-Ofun for Whom?

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A fundamental, rarely-questioned piece of wisdom about free software is that it works best when it scratches the itches of its developers.

(You can tell when someone's passionate about something. You can also tell when that someone has no love for the work; the results often differ. Then again, passionate people made the movies Plan Nine from Outer Space, Avatar, and Manos: The Hands of Fate.)

What could motivate someone to work on something outside of work hours? What could motivate someone to spend time solving a hard problem for the challenge of it? For status? For low pay? For hope of a future benefit?

A few years ago, Audrey Tang described Optimizing for Fun, a project organization strategy for cultivating new contributors by lowering the barriers to contribution and relentlessly encouraging even the smallest progress as valuable, desirable, and sustainable.

More projects could benefit from that, in and out of software, in and out of business, in and out of the world of volunteers, professionals, dilettantes, and amateurs.

The 20th century author and theologian C. S. Lewis suggested that every vice is a virtue misapplied. (To belabor the point, gluttony—one of the seven deadly sins as borrowed by Gregory the first pope from a fourth century monk—is the misapplication of the legitimate enjoyment of food. Lewis was no stoic.)

What's -Ofun misapplied? Does this sound familiar?

We must remember that, from what we can see, the $foo project's primary mission in life is providing entertainment for $foo developers, not convenience or stability for $foo users. Which is understandable given that volunteers, who make up the vast majority of $foo developers, tend to do whatever it is they do for fun, not for drudgery.

That could apply to many projects. (Relevant context: a comment by user anselm on LWN.net's story "Free is too expensive".

Fixing bugs isn't always fun. Keeping an old and crufty API around until users have time to migrate off of it isn't always fun. Making and meeting promises about release dates isn't always fun. Writing documentation isn't always fun. Holding back new features in favor of improving existing ones isn't always fun.

Sometimes supporting real actual users—not just hobbyist developers who already think downloading and compiling the new version out of your repository is fun—sometimes takes work and effort.

As a developer, each of us gets to decide the degree to which we pursue things we find enjoyable. If it stops being enjoyable, you have every right (even the responsibility) to change your situation to make it more fun or to leave it for someone else to do. Your obligation is to do the best work you decide you are obligated to do. Nothing more, nothing less.

... but if your desire to do the fun bits exceeds your willingness to put in the hard work to understand what your users want and need and expect, at least do them the courtesy of not acting surprised when they tell you of their disappointment. You might Osborne your project, like Rakudo did.

2 Comments

How cruel, putting Avatar and Manos: the Hands of Fate in the same sentence.

Manos was a much better comedy than Avatar.

I completely agree.

A flip side, though, is that users have a role to play in -Ofun also. Showing appreciation helps. So does being modest in demands (features and time frames). As does being understanding of changes that break things for the sake of progress.

A mindset of "don't ever do anything new, just fix what is there now, and do it all for free" is not a mindset that fosters -Ofun.

It's a balancing act. Too much user focus and not enough developer fun leads to fewer developers. Too much developer fun and not enough user focus leads to fewer users. The best projects are in the sweet spot where what users want is also what's fun for developers to work on.

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This page contains a single entry by chromatic published on April 4, 2012 6:00 AM.

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