Lamentations of the OSS consumer: I'd like to read the $@#%ing manual but no one has written it / by Matt Wrock

I've been an active open source consumer and contributor for the past few years and overall being involved in both roles has been one of the peak experiences of my career and I only wish  I had discovered open source much much sooner. However its not all roses, and things can be rough on both sides of the pull request. Especially for those new to these ecosystems and even more so if you come from a heritage of tools and culture not originally friendly to open source.

Yesterday I received a great email from someone asking about how to navigate a very popular infrastructure testing project where the documentation can be sparse in some respects. The project is ServerSpec - a really fantastic tool that many gain value from every day. The question comes from someone new to the chef community and ServerSpec is a key tool used in the chef ecosystem. The questioner immediately won my respect. They were curious but not bitter (at least did not admit to being so) and wanted to know how to learn more and start to contribute and get to a point of writing more creative tests.

This inspired me because i love interacting with people who are passionate about this craft and who like myself want to learn and improve themselves. It also struck a nerve since I have alot of opinions about approaching OSS projects and empathy for those new to the playing field and perhaps feeling a bit awkward. This individual, like myself, comes from a windows background, so I think I have some insights to where he is coming from.

I thought it might be interesting to transform my responses to a blog post. Here are some modified excerpts from my replies.

When Windows is the edge case

I think one issue that windows suffers from in this ecosystem is that it is the "edge case". The vast majority of those using, testing and contributing to this project are largely linux users. So when a minor version bump occurs and the PR notes explicitly call out that it wont break current tests, clearly thats evidence that windows was not tested. Although one can argue that windows is just not much of a player (but that's of course changing).

I'd look at this differently if this was code in a chef owned project where I would expect them to be paying more attention to windows. Regarding ServerSpec, a wholly open source project with no funding and shepherded by a community member who has a full time job that is not ServerSpec, I tend to be more forgiving but it can definitely make for a frustrating development experience at times.

I'm really hoping that more windows folks get involved and contribute more in this ecosystem both with code and documentation and also just filing issues, and I hope that their employers support them in these efforts. They stand to gain alot in doing so.

There may be no manual but there are always the codes

One thing I have found in the ruby world and much of the OSS world outside of ruby is that sometimes the best way to figure something out is to read the source code. The obvious downside to this is that its hard to read a language we may not be familiar with and we just want to write our test and move on with our lives.

So I find myself going back and forth. I may just do some quick “code spelunking” and not find anything that clearly points out how to do what I want and may take an uglier “brute force” approach. On other days depending on mood and barometric pressure in the office, I might be inclined to spend the time and dig deeper. It would be awesome if the authors took the time to spell out how to write custom matchers and resource types, but many OSS projects seem to lack this level of detailed documentation. I’m guessing because no one is paying them to and in the end they, like us, have a problem that needs solving and lack time to document.

One consolation is that these ruby libraries tend to be relatively small. Compare the ServerSpec code base including its sister project Specinfra to something like XUnit in C#. Its a lot less code. Of coarse it may take 3x longer to groc if you are a ruby beginner. What I often find is that given the motivation to learn and be more proficient, you eventually reach a point of minimal comfort with the codebase where you get it enough to see what needs to be added to get the thing to do what you want it to do and that’s when you start making contributions.

Heh. I totally have a weird love hate relationship with this stuff. There are days when  I curse these libraries because I just want to do something that seems so simple and I really have no desire or time to make an investment and then there are other times when  I am totally into the code and loving the sense that  I am gaining an understanding of new patterns and coding constructs and realize I’m gaining some knowledge where I can not only make the code better for me but for others as well.

In the end its all just a constant slog through the marshes of learning and as software engineers, that’s our sweet spot. The ability to live in a state of learning and not so much bask in what we have learned.