Things I learned in Open Source

There’s a few things I’ve learned over the past couple of years or so because of my direct work with volunteering to contribute to WordPress, and more specifically, WordPressMU.

For those of you who stumbled in here, hi. 🙂 This is my personal not-work, not-WordPress blog. For my regular readers and family members whose eyes glaze over when I tell them what I do, a little background:

This blog runs on WordPress. Specifically, WordPress MU, the version that allows you to have multiple blogs. I spend a significant amount of time volunteering by helping people out. I answer forum posts mostly, I write some blogs posts, and our money-making is because we (Ron & I) get hired by people who have questions about wpmu or need us to set things up for them. WordPress is software known as Open Source. Anyone can contribute. Yes, anyone, even you. Yes, it gets checked over first. Most of the people writing each new version are unpaid.

I’ve been a long time user of WordPress. I was one of the many who switched from Movable Type 2.5 when they changed their licensing, and I haven’t looked back. So I started as a curious user, much like the readership of this blog. Some would say, “But Andrea, you’re smart and geeky, so you have a leg up already!” Yeah, and I’m married to Ron, so maybe I have a couple of “unfair advantages” but to me, if someone else wanted to get where I am now, they can too. And especially if you are a woman – we need more in the community.

I remember the first time I wandered in to the WordPress forums. It was a veritable snake pit of geek pissing matches. Flame-proof suits needed to be worn at all times. Word from above was generally a shrug and a “the community will work itself out” and for the most part it does. And yes, sometimes I’ve given just as good as gotten.

But eventually I became involved in higher-up conversations with popular and recognizable names and discussed things like, “How can we make newcomers more welcome? How can we make this area more helpful?” Aside from the trying not to freak right the heck out because you’re having a work-related conversation with someone you have long admired from afar and wished for a chance to even speak to, let alone have them recognize you, and also trying not to think of this is something affecting roughly twenty million sites, well – the pressure and immediate need kicks in and you just get down to it. Because it’s for the good of all, really, and you do realize that even little ol’ you can actually… help.

Huh. Imagine that. Even me, a stay-at-home homeschooling mom in the wilds of New Brunswick, Canada, can affect change.

So what can YOU do? If you’re using WordPress and can get around fair enough, you know enough to help someone. And if you’ve been hanging around the edges of the Cool Kids table, are drinking the kool-aid (mmm purple) here’s some insider tips on how to be a productive contributor.

1. Check your ego at the door. Remember the cartoon, “on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog”? Yeah. If you show up in the middle of something like a forum post a dev chat or whatever, those in charge don’t know you from a hole in the ground. Just showing up is not enough. You are judged on your contributions to the project itself and how you behave in the community, nothing else.

2. Try to minimize the fangirl squeeing. I have done this myself, and yes, it’s hard not to gush. take cues from the other person. Are they reserved? Be reserved. maybe allows a bit to shine through and keep it to a couple of sentences if you want them to know how awesome you think they are.

Weirdly, being on the other side of this is.. uncomfortable. My mom thinks I’m awesome too, but she’s my mom. having met other people I consider to be famous, and see them to be real people (just like me!), relate to them as if they were… you know… just like you. Because they are.

On the other hand, if I’m jazzed to meet you and you’re jazzed to met me? AWESOME! Squee-fest ahoy!

3. Don’t be married to the code. If you can actually code and you submit a patch, people will look it over. Actually, they will rip it apart and examine it within an inch of its life. They may kill it, change it and rewrite the entire thing. And even if you write the most poetic code in the history of code, someone, somewhere will find a problem with it. (even if they are crazy). So don’t take it personal.

If you look at your code and think it’s crap, but maybe it might help, submit it anyway. Coders also love to teach other coders. Set your code free.

Also, there may be a section of the code you love and adore. It will invariably be rewritten. Open source is an evolving, ever-changing thing.

Okay, maybe weep in your beer for an hour, but then get over it. Move on.

4. Don’t be That Guy. Yeah, that one. If you get someone’s attention, try not to monopolize it. If someone is helping, offer something in return. Say thank you.

If you have a beef, try to keep it professional. If you disagree, fine. State it appropriately, name your concern, outline how you feel it should be addressed, find the proper channels. People do not respond to anger, threats and ranting.

That works for anything, really.

5. Be awesome. I’m sure you’ve thought at some point “wouldn’t it be awesome if..”? Well, if it’s something you think you can do, however small, then do so. It will help someone at some point.

My other internal rule is if I’m about to post something because I’m ticked off, I go do something else instead.

6. Watch and learn. Or, more importantly, show others with your attitude that you are willing to learn, because they are willing to teach. Stand back and observe things like dev chats first, before diving in and responding at every comment.

If you don’t know code, that’s okay too. be willing to learn something. I code like I speak French: terribly. But I learned where to find what I needed, I learned how to read code, if not write it, so when I copy/paste code and it borks I can fumble around and figure out why.

Je parle encore français terriblement, même si je peux lire un peu.

7. We all have a say, so say something. Majority usually rules, and sometimes it’s the same old voices screaming in the wilderness. New perspectives are needed all the time.

Practical things you can do at any level to help WordPress:
– Help someone else where you can. If a friend of your has a WordPress issue and you think you can help solve it, do so. Even if it’s just showing them how to use something or helping them find somewhere to get help. We all started somewhere, so if all you know how to do is update your blog, you are still ahead of some people.
– Write. Figured out how to do something? Write a blog post about it. Chances are, it will help someone reading or searching.
– Write docs. So many people do not realize the WordPress Codex is editable by *anyone*, yes even you, just like Wikipedia. if you see outdated information, please login and update it. Someone will check it over. It takes far less time to correct a page you see outdated than it will to make a forum post complaining someone should fix it.
– Rate and mark plugins. In the official repo, there are sections on the right side to mark a plugin as working or not in whatever version. If you can take a few minutes and mark these, it helps everyone.
– Say thank you. if you have a favorite theme or plugins, take the time to find the author and even leaving a comment to say “Thanks, I love this!” is worth ten times the amount of comments they get saying “Help! It broke! Fix! Now!”. (I’ve loosely paraphrased an actual email here.)

In the end, this is free software. You have the freedom to use it how you wish, and you are not obligated in any way to contribute anything back. If you are interested, I hope I’ve given enough tips here to inspire you. All they cost is a bit of time and the rewards are many indeed. In the end, what makes WordPress so great is not just the core team – their jobs are made infinitely harder with no feedback and no contributions from people just like you and me. And, like us, this is where they started too.

Published by andrea

Older, possibly wiser, still forgetful.

3 replies on “Things I learned in Open Source”

  1. I wish this was required reading before downloading wordpress or any open source software. By going in to the game with the healthy mentality you’ve outlined, the world would be a better place.

    Great post.

  2. I so get that famous people thing, it’s weird!! One of our friends is “famous”, and I know that some people think I am… it is totally freaky!

    But you’re famous! You’re famous for WP stuff! I used to be a little bit famous for GM stuff, and then MT a bit.. but I let my famous registration lapse in those areas 😉
    .-= melanie´s last blog ..Wishlist Wednesday – melange =-.

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