The ability for users to submit patches is often touted by advocates of open source software. “Patches welcome!” is a common refrain on mailing lists. Even if someone lacks the ability to diagnose and fix an issue, they can file a bug in the project’s system. Indeed, there’s an unwritten social expectation that users file a bug.
Sadly, these are often just empty words. “Patches welcome” can be a seemingly-polite way of saying “your problem is not important to me. Go solve it yourself and I’ll accept your solution.” And telling a user to go file a bug can be equally dismissive, especially if the bug-filing process is unpleasant.
I certainly don’t mean to imply that all or even most open source developers use these phrases as a polite cover for their disinterest. There are jerks, of course, but I suspect most developers genuinely want bug reports and patches. Last week, a very busy developer replied to a mailing list post with a terse “file a bug.” Now, I happen to know this particular developer and I know he’s keenly interested in fixing bugs. On this day, he was swamped and didn’t have time to get to the issue right away. Suspecting from the original email that the user who reported the bug wasn’t deeply technical, I took the liberty of reproducing the issue and filing a bug with the details.
Would the person who originally reported the issue have filed the bug done so if I hadn’t? We’ll never know, but I do know that he didn’t by the time I did. After creating a Red Hat Bugzilla account, selecting the right options, and filling out the bug report, he’d have to hope the developer meant it and that he bug would get fixed. As anyone who has been around a while can attest, just because a bug is filed, that doesn’t guarantee it will be fixed in the next few years.
One particular bug that I filed sticks in my memory. It was undeniably a bug, I attached a patch to fix it, and yet the bug remained untouched through several Fedora releases. Granted, it was a relatively minor issue, but if I weren’t involved with the project, I’d have been pretty put off by this. Of course, no one owes me a fix, but as Chris Siebenmann noted, if there’s a social obligation to file a bug, there’s also a social obligation to deal with the bug.
This morning,I asked on Twitter if anyone had what they’d call a “positive” bug reporting experience (as opposed to simply a not-negative experience). I was pleasantly surprised when several people chimed in to say they had. Small projects were generally the ones that drew the good responses (Jordan Sissel was mentioned by multiple people).
So what makes for a positive experience? Rapid acknowledgement and resolution were mentioned several times. Those who replied mentioned courteous and helpful interactions (e.g. asking constructive questions, filing an appropriate bug when the original bug was mis-filed). @phrawzty summed it up well: “Most importantly, however: good intentions were assumed. I never felt treated like a dangerous outsider.”
This is an area wide open for study (and I may end up doing just that), but in the meantime projects should consider how they present themselves. Large projects with more resources should make an active effort to devote some time to bug handling as a community outreach effort (I suspect large projects have worse bug experiences, in part due to the fact that nobody owns the process). When you say “patches welcome” or “file a bug”, consider what you’re really saying and if people will take it the way you mean it.
(Thanks to those who provided feedback: @cpj1, Matt Simmons, Matthew General, Patrick Cable, @phrawzty, Rick Waldron, @SysAdm Dredd, Thomas Ballinger, @Twirrim, and anyone else I failed to mention.)