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Titus Brown on the importance of communication

I just read an insightful article by Titus Brown about the importance of communication in a team project, in the context of open source projects. It is a very good articulation of a topic I've thought about a lot myself as well.

When helping to manage Zope's participation in the Google Summer of Code I recognized the problems that Titus is talking about. One thing I told students in advance is simply to make noise

I've indeed seen some students, but not all, pop up on various Zope related mailing lists. Others have been more quiet. I'd prefer to hear some noise from you guys. Noise (if at least somewhat on-topic) is good for open source communities.

Noise is also good for you, as if you're noisy, people will get to know you and might actually start listening to some of your ideas. Don't be afraid to make noise. I've made an idiot and a nuisance of myself (on occasion, not all the time I hope!) in the permanent record for years and people still seem to listen to me.

That did have a positive effect. Still, the next year I started to explicitly require all participating students to give regular updates, just like what Titus is planning.

Without regular updates, it's far too easy for time (days, weeks, months) to pass by without obvious progress. Sometimes that is because the progress is hidden. Sometimes that is because the progress itself is in fact lacking: nobody knows you're blocked if you don't tell people about it.

Unfortunately even with those guidelines in place, it turns out to be difficult to make people communicate... Requiring regular reports helped me catch some potential problems early, but even raising my problem didn't always help to make the problem actually go away...

In part that's probably due to shyness or lack of confidence on the part of these people. When you communicate a lot, you may in fact end up saying things that aren't too smart once every while, and people probably worry overly much about that. Feedback can help you learn, and can only get feedback if people know you're there in the first place.

In part it's just due to differences in personality: not everybody communicates in the same way. That's fine - there are many ways to make a positive contribution, as long as you show what you're up to.

Sometimes too there is too much chatter and you just want to hunker down and get work done without distractions. It's just important to remember to resurface once every while.

On the other hand, communication can also be a great way to keep yourself motivated and productive. Sometimes it is quite comfortable to let time go by and slack off, and then it is nice nobody worries about your progress...

I'll just quoting myself again about noise (through Reinout):

I’m a natural noise-maker, and I discovered that while as a result of this I embarrass myself in public on a regular basis, it also means a lot of people know who I am. That’s a good thing.

And this, which I cannot even remember saying (through Michael Hudson):

faassen: anyway, if nothing else flapping your arms running around
will at least give an impression of activity. :)

Since this is a somewhat self-absorbed post anyway, quoting myself and all that, let me finish with a story about my early involvement in the Python community that I think is relevant to this discussion.

The comp.lang.python newsgroup when I joined it sometime in late 1998 was a small and friendly place. Thinking back it seems I spent most of my time posting very silly posts about the Python Secret Underground (PSU), an organization about which, naturally, I cannot say anything more. It was a lot of fun but perhaps not the most constructive contribution to the Python community.

I first went to an international Python conference in in the US in the year 2000. It didn't seem odd to me then, but afterwards I realized that many people there who I had never met before knew who I was. I also knew who many of them were. I think the silly interactions about the PSU that I was involved in on comp.lang.python explain a lot of that. It was completely unintentional, but today I still benefit from the connections I made then.

So, contribute to an open source community! Communicate! Communicate by creating code, writing documentation, or perhaps just by making people chuckle. Communication makes you more engaged in the project, and more motivated to contribute, and more creative and productive as a result. You may also be pleasantly surprised by the feedback.

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