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Apache Community Development Website: Join the Party!

Ross Gardler
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Last week, JAXenter reported that the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) has launched a new Community Development website to encourage newbies to get involved in Apache-hosted open source projects. JAXenter spoke with Ross Gardler, service manager and Member of the Apache Software Foundation, about the new website:

JAXenter: You recently launched the ASF Community Development website. What’s the main objective of the site?

Ross Gardler: For newcomers to Apache projects it can be quite difficult to get started as a contributor. For those of us who have been around for some time it seems simple – join the developer mailing list, check out the code, review the issue tracker and get going – but for those who are entirely new, and possibly at an early stage of their career, this is very hard to do.

Furthermore, many of the project web sites assume that visitors already know something of how an Apache project works. The information about how to participate can be hidden behind more technical or user focussed documentation.

The Community Development project aims to provide an entry point for everyone new to Apache projects. It will become a place for people to find introductory materials and people who are willing to answer those important “newbie” questions about The Apache Way (the pet name for our software development process.) The goal is to give people the confidence to approach their chosen project with confidence.

JAXenter: What motivated the Apache Software Foundation to launch a website, specifically aimed at encouraging newcomers to participate in the open source community? Do you feel the Apache community needs an influx of new developers?

Ross Gardler: It’s certainly not that we are short of developers. The ASF is growing at an increasingly fast rate as is reported by Jim Jaglielski, the ASF Chairman each year at ApacheCon (see 05:40 and 08:08 in the opening plenary from ApacheCon US for most recent figures)

This growth is in the form of new projects via the incubator, new committers, new members and new committees to address foundation level issues. The ASF is growing at such a rate that it can be difficult to know where to go for specific information. It’s a bit like entering a large party on your own, the first few minutes before you connect with someone can be really uncomfortable, but if you have someone with you, or you know where to find the right person, things are much easier.

The goal of the Community Development project is to give people enough confidence to enter the party.

We can do this by providing information about how a typical ASF project works, where possible we will provide mentors to help get settled in.

There were a number of motivating factors, including (but not limited to):

- the success of our involvement with GSoC

- the success of the Incubator for building new communities through mentoring

- increasing requests from third parties for speakers at their events

JAXenter: A sizeable portion of the Community Development website is concerned with mentoring and formal mentoring, is ASF currently looking to extend these areas?

Ross Gardler: Yes. The ASF has been a participant in Google Summer of Code (GSoC) since it started in 2005. Each year we mentor a great many students and each year we have more mentors than slots allocated by Google.

The GSoC programme is fantastic and we applaud Google for leading the way. However, at the ASF (and in most open source projects) non-code contributions are just as important as code contributions.

Documentation, translations, design, testing, evangelism and many more activities do not require programming skills. Whereas GSoC is a Summer of ***code***, it is only interested in programmers.

Furthermore, GSoC is aimed at students, but open source for those already in employment.

The ASF mentoring program will seek to match mentees of any background with appropriate mentors. We have our first mentee starting right now, with Kathey Marsden as mentor, we expect to really push the programme later this year.

JAXenter: The strength of many Apache Processes has always been that they were not strictly formal and consequently non-bureaucratic. Do we see a new formalism coming up at ASF?

Ross Gardler: To increase the level of bureaucracy in the ASF would be a mistake. The processes we adopt have been tuned over the last ten years and are now a proven way of creating and developing highly reliable and successful software products. We don’t want to increase bureaucracy, we want to ensure people understand how things work and why they work.

Whilst there are few formal processes, there are many conventions that have emerged over the years. These are recognised by the “old timers” and applied automatically because they have been proven to work. Without these conventions, and the ability to tweak them as necessary on a case-by-case basis, there would be no repeatable process.

Because these conventions have emerged over the last ten years, they are very rich and very deep. However, they are often undocumented and therefore it can be very difficult for newcomers to understand what they are and why they exist.

We should also recognise that the ASF is not completely devoid of formal process. Some level of formality is required for legal and strategic reasons, both at foundation level and at project level. For example, the process for accepting a third party contribution is clearly defined.

Without a formal process to document the provenance of a third party contribution the foundation would not be able to protect the software produced by its projects. Again, understanding these processes and the history behind them is very important for contributors who become more engaged as Members of the foundation.

The Community Development project is a place where we welcome questions about why things are done the way they are. We will not hold all the answers and we won’t be setting policy, instead we are a first point of contact for people unsure of where to go for assistance.

JAXenter: How has the reaction to the website been so far? Have many newcomers signed up? And what do you think they’re taking from the experience?

Ross Gardler: It’s way too early to comment really.

We have done no publicity for the project yet. Some people, like yourself, have come across us, but we are not actively seeking mentees yet. Despite this, our first mentee just started work this month and we are currently seeking a mentor for our second. Having said that, we welcome approaches from people interested in the program and we’ll do our best to find a mentor.

Our plan has always been to launch the mentor program formally either after GSoC 2010 has started (if Google run it this year) or if there is no GSoC we’ll run it in place of GSoC. So come back and ask this question in about six months’ time ;-)

JAXenter: Thank you very much!

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