Maintainer life, be an enabler

20 Aug 2020 · Two minute read · opensource, oss, maintainer

This is not something important only in open source, or as maintainer. But it is a skill I have personally learned as one.

When I have to build a sustainable open source project, but it applies with teams as well developing the right code or new feature is often not that useful in the long term. I think you get quickly to something better when people collaborate together in an effective way.

The maintainer’s role is to enable other people to contribute successfully.

You have to switch from “let’s write documentation” to “how do I create a workflow that enables contributors to write documentation.” I started with doc because I think it is crucial. It is easier to write documentation when you are writing code or a new feature. And we know a developer prefers to write code; as a maintainer, you need to create a workflow that allows the contributor to write documentation quickly when writing code. In practice, mark a PR with a label needs-doc and make it a requirement for the PR to be merged. The maintainer has to design a rock-solid structure for the documentation. In this way, the contributor won’t spend two days trying to figure out where to add the documentation for its feature.

You can’t ask a contributor to create an entire test suite or to write documentation if you don’t have one. But from a solid foundation is reasonable to ask a contributor to keep at least the same quality level.

You don’t write all the tests; you create and maintain the continuous delivery pipeline required to help contributors to stay compliant. Is your project suffering from low test coverage? Do not waste time writing all the tests yourself; codebase is significant, and pull requests are flowing continuously. You have to stay focused on developing a system that brings and keeps you where you want: good coverage in this case.

In practice, you can create another label needs-tests to notify the contributor that its work won’t be merged until tests will be added (the plural is crucial, tests!). You can use something like codecov in your CI to evaluate with numbers the situation. Invest time being sure that tests are easy to write; write a doc in the contributor file highlighting how to write a good test. If a package is too hard to test, you can write a few tests that other people can use as a starting point or a reusable set of utility functions.

Being a facilitator or an enabler is a lot of work. If you feel less effective because you wrote 90% of the codebase at this point and you can write documentation and tests by yourself in a couple of days you are wrong. Or at least from my experience you can do it but the outcome will be worst in quality compared with the one you can build from a solid foundation in a collaborative environment.