OpenStack, oVirt, Talks

What Does Open Source Mean to Me?

I gained some development experience in various freelance projects and figured I’d apply for a development position during my last semester of Computer Science studies. I sought a student role in a large corporation so that I wouldn’t be relied upon too heavily, as I wanted to prioritize my studies (Please see ‘You have your entire life left to work’ and similar cliches). I applied to a bunch of places, including Red Hat – My would be boss gave a talk in my school about open source culture and internship positions, otherwise I would have never heard about a Linux company in a Microsoft dominated nation. Microsoft has solid contracts with the Israeli Defense Force, and with the Israeli high tech being lead mostly by ex- IDF officers, CTOs tend to go with Microsoft technology. In any case, Red Hat had an internship position in the networking team of a virtualization product (I had networking experience from my army service), paid generously, their offices were close by, it all lined up.

At this point, open source meant nothing to me.

At Red Hat, I started working on a project called oVirt. While it has an impressive user base, and its Q&A mailing list gets a healthy amount of traffic, it does not have a significant development community outside of Red Hat. Here I started experiencing the efforts that go into building an expansive open source community. Open source is not free contrary to popular belief – It is, in fact, quite costly, for a project in oVirt’s stage. For example, when working in a closed source company and designing a new feature, normally you would write a specification down, discuss it with your team members, and get going. In oVirt, you’d share the specification first with the rest of the community. The resulting discussion can take weeks, and with a time based release schedule that inherent delay must be factored in during planning. All communication must be performed on public (and archived) medias such as mailing lists and IRC channels. Hallway discussions are natural but frowned upon when it comes to feature design and other aspects of the development process that should be shared with the community. Then comes the review process. I’m a big believer in peer reviews, regardless if the project is open or closed, but surely in an open source project the review process is much better felt. One of the key elements to building a community is taking the time to review code submitted by non-Red Hatters. You could never hope to get an active development community going if code sits in the repository for weeks, attracting no attention. To this end, code review becomes part of your job description. Some people do it quite well, some people like me have a lot of room to improve. I find reviewing code infinitely harder than writing it. In fact, I find it so hard that I must force myself to do it, double so when the code is written by a faceless community member that cannot knock a basketball over my head if I don’t review his code (Dear mankind: Please don’t ever invent that technology).

At this point, open source was a burden for me.

Six months back I was moved to another project called OpenStack. Still in the same team, under the same boss, just working on another project. OpenStack, while comparable to oVirt technologically,  is very different from oVirt, in the sense that it has a huge development community. By huge, I mean thousands strong. OpenStack is composed of sub projects – The networking project alone has hundreds of developers working on it regularly. At the time I was moved I was the only Israeli developer working on it. The rest of the Red Hat OpenStack team was located in the Czech Republic and in the US. As you can imagine, a lot of self learning was to be had. Conveniently, the (community maintained) OpenStack documentation is excellent. My team mates were no longer working for the same company I was, nor were they down the hall. I did most of my work with individuals spread all over the world. I met some in FOSDEM this past February (Probably the highlight of the event for me), at which point I began to understand the importance of building personal relationships and I will expand on this below.

The beauty of open source and the basis of a meritocracy is that the strongest idea wins. You might stumble upon an infuriating bug which might seem like the most important issue facing the project (And, in fact, humanity). You start working on it, submit a patch, and quickly discover that nobody gives a shit about your bug. Instead of being frustrated by the difficulty of moving forward, I learned two lessons:

  1. Building personal relationships is the only way to drive change
  2. ‘The community’ can realign your understanding of what is important

Maybe there is good reason nobody cares about that bug. Maybe it was a waste of time working on it, not because the patch was not accepted (In time, or at all), maybe it was a waste of time because it was just a waste of time. Maybe that bug was just not important, and you should have invested your time working on anything else. There is a larger amount of issues than resources available and your choice of what to tackle is more important than the urgency of what’s in front of you.

In addition to navigating between the perceived urgency of issues, the community can help you reflect and choose the better solution. I always love hearing people’s ideas, and this concept is expressed beautifully in the review system. Getting criticism from strangers and collaborators alike always constitutes to a learning experience. Luckily OpenStack is being developed by very smart individuals that can help you understand if your solution is terrible, or simply realign your trajectory. I find that it’s sometimes even helpful to get feedback from people with opposing interests – Perhaps together you can form a solution that will answer all use cases in a generalized manner. Such a solution might just end up to be of higher quality than one that would have dealt only with your own customer’s needs.

At this point, open source is obvious to me.

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