Every Contribution Matters

GNOME is lucky to have a healthy mix of paid and volunteer contributors. Today’s post looks at how we can keep it that way.

I had some time free last summer and worked on something that crossed a number of project boundries. It was a fun experience. I also experienced how it feels to volunteer time on a merge request which gets ignored. That’s not a fun experience, it’s rather demotivating, and it got me thinking: how many people have had the same experience, and not come back?

I wrote a script with the Gitlab API to find open merge requests with no feedback, and I found a lot of them. I started to think we might have a problem.

GANGSTER CAT - Do we have a problem?

Code Reviews are Whose Job?

I’ve never seen a clear breakdown within GNOME of who is responsible for what. That’s understandable: we’re an open, community-powered project and things change fast. Even so, we have too much tribal knowledge and newcomers may arrive with expectations that don’t match reality.

Each component of GNOME lists one or more maintainers, In principle the maintainers review new contributions. Many GNOME maintainers volunteer their time, though. If they aren’t keeping up with review, nobody can force them to abandon their lives and spend more time reviewing patches, nor should they; so the solution to this problem can’t be “force maintainers to do X”.

Can we crowdsource a solution instead? Back in 2020 I proposed posting a weekly list of merge requests that need attention. There was a lot of positive feedback so I’ve continued doing this, and now mostly automated the process.

So far a handful of MRs have been merged as a result. The list is limited to MRs marked as “first contribution”, which happens when the submitter doesn’t have anything merged in the relevant project yet. So each success may have a high impact, and hopefully sends a signal that GNOME values your contributions!

Who can merge things, though?

Back to tribal knowledge, because now we have a new problem. If I’m not the maintainer of package X, can I review and merge patches? Should I?

If you are granted a GNOME account, you get ‘developer’ permission to the gitlab.gnome.org/GNOME group. This means you can commit and merge in every component, and this is deliberate:

The reason why we have a shared GNOME group, with the ability to review/merge changes in every GNOME project, is to encourage drive by reviews and contributions. It allows projects to continue improving without blocking on a single person.

— Emmanuele Bassi on GNOME Discourse

Those listed as module maintainers have extra permissions (you can see a comparison between Gitlab’s ‘developer’ and ‘maintainer’ roles here).

On many active projects the culture is that only a few people, usually the maintainers, actually review and merge changes. There are very good reasons for this. Those who regularly dedicate time to keeping the project going should have the final say on how it works, or their role becomes impossible.

Is this documented anywhere? It depends on the project. GTK is a good example, with a clear CONTRIBUTING.md file and list of CODEOWNERS too. GTK isn’t my focus here, though: it does have a (small) team of active maintainers, and patches from newcomers do get reviewed.

I’m more interested in smaller projects which may not have an active maintainer, nor a documented procedure for contributors. How do we stop patches being lost? How do you become a maintainer of an inactive project? More tribal knowledge, unfortunately.

Where do we go from here?

To recap, my goal is that new contributors feel welcome to GNOME, by having a timely response to their contributions. This may be as simple as a comment on the merge request saying “Thanks, I don’t quite know what to do with this.” It’s not ideal, but it’s a big step forwards for the newcomer who was, up til now, being ignored completely. In some cases, the request isn’t even in the right place — translation fixes go to a separate Gitlab project, for example — it’s easy to help in these cases. That’s more or less where we’re at with the weekly review-request posts.

We still need to figure out what to do with merge requests we get which look correct, but it’s not immediately obvious if they can be merged.

As a first step, I’ve created a table of project maintainers. The idea is to make it a little easier to find who to ask about a project:

Searchable table of project maintainers, at https://gnome-metrics.afuera.me.uk/maintainers.html

I have some more ideas for this initiative:

  • Require each project to add a CONTRIBUTING.md.
  • Agree a GNOME-wide process for when a project is considered “abandoned” — without alienating our many part-time, volunteer maintainers.
  • Show the world that it’s easy and fun to join the global diaspora of GNOME maintainers.

Can you think of anything else we could do to make sure that every contribution matters?

Blog about what you do!

Am I the first to blog from GUADEC 2019? It has been a great conference: huge respect to the organization team for volunteering significant time and energy to make it all run smoothly.

The most interesting thing at GUADEC is talking to community members old and new. I discovered that I don’t know much about what people are doing in GNOME. I discovered Antonio is doing user support / bug triage and more in Nautilus. I discovered that Bastian is posting GNOME-related questions and answers on StackOverflow. I discovered Britt is promoting us on Twitter and moderating discussions on Reddit. I discovered Felipe is starting to do direct user support for Boxes. I wouldn’t know any of this if I hadn’t been to GUADEC.

So here’s my plea — if you contribute to GNOME, please blog about it! If everyone reading this wrote just one blog post a year… I’d have a much better idea of what you’re all doing!

Don’t forget: Planet GNOME is not only for announcing cool new projects and features – it’s “a window into the world, work and lives of GNOME hackers and contributors.” Blog about anything GNOME related, and be yourself — we’re not a corporation, we’re an underground network with a global, diverse, free thinking membership and that’s our strength.

Remember that there’s much more to GNOME than software development — read this long list of skillsets that you’re probably using. Write about translations, user support, testing, documentation, packaging, outreach, foundation work, event organization, bug triage, product management, release management, design, infrastructure operations. Write about why you enjoy contributing to GNOME, write about why it’s important to you. Write about what you did yesterday, or what you did last month. Write about your friends in GNOME. Make some graphs about your project to show how much work you do. Write short posts, write them quickly. Don’t worry about minor errors — it’s a blog, not a magazine article. Don’t be scared that readers won’t be interested — we are! We’re a distributed team and we need to keep each other posted about what we’re doing. Show links, screenshots, discussions, photos, graphs, anything. Don’t write reports, write stories.

If you contribute to GNOME but don’t have a blog… please start one! Write some nice posts about what you do. Become a Foundation member if you haven’t already*, and ask to join Planet GNOME.

And even if you forget all that, remember this: positive feedback for contributions encourages more contributions. Writing a blog post, like any other form of contribution, can sometimes feel shouting into an abyss. If you read an interesting post, leave a positive comment & thank the author for taking the time to write it.

* The people using and reviewing your contributions will be happy to vouch for you, don’t worry about that!