Laura Abbott: Maintainerati

I spent last Wednesday hanging out in San Francisco for the first annual
maintainerati event. The idea was that there
are a lot of open source maintainers out there but events are usually separated
by technology areas. Javascript framework maintainers may never meet
programming language maintainers even if their problems are similar. The idea
with this event was to give open source maintainers a chance to vent and
problem solve with others.

The event was structured as an ‘unconference’. I describe it as a slightly
more structured hallway track. We started the morning doing ‘dot voting’ on
topics people wanted to talk about and then broke into groups to discuss the
topics that got the highest vote. I chose to go for the discussion about
recruiting newcomers and maintainers. We started with some discussion about
what is a contribution and pros and cons of structuring the contribution
process and eventually getting committer rights. There’s no hard and fast rule
about when people can/should get commit rights and it mostly comes down to
relationships; you need to build relationships with existing maintainers and
existing maintainers need to build relationships and mentor new committers.
This let to quite a bit of discussion about free vs. paid and company vs.
non-company contributors. It’s a lot easier to build relationships if you can
set up a meeting with a maintainer in your company but that doesn’t work for
outside contributors. There’s also the question of trying to recruit
volunteers for your sponsored project. Doing work ‘for exposure’ is
problematic and exploitative yet open source has this idea of doing work for the
inherent joy of open source and learning. Promoting unpaid contributions needs
to be done very carefully if it is done at all. We ended up running out of time
and I think the discussion could have certainly gone longer.

There was a second session in the afternoon about problematic communities. This
one is unfortunately near and dear to my heart. We started out defining what
makes a community toxic. A big point was that bad behavior prevents the
community from making progress. Many of the discussion points were not just
open source but other communities that tend to have overlap. Code of conducts
are a necessity to make dealing with toxic behavior possible. There was some
discussion about how specific these guidelines should be, and interestingly
it was pointed out that having slightly less specific guidelines (but not too
much) may help to avoid people trying to purposely hang out at the edge of
acceptable. If your larger community is problematic, it can be helpful to work
on making a smaller subset welcoming and let that influence the larger group.
I appreciated everyone who took the time to contribute in the discussion.

Outside structured conversations, I spent time talking about empathy. Several
attendees either were or had been in first line customer support positions.
To succeed in this type of work, you need to have (or quickly build) empathy
skills to keep customers satisfied. Developers are not well known for having
large amounts of empathy skills. I’m guilty of this myself; empathy without
emotionally draining myself is something I’m constantly working on. Figuring
out how to teach empathy skills to others is a challenge. One of the ideas
that came up was the need to be outside your comfort bubble. Travel and moving
were a common way people cited to force yourself to have new experiences.
Traditional developer mind set also tends to be very black and white (hi guilty
here too). Most important was the desire to keep improving this skill and not
write it off as unnecessary.

There were plenty of other conversations I’m sure I’ve forgotten about. Notes
are available on the github and
will be added as people get around to it. I really hope to see this conference
happen again. It’s filling a space to have important conversations about
non-technical topics that tend to get sidelined elsewhere. I met so many
cool people and left with a lot to think about. My biggest thanks to the

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