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Re: Concerns about community contributor support

From: Thomas S. Dye
Subject: Re: Concerns about community contributor support
Date: Sat, 17 Apr 2021 13:29:23 -1000
User-agent: mu4e 1.2.0; emacs 26.3

Aloha Timothy,

As a long-time follower of this list and a devoted, if often ignorant or confused, user of Org mode, I'd like to give my perspective on your concerns, which I find genuine and IMHO intended to further the Org mode project.

I was drawn to Org mode when Eric Schulte and Dan Davison were implementing Org babel. At the time, I had dabbled in literate programming and was using reproducible research practices in my work, so the babel project made sense to me and I was thrilled to find a couple of terrific programmers working on what to my mind was a beautiful implementation of these ideas.

I knew about Carsten Dominik from his work with RefTeX, which I also used in my work, but got to know him better as the creator and maintainer of Org mode. My impression of Carsten was an indefatigable worker whose vision of what Org mode might be kept growing as the user base expanded and diversified.

The mailing list was a different place back then, less technical and open to more noise than it is today. It was a place that understood the importance of kindness for a collaboration of volunteers. I think the list has done an admirable job of maintaining the ethos of kindness, but Org mode development is in a new phase that *requires* technique and is quicker to identify and filter out noise. When Bastien took over as maintainer after Carsten exhausted himself working on Org mode (my interpretation), Nicolas Goaziou took over most of the coding work. His brief was clearly to put the Org mode code into better order, which he did with astonishing efficiency and expertise (at least from my often ignorant and confused perspective). His work on the syntax, exporter, linter, and manual represents IMHO an outstanding contribution to Org mode. I'm sure there are other important contributions that I'm not remembering right now. My point is that the project changed from one that was expanding its own vision of what it might be to one that was working to ensure that it wouldn't collapse from its own weight.

Kyle Meyer is the next step in this direction, whose efforts have helped tame the discussions on the Org mode list with a remarkable facility for threading together the various strands of discussion, some of which have histories that comprise several years. Combined with a command of git, his work has brought the discussion into closer contact with the development of the code base.

These changes mean that contributions need to be checked for contributions to Nicolas' project and also fit into the history of discussion and development. The Org mode project now resembles a scholarly discipline that moves slowly and deliberately toward a more or less well defined goal. The days when Carsten would bang out a new feature during his train ride home from work are gone.

Bastien did recently call for maintainers, though IIRC he was interested in ox-* and ob-* maintainers more than org-* maintainers. If enough good programmers heed his call, then there might be some progress on the concerns you raise. But, my sense is that patches to Org mode proper will continue to be adopted slowly and deliberately. It would be a shame if that pace put off talented programmers, but my sense FWIW is that the pace might be necessary until the code base is fully tamed.

All the best,

Timothy <tecosaur@gmail.com> writes:

Dear all,

Over the last few months I have felt an increasing level of concern over the lack of response to patches. This email is rather long, but please, bear with me. The goal is to start a discussion on the problems this
creates, and consider short and long-term solutions.

When both community and maintainer response to new patches is lacking, many first-time contributors are actively dissuaded from contributing again. Furthermore, each patch represents a considerable time investment --- particularly if it's from an individual who is new to the mailing list / patch workflow. Org-mode is not "done" and still requires the support of long-term contributors to keep improving, anything that discourages them from contributing back to the community needs to be carefully understood and resolved if we want to continue harmoniously.

Take for example Jay Bosamiya's patch from September last year [1]. It appears to be his first submission to this mailing list, and yet there has been absolutely no response to it. There are currently 24 other patches listed on the updates.orgmode.org which have seen no response from this community, some of which are from first-time contributors. There are 36 other patches with at least two replies, but yet to be resolved. Bastien's updates.orgmode.org is fantastic in helping prevent contributions slip through the cracks, but it is also highlighting the
lack of community response to a significant number of patches.

This mailing list was my first experience with an email+patch based contribution workflow. Thankfully, I received prompt and friendly feedback and was guided through the adjustments needed so it could be merged in a timely manner. Should my patch have been similarly ignored, I would have been quite disheartened; it is not an overstatement to say I would likely have written off this mailing list and not tried again.

Simply put, this is not good enough. This does a disservice to those that have dedicated time and effort to try and better this project only
to be ignored. Not rejected, not even acknowledged, nothing.

It is imperative that this community improves our response to
contributions for the long-term health of this project. Do not take me to be a doomsayer; I have faith that Org is going to keep on improving regardless. However, failing to welcome and encourage contributors has a
deleterious effect on the health of the project.

I do not blame the maintainers in the slightest. As Bastien brought up in a recent worg discussion, as time goes on we find ourselves taking on more and more life responsibilities. Therefore it's in our best interest to delegate some of the maintainer responsibilities to consistently active, and supportive community members to "pass down the torch" so the community and platform can continue to expand with grace and care.

What can the community do?

I don't know of any silver bullet, but I believe there are some steps
which could help, namely:
+ The development and publication of "reasonable expectations" which
  contributors should have when submitting a patch, and that the
maintainers should strive to uphold (e.g. "expect a response within
  <some timeframe>").
+ A community effort/sprint to respond to those patches that have been
  seemingly abandoned
+ Onboarding of new maintainers, when reasonable and suitable candidates exist (I'd very willingly throw my hat in the ring for consideration).
  If it's too much work, spread it out as much as possible.

If any other ideas come to mind, please share them so we can discuss
them further.

Finally, it's not all bad.

While this discussion has called for some criticism, I don't want to give the false impression that I think nothing is working and nobody is supporting contributors. This is not the case at all, there are some standout individuals one the mailing list who have been fantastic. Kudos
to you all.

My best to everyone,


[1] https://orgmode.org/list/CAOywxZg1cBL07THLZXHBBCzm6te2vMtqnmM0w63331gybrjZuw@mail.gmail.com/
[2] https://orgmode.org/list/87h7qi2l2m.fsf@gmail.com/

Thomas S. Dye

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