Jeff Longland

Relax, don't worry – have a home brew!

#OSCON – Assholes Are Killing Your Project

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  • Presenter: Donnie Berkholz, RedMonk
  • Based on experiences working with Gentoo.
  • Community is critical because reputation affects your ability to attract more contributors.
  • Ohloh is a great tool for quantifying and visualizing number contributors.  You can then correlate drops/peaks to events within (and external) to your community.
  • On the Gentoo project, after the assholes were kicked out of the project – things stabilized.
  • But even after removing these people, the reputation is still out there.  Years later, people still ask “But isn’t there a problem with this community?”
  • The importance of fun is frequently mis-understood.  People work on projects because they want to have fun.
  • Conflict is good.  Ad hominem attacks aren’t.  Intel, for example, has a training program about how to argue/debate/fight constructively.
  • The Debian mailing list for example, used to have a few assholes.  People would subscribe, read a few posts, then leave – because it wasn’t fun.
  • How to find assholes?  Look for patterns.
    • ‘Cookie licking’ – who is the person who licks a cookie and puts it back on the table, so no one will touch it.  Happens all the time in open source projects.
    • Politicians – people who talk about the ‘community good’ when in fact, it’s about their personal benefit.
    • Backchannelers – people who are subversive in the background.
  • How do you test whether someone’s an asshole?  Two tests:
    • Do they feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized or belittled when you approach them about their behaviour?
    • Does the asshole target those less powerful?
  • How many good interactions does it take to cancel out one bad one?  On average 5 good : 1 bad
  • Check out ‘The No Asshole Rule‘ for one of the best books on the subject.
  • Assholes have an unequal impact.
  • The diversity of your community affects the extent to which assholes have impact.  Generally, men tend to fight.  Women tend to leave – ‘screw this, I’ll go do something else’.
  • 25% of people targeted by assholes, will leave.  Worse still, 20% of witnesses will leave – which has a tremendous impact when your entire community is a witness via mailing lists / IRC.
  • Cascading effects amplify the problem.
  • Unfortunately, assholes tend to attract more assholes.  In a large community, this can form in pockets and quickly spread throughout the project.
  • Measuring the cost:  TCA.  Total Cost of Asshole = Team lead + dev relations team + project leadership + recruiting & training new devs + targets and witnesses
  • Being a good participant in a project, means being co-operative and collaborative.
  • How to deal with assholes?
    • You cannot avoid it.
    • You need to talk to them, like they didn’t mean to cause this problem.  They’re trying to accomplish something and may not realize they’re being an asshole.
    • Guide them to the right types of behaviour.
  • Personal interaction is key.  You need a conference or user group meeting – something to get people face-to-face.
  • You need a way for people to report problems – and then act on them.
  • But you may reach a point where something more needs to be done.  We are not psychologists or therapists.  Sometimes people have to be told to leave.
  • How do you prevent asshole problems?
    • Culture is hard to change.
    • Reputation is hard to change.
    • The best thing to do, is be quantitative.  Get numbers.  Show that the social things have metrics: mailing lists, forums, community events, etc.
    • Keep your standards high. Not just technically, but socially. You’re not there to have a bad community, so make sure everyone meets your standards.
    • People can learn to write better code easily.  Learning to be a better person, is much harder.
    • Provide expectations.  At Gentoo, there’s a 3 strikes rule with escalating consequences – ending with dismissal from the project.
  • Bottom line – dealing with assholes isn’t worth it.
  • Audience comments and insights:
    • Break your project into small pieces to prevent the cookie-lickers.
    • Avoid social single points of failure.
  • Book recommendations:

Written by jlongland

July 20, 2012 at 11:40 am

Posted in OSCON 2012

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