Why don’t I contribute to Python (often)
2010/04/23 § 11 Comments
Oddly enough, just a week or two after I wrote the post “Contributing to Python“, Jesse Noller (of multiprocessing fame) wrote a post called “Why aren’t you contributing (to Python)?“. As a somewhat wannabe contributor, I think it’s a terrific question which deserves wordy and open answers (hey, just like this one). I realize the question has been asked specifically in the context of python.org’s development, but I think some of the answer applies to the whole Python eco-system, alternative implementations and libraries/frameworks included. Before we begin, I think that to answer the question, some distinction should be made about two rather different kinds of contributions.
The first is driven by whatever it is that you’re contributing. Suppose you happen to hack about a better GIL arbitration algorithm, or a sprawling and insanely rich asynchronous networking framework. You want that stuff to get out. I’d go so far as to say the source code itself wants to be out. It’s your baby, more often than not you think it’s great and unless something bad happens, you’ll push it. These are the kinds of things where you’re likely to find yourself obsessing over the stats of the website describing your latest gizmo or taking it personally when some loser on python-dev (like, say, that van-what’s-his-name-guy) says your implementation of goto for Python is not quite the next best thing since sliced lists.
The other, rather different kind, is that you run into something that is rather obviously a bug and wish to open-a-ticket-that-has-a-good-chance-to-be-committed for it. First of all, this is usually a far smaller patch. I doubt many people import threading, discover The Beazley Effect, rework the GIL and open a ticket with a patch. The use-case here is more like “I have a reproducible SIGSEGV” or “I wish import zipfile would support ZIP64″. Two interesting observations about this case: first, people are far less committed to their contribution, and second, more importantly, the realities of life dictate that the J. Random Hacker who ran into this either found a workaround or patched their own Python, so they sidestepped the bug. This is important. In practically all interesting cases, the reporter has already sidestepped the bug before or shortly after posting (sidestepped is a loose term, maybe they even moved to Perl…). I doubt anyone’s schedule is loose enough to allow them to wait without sidestepping a painful thorn even for the next bugfix release. This is a hundred times more true for documentation touchups – if you realized it’s wrong, you probably don’t have to fix it to keep working, you just use whatever knowledge you now know is right.
A rather pathological, tertiary case is the “I am not-Python-core, I have some free time, I wanna contribute to Python and I went bug-hunting in the tracker” one. I think its a pathological case of the second kind of contribution, and one that I suspect happens rather rarely. I’ll lump these two together.
If you agree so far, that we have a commit-driven-contribution (“damn this is so awesome I want this to be part of Python/twisted/Django/etc”) and a contribution-driven-commit (“damn Python is so awesome, it’s a shame to leave this wart unfixed, I’ll help”). As I said, I think very different reasons prevent people from doing either. I’ll start talking about the latter kind, both because it seemed to be the focus of Jesse’s original post and because it’s easiest to answer.
First, almost everything Jesse listed as reasons is true. Don’t know how, don’t know where, etc, almost all true. The best remedy here is to get as many people as possible to have, ugh, “broken their contribution cherry”, so to speak. The easier it will be to submit minor fixes for the first time, the more people will do it. The first time is important, psychologically and setup-ly. I think after a patch of yours has been committed, the fear of the technical part process is gone and the feeling of “gee, I can actually put stuff in Python!” kicks in, and you’re far more likely to start submitting more small patches. So if you want many more people to help with mundane issues, documentations touchups, etc, the community at large should make every effort to make this first time sweet.
How do we make it sweet? I don’t know for sure, but here is a short flurry of ideas which I’d be happy to discuss (and aid implementing!):
- Easy step-by-step instructions for opening a bug report, submitting a patch, for Ubuntu, OSX and Windows, all concentrated in one place, from setup to bug tracker attachment. The “contributing to Python” post I mentioned earlier is a (small) step in what I think is the right direction. We can flesh it out a lot, but make sure it keeps the step-by-step cookbook get-it-done approach, rather than what exists today, which is good, but isn’t aimed at getting-things-done. Compare signing up to Facebook with applying for a Tourist Visa in some foreign country.
- Small-time-Python-contribution-talks material to be made available. This is both to be consumed online in web-talks, but mainly aims to reach out and encourage such talks in LUGs and highschools/colleges (hmm, I love this idea, I should do this sometime…).
- A bit on a limb here, but maybe even doing what’s possible to optimize the review process in favour of first-time contributors. This is quite debatable, and (intentionally) vague, but I cautiously think it will pay off rather quickly.
These means (and probably others I didn’t think of) could probably alleviate the problem of a “contribution-driven-commit”, as I called it. Which leaves us with your fabulous implementation of goto, or “commit-driven-contribution”. I think two factors come into play here, both of them nearly irrelevant for the previous type of contribution. The first is the feeling that whatever it is you’ve done, it’s not good enough (this usually breaks my balls). “Me? Send this? To python-dev? Get outta here.”. And the second, I think, is indeed the feeling of an ‘uphill battle’ against grizzled python-dev grey beards and sharp tongued lurkers that are, I suspect, more likely than not to shred your idea to bits. Let’s face it, hacker communities at large are pretty harsh, and generally for understandable reasons. However, I think at times this tough skin and high barrier for contributing anything significant hurts us.
I used to have a co-worker, a strong hacker, who made two significant open-source packages for Python. I humbly think both are exceptionally elegant and at least one of them could have been a strong addition to stdlib. Every time I hear/read the code of some poor soul who recreated the efforts of this guy with these two packages, I cringe. I wouldn’t like to disclose his name before talking to him, but when I asked him why aren’t these packages part of stdlib, he said something like: “blah, unless you’re part of the python-dev cognoscenti you’ve no chance of putting anything anywhere”. I think he might not have pushed these packages hard enough, I should raid python-dev’s archives to know, but looking at the finesse of these packages on the one hand, and the number of questions on #python at freenode which I can answer by uttering these packages’ names, I think maybe we’re missing out on something. His perception, even if downright wrong (and I suspect it isn’t accurate, but not so wrong) is the bad thing that can happen to make you not contribute that big masterpiece you’ve made in your back yard, and that’s a damn shame. Most people will not survive the School of Hard Knocks, and that’s not necessarily always a good thing.
The issue of contributing big stuff is far more delicate and complex, and I’d be the first to admit I’m probably not rad enough to even discuss it. But it feels wrong to write a post under a heading like the one this one bears without at least mentioning this hacker-subculture-centric and sensitive issue, which affects many OSS projects, and Python as well. Micro-contributions are important, they’re the water and wind which slowly erode the landscape of a project into something cleaner, stabler and more elegant, but let’s not forget them big commits from which the mountains are born, too.
So Jesse, or any other curious soul, this is my answer to you. Should the gauntlet be picked up (by you, me or both of us) regarding the list of items I suggested earler about making micro-contributions more accessible? How about taking this to python-dev?