As promised, I’ve been working on a “Year in Review” blog post to review some of the lessons I’ve learned in my first year as the Fedora Project Leader. Unfortunately, the size of the post has grown a big larger than I would have liked, so I’ve decided to split it into few pieces. This is part one.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since I started as the Fedora Project Leader. There are a number of areas that I’d like to highlight in this retrospective, but the first I’d like to talk about is communications. Why communications? I truly believe that we will owe much of our future success and failure (both in the world of FLOSS generally and more specifically within Fedora) to communication. For something as critical as communication, I think we often do ourselves a disservice in the way that we communicate, and that causes me heartburn.
Before I dive too much into communication, let me first get something off my chest. I’m not the most communicative person in the world. For those of you who know me personally, that shouldn’t come as a big surprise. By nature, I’m a fairly quiet person. Most of the time, I’d much rather be in the trenches solving problems than standing in the spotlight. The last thing I want anyone to think is that Fedora is somehow being directed by my ego. That being said, I’ve done a lot of reflecting, and I’ve come to realize that Fedora needs a leader that is more communicative, that spends more time in public helping to market Fedora (for lack of a better term), that spends less time in the trenches. If I’m going to blog about communication and how we can improve, let me be the first to apologize for being a bit quiet in the past, and let me also be the first to pledge to each of you my renewed determination to open my mouth more and to be better about the ways I communicate.
Now, looking at the Fedora Project has a whole over the past year, I think we’ve done an OK job of communication. Not a great job, but an OK job. There are a few particular areas I’d like to highlight — not to come off as sounding preachy, but to point out some things that will make us stronger. First, the obvious item — flamewars. We’ve certainly had a number of them over the past year, with some worse than others. In general, however, I’d say we’re getting better about keeping the overall numbers of flamewars down, at least compared to years past. I’m still concerned, however, about the levels of sniping and snarky comments that I see within our community, and the lack of civility that is displayed from time to time.
If I may, let me offer a few reminders about communications that I believe will help us to strengthen our communities. While many of these focus on the mechanics of email, I think they probably apply equally well for IRC and other communication formats.
- Focus on what is right and not who is right. The greatest asset we have within Fedora is the people who contribute their time and energy and passion to make it better. If we come to realize that, it only makes logical sense that no matter how much we may disagree with a technical proposal or the actions of another person, let’s stay focused on the technical details and try not to turn the discussion into personal attacks. In religious circles, there’s a concept of “loving the sinner but hating the sin”. Even if you’re not a religious person, that concept should hopefully help illustrate the point I’m trying to make.
- Don’t question other people’s motives. This one ties in somewhat with my first point, but I think it deserves to be mentioned as well. We all contribute to FLOSS for our own particular reasons, and who are we to judge that one reason is better than another? One of the quickest ways to lose someone else’s trust and respect is to question their motives. Let’s try to judge each contribution solely based on its technical merit.
- Taste your words before they leave your mouth. When I was in school, I had an English teacher that always told the class to “Taste your words before they leave your mouth.” For better or worse, many of the people in our community are only known by what they write (and how the write it). How do your messages reflect upon you, and upon the community in general? Is your content precise and specific? Does the formatting of your message reflect common email etiquette? (I promise I won’t go into a long rant about top posting versus bottom posting, but I will encourage everyone to trim their replies to show which parts of a conversation they’re replying to.) Does the tone of your email reflect a willingness to work toward a common solution? Is you message productive, or simply meant to evoke an emotional response?
- Repetition. Not all repetition is harmful, but if you’ve made the same point repeatedly (either in the same thread, or keep making the same point every time you get the chance), you’re probably not doing yourself any favors. It’s natural for the human brain to look for patterns, and I think we’ve all probably participated in communities where certain members exhibit a pattern of repetition, to the point where our brain says “Oh, it’s another post on that same point by so-and-so… I’ll tune it out.” Now, as the FPL, I don’t want to get to where I’m tuning people out, so please use repetition sparingly. Chances are, we heard you the first time or two.
- Be willing to be part of the solution. It has been my experience that people are much more likely to get a positive response to communication when they can show that they’re willing to be part of a solution to a perceived problem. If you’re the one pointing out the problem, show that you’ve done your homework and that you’ve tried to understand the problem to the best of your ability. Be humble enough to point out the things you don’t understand. If you’re responding to a problem report, communicate clearly whether you too are willing to be part of the solution.
In addition to suggestions above, I’d also like to point out that we need more than just a lack of bad communication — we need more healthy communication as well. I’m going to do my part to work on this over the coming year, and I invite you to join me. If you’re doing something constructive in Fedora or other areas of FLOSS, talk about it!