The evils of top-posting…

email-icon-post Answer: Because it makes it hard to follow conversations in email.

Question: Why is top-posting evil?

I know I’m fighting a losing battle here, but I occasionally feel compelled to remind people just how inefficient top-posting is for multiple-participant conversations. This is doubly true for people added after the conversation is started.

It takes a little longer, but it’s so much nicer if you can read an email thread from top to bottom rather than having to scroll to the bottom, read, scroll backward, read, scroll backward, read, etc. Yes, it’s the easiest way to reply to a message, but it’s an enemy of comprehension for recipients.

Is that the right mailing list? Is that the right audience?

email-icon-postQuick thought for the day: are you sending that message to the right mailing list?

If you work in open source, odds are you spend a lot of time working with people via email. At Red Hat we have internal mailing lists for developers that work on projects, and external mailing lists for projects, as well as internal lists for specific groups, topics, etc. I’m also, less than I’d like these days, involved in the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) and it has user lists and developer lists for projects, announce lists, and a variety of private lists for projects and specifically for members, fundraising, and so on.

I could write volumes about what’s good and bad about various Mail User Agents (MUAs) and mailing list software. But this is not about that–this is about bad habits that people fall into when opening and conducting discussions on mailing lists. Specifically, whether they’re going to the right place.

All too often, I see people opting to go for the least-public list when opening discussions. Part of this, I think, is just human laziness. You get into a routine, and stick with it. This is doubly hard to overcome when an initiative starts “behind the firewall” and then moves into the public.

Part of this is a tendency to stay with a familiar group. It can be “scary” to expose your ideas, commentary, plans, or whatever to a large audience. It can also, honestly, be annoying. Everybody has an opinion, and filtering through all the opinions and commentary can be a royal pain in the posterior. Separating the wheat from the chaff can be tricky when you do opt for openness and then have to filter through all of the digressions, uninformed opinions, and (occasionally) dissent to come to a decision.

I could probably write volumes on this topic, but I promised a quick thought. So, in a nutshell: Think before you start a conversation on a mailing list. Are you sending it to a private list to avoid discussion or exposure, or is there a good reason the conversation needs to be private? (Alternately, are you sure of the audience you’re sending to? Are you sending anything group/company confidential to too wide an audience? It happens infrequently, but it can be a big problem when it does.) If not, then break the habit and opt for openness. You might just be surprised how effective that can be, so give it a shot.

Presentations and Sharing Slides

Warning: Massive generalizations ahead!

It’s pretty common for conference organizers and attendees to ask presenters to provide their slides after the talk to share/post on the event site. While well-meaning, I’m not sure this is an entirely positive trend.

A slide deck that stands alone is often a sign of a poor presentation. If I can read the slides and get a lot out of them without the presentation they accompany, odds are you could have just written a short post that would have conveyed nearly as much information without the need for people to sit through a presentation. (Much less travel a great distance to see it.)

As a corollary to the above, if the presenter is using slides that convey most of the information, then the attendees are probably spending more time watching the slides and/or checking their phones/laptops than actually paying attention to the speaker. Again, what’s the point of sitting through a presentation if you can just read the slides and get most of the information that way?

Yes, you can have meaningful slides that support a presentation and are useful afterwards. For example, if you’re doing a presentation with a lot of data/charts, having those to refer to after the presentation is a good thing. Having code examples, or follow-along examples is a good thing.

I’m writing this, of course, because I received a request for slides for a presentation I gave recently (at SCALE) and was thinking about how often I’m asked for slides before a presentation even begins. (“Will the slides be available?”) In this case, the presentation has some slides that will be useful for attendees — but a lot of the slides are just enough text to spark my memory for the next topic.

Sometimes I’m tempted to chuck presentation-ware altogether and just give a presentation from notes accompanied (when appropriate) with a demo. A live presentation should be about an experience that is more than a person droning on at the front of the room that adds little or no value to the text on a screen. If it’s not, what’s the point?

This is something I’ve been turning over in my head for a while, and I think one of my goals for 2015 is to raise the bar on my own presentations. Suggestions welcome!

Sharing Apache’s Goodness: How We Should be Telling Apache’s Story

ApacheCon Europe LogoThe Apache Software Foundation (ASF) gets many things right: its governance model for open source development has served hundreds of projects well. The Apache Software License (ASL) is one of the most successful open source licenses, well-liked by many contributors. But the ASF is not perfect, and it has a few areas where serious improvement is needed.

One of the areas is promoting the ASF and its Top-Level Projects (TlPs). The ASF has more than 150 TLPs, but the odds are most people in the tech industry have only heard of a few of them. The ASF itself is fairly conservative about telling its own story, and most of its TLPs are content to send out the occasional release announcement to their announce@ mailing list – with the barest of details, usually not even noting what the project does – and with no effort to reach out to the larger community via social media or by pitching press. (A wire release is not the same as actually pitching most tech press.)

Why It Matters

What’s the point in making software and then not telling anyone about it? It’s rare indeed for a project to be so mind-bogglingly good and relevant to users immediate needs that word-of-mouth alone can carry it to the full audience that would benefit from it. And, possibly, contribute to it.

It’s the contribute to it that really interests me. You see, Apache is voluunteers. Oh, sure, people get paid to work on Apache projects – but not by Apache. They get paid by IBM, Citrix, SUSE, Red Hat, Microsoft, and hundreds of other companies. Which means that when their $dayjob means not working on Apache software, they almost inevitably slow down contributions – if not stop entirely.

Volunteer contributions ebb and flow. The contributor who put in the most patches for the last release may not have time when she finishes her university studies and has to get a full-time job. The release manager for the current release is going to run out of time in a few weeks when he moves to a new job that doesn’t have anything to do with Apache software. The best contributor you’ve ever had hasn’t sent in a single patch yet, because she’s never heard of your project. You get the point – you need new users to become new contributors to become new committers to become PMC members, and eventually ASF members.

It also matters when it comes to finding donations for the foundation. Apache keeps growing, and the needs of its projects continue to grow. A few years ago a few mailing lists, a Subversion repository, and a Web site were enough to call it good. Now projects want Jenkins, code signing, git repositories (and migrations from Subversion), etc. Storage requirements grow every day. The number of commits grows every day. The number of tickets to Apache Infra – which is not entirely staffed by volunteers – will also increase.

It also matters because Apache does not only need to attract more contributors, but more diverse contributors. That’s a lot more than just publicity, but it’s an important consideration here.

Finally, we need to be promoting The Apache Way rather than becoming complacent. “Open source” (for certain values of “open source”) may have “won,” but The Apache Way certainly hasn’t. Throwing code over the wall on GitHub is no way to grow a community. There’s a lot more to it than that, which projects tend to find if they gather any sort of popularity and start hitting growing pains.

ASF Services

Apache provides quite a few services, including some press/marketing help – but we have one contractor for the ASF’s 150+ projects.

We need to think about how we assist projects in promoting themselves and the foundation.

Another problem: Right now, most of the ASF’s projects are silos. There’s damn little communication between projects, with some notable exceptions (e.g. the Hadoop family of projects). Sure, the ASF members from various projects communicate on some of the private lists, but there’s damn little collaboration between PMCs and committers.

We can do better, and we need to do better.

One of the top things we need to do as a foundation is start focusing on publicity overall, and that means actually communicating. Right now, only three of the 150+ TLPs have a marketing list: CouchDB, CloudStack, OpenOffice. I’d wager than only a few actually recognize non-code contributions like marketing assistance as “merit” towards becoming a committern/PMC member.

A few weeks ago, I asked Infra to create a marketing@apache mailing list. There’s a press@ mailing list, but it’s private – only for folks working on marketing for the foundation, or members who’d like to join.

Press@ is needed for things that should be confidential, but there’s a whole host of conversations that can happen in the open. My hope is that folks interested in promoting Apache projects will join and start talking about how their projects can improve their promotional efforts and how projects can work together.

I also have a lot of ideas and suggestions how projects can improve their promotional efforts, but I’ll save that for another post later this week.

The slides from my talk at ApacheCon Europe are below. Have comments? Ping me on Twitter @jzb, or send me a note to my email (also “jzb”).

A Response I’d Never Like to Hear or See Again: “Just Don’t Use X”

Well, Actually TrollcatLet me say this up-front. I’m guilty of this myself. I’ll own it, I’ve said variations of this about plenty of technologies or services.

Someone complains about a mobile OS, “oh, don’t use that. Use [insert speaker’s favorite mobile OS here].” Someone complains about Windows/Mac/Linux, “simple, just use [Windows|Mac|Linux] and your problem goes away.”

Someone complains about a problem with Facebook, Gmail, Google+, Twitter, etc. “Oh, just don’t use it. Simple.”

You get the idea.

The speaker may be the best kind of correct, technically correct, but they risk invoking the “fail mode of clever” which is (as John Scalzi so eloquently put it) “asshole.”

You may think your absolutist, well-thought-out, well-reasoned manifesto against $thing is convincing. It may even be convincing to anyone willing to 1) take the several hours it takes to hear the diatribe, and 2) trade off the benefits or perceived benefits of their choice to embrace the alternative. (This is assuming you offer an alternative. Many folks like to bash things and then not even up an alternative, which isn’t a winning strategy. Yes, I’m looking at the whole “Defective by Design” campaign when I say this.)

It’s totally OK for you to refuse to use a service, operating system, program, or whatever. More power to you. Just don’t assume that your choices are applicable to others.

People use Facebook for complicated reasons, and often actually are aware how annoying the service is and how shitty it is that Facebook continually tweaks privacy options/settings and the flow of posts, etc. People use Windows for complicated reasons that depend a lot on their level of comfort with computers, applications they need, etc.

“Just don’t use X,” is not a constructive comment. That’s not to say offering an alternative is bad or wrong, if done reasonably. But “just don’t use X” is pretty much a non-starter.

And don’t even get me started on the folks who recommend telling others when they encounter problems with X “simple, just tell them not to use X and to use a better service/technology.” Yes, because what will win users/customers is to reply to their issues with an invitation to make changes on their end that will be perceived as disruptive. Way to go champ, pick up your prize for customer service at the front desk.

You can advocate for better options, but leading with “just don’t use X” as an absolutist statement pretty much guarantees you’re going to be ignored and annoy the other person or people. Take a stab at being empathetic with others and realize that your set of choices and values may not apply well to their situation.

A Quick Tip/Request on Social Media

Fail Whale One of the things I use social media for is to put the word out about projects that I work with/on and to draw attention to events or things that might be of interest.

Likewise, a lot of my friends are in a similar position. Whenever I peek into Twitter, Google+, or Facebook, I try to re-share/amplify things that my friends post that might be of interest to people who follow me or are connected to me on social media. This used to be sort of de rigueur for social media, but I’ve noticed that the practice has fallen way off.

Assuming your friends are posting things that might be of interest, you might consider boosting their signal a little and help to spread the word. I generally try to RT or promote other people’s events, posts/articles, and so forth at least as much as my own. And if I notice someone being kind to me on social media, I try to return the favor. (Note, this is not a request that everyone all become retweetbots or anything — just asking for folks to take a second and help promote other folks’ stuff as much as they pimp their own.)

The nice thing is that you have a chance to be exposed to things outside your own network, and I’ve run into a lot of interesting things, articles, and people that way.

Thoughts, comments, flames?