up. I’ve had to update my ebuild because of version bumps of the package in portage. In a couple of months, when upstream puts out another release and when the bug reaches two years old, I’ll try to close it myself as wontfix. I give up.

    If “doing something” means I have to spend even more spare time cruising irc, post on forums about bugs I posted, getting my own serve to put up my own public overlay or spam the internet with my own blog, then the price is too high and I guess I’m the wrong person. I could offer bits of help here or there, but there has to be an easy way to just provide a fix. I feel I have wasted my time trying to help here. I don’t want to have to maintain several ebuilds that are being ignored in bugzilla.

    Is there a right way to knock off a small bug or find out that a fix just isn’t wanted?

    Edd

  5. Steve

    @numerodix,

    I agree with you that the release thing didn’t work out as well as it could have, but mostly it’s been because of a lack of manpower. Either way, I think the important thing is to note that just because “something” is wrong (releases), doesn’t mean everything is.

    @Eddward,

    I hear a lot of anecdotal stuff like that, and again, just because one thing isn’t up to speed for everyone doesn’t mean that everything is going down the tubes. There is a tremendous workload and not enough people to do it, simple as that.

    Then there are cases where you do do everything you can, and even up to submitting patches, and there’s no one maintaining a package to apply it. It happens, unfortunately. I don’t think you’re ever going to find a distro where *everything* is supported 100%, and even if it was, it’d be really tiny. It’s just one of the trade-offs people are going to have to deal with in a distro.

  6. I don’t think you need to be so worried about the tone of your post, at least to me it doesn’t sound sad or dramatic, it leaves behind a feeling of honesty and that is really a quality, not a bad thing.

    At some point I really want to contribute somehow to Gentoo, but right now things are just to crazy in my life, lots of not so pleasant changes going on right now … in a month or two I might better be able to better step up and try to dedicate a bit of my time and resources to Gentoo, blog posts like the one you have just written really makes me want to try and do something.

    Thank you for writing to your blog and planet.gentoo, I really enjoy reading your posts.

    Things will hopefully keep on moving forward for Gentoo. Like you think the future looks mostly bright in the case of Gentoo (as for the rest of this crazy world … I’d better not get started on that topic).

  7. Chewi

    With all the recent posts, I have felt compelled more than ever to become a dev but I’m still reluctant. I struggle to find the time to do the things I’m interested in as it is, I really don’t want to make that any worse. My TODO list stretches for miles! I feel safer on the user side of the fence where I can happily contribute as and when I’m able to without the fear of being retired. It also means I don’t have to continually focus on one particular area. I’ve created and made improvements to ebuilds for all sorts of things.

  8. jimt

    Wow, there really are a few common themes going on here.

    Users want to help but can’t offer the commitment. Users try to help but don’t have the energy or position to complete. User’s don’t feel fully informed – and the investment to get fully informed is very high. Devs are (quite rightly) too interested in the things they’re actually doing to take the bigger picture required to build the user base – the effort to fully inform at each user level is too high.

    Steve, sorry for the long rant on the previous post, and I’m not trying to criticise but instead to crystalise what’s going on as I see it as a user. And as a user, I’m not blind to the issues of being a dev.

    You know, it really looks as if what’s needed is someone to grease the wheels a bit. Not a dev per-se (not involved in actually releasing an ebuild), but someone to watch everything deeply, make sure different groups get hold of useful information (to them), to prod gently and keep things moving in a nice way. This person wouldn’t create the overall gentoo vision, but would piece it together from the community and communicate it as a generalization of what is happening. Perhaps doing that would make any holes more apparent.

    This actually sounds like an interesting role.
    This actually sounds a little like journalism.

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