Letters to an open source contributor: Trust

Open source software projects depend on a large group of passionate “do-ers,” who collaborate online to build or improve something that they all care about. Connections between contributors is frequently tenuous; you’re reviewing code or designs or discussing UI with people you may have never met or seen, and maybe never will. But you want to work together, toward a common goal, and working together requires trust.

Image from The New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner, 1993

It’s not easy to build trust among strangers via the internet, but it’s not impossible, and it’s worth your time. Strangers-on-the-internet-trust is fragile, though, so this is primarily habit-building work. Here’s my advice on how to build and keep trust in an open source project:

Be reliable

If you only take one piece of advice from this article, let it be this one. Trust is built, sometimes imperceptibly, by engaging in predictable, repetitive positive behavior over time. Even if you do not *intend* to show people you are trustworthy, if you repeatedly keep your promises, people will start to trust you. Predictable behavior makes people feel safe, so people will tend to have a more positive impression of reliable contributors, as well.

Warning: this goes the other way, too! If you repeatedly *fail* to keep your promises, or unpredictably attend meetings/give feedback/respond to comments, then people will — usually unconsciously — decide you are not trustworthy. Open source communities tend to be skeptical already, so it’s particularly difficult to prove you can be trusted, if you are not reliable.

Now obviously, the best laid plans “gang aft agley.” And a contributor community is made of humans, so they know that sometimes emergencies or unexpected things happen. If something comes up that will affect your ability to keep your promise, or delay your ability to do so, then you just need to tell people in advance. And if you can’t do something that affects other people’s ability to do work, then you need to find someone to cover for you, in advance.

If you don’t find someone to cover for you on some urgent or important work, it’s possible that someone else will jump in and handle it (this is an example of leading at any level). You’ll be tempted to think that, because people kept working despite your unreliable behavior, that the unreliable behavior had no impact. Wrong! People remember when you don’t keep your word. They will probably forgive you and they may keep liking you, but the trust they had in you is damaged. The more unreliable you are, the harder it is to convince people that *this time* you can be trusted.

Be realistic

Important! This is the most pernicious pattern I see, among well-meaning contributors.

Don’t give your word if you can’t keep it.

I know you want to do it all, I know it’s all important, I know people need help. But you do absolutely no good when you make promises that you can’t keep. In fact, you do damage to the effort, because you’re taking a contributor spot that might have been filled by someone who did have the time, but was just too timid to speak up, or was waiting to see if they were really needed. It’s harder to hand off work that you can’t do after all, than it is to get someone to do work that no one was doing in the first place.

Underestimate how much time you’ll have, and then work from that expectation. Doing more is always welcome, but doing less will cause problems for others. Even if you mean well, you will still lose trust by over-estimating your available time or skills.

Be consistently genuine

People don’t trust liars, for good reason. If you lie or try to deceive people in an organization, two things will happen:

  1. Word will spread. No one likes being deceived or manipulated, and they will complain to SOMEONE. This is prime gossip material. Open source communities are like small towns: we have no secrets.
  2. People will stop believing your word, even if you didn’t lie directly to them, AND even when you are telling the truth.

You can build trust back up after you’ve been reliable for a while, but overcoming your reputation as a liar is incredibly difficult. The best approach is to tell the truth or, if there’s a good reason you can’t, then say nothing at all. Smart people will hear both what you say and what you do not say.

Be generous

Weird, right? But people want to trust people they like, and people like people who help and care about them. So in order to build trust in an organization, be as generous as you can be: with your time, your feedback, your support, and your praise.

Photo by Zen Chung on Pexels.com

While we’re here, remember that one way to act “stingy” in open source is to take more than your share of credit for work. By lifting other people up higher than yourself, you demonstrate a generosity of spirit — humility, really — that shows up as a gift in open source.

Be generous with your attention, as well. People are more inclined to like and trust someone who is genuinely interested in their goals and well-being. Ask people how they’re doing, and remember details about their lives. Tell people when you notice they’re doing great work — and notice that great work in public, too.

What did I miss?

I’ve definitely fallen into a few of these patterns myself, so I know how easy it is to do. What are some other ways you see people making it more difficult to trust them? How do you judge whether you can trust someone? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Thanks for a great 10 years, WordPress!

My friends! After 10 years of working full-time on the WordPress open source project, I have some news: I have accepted a community-focused role at Reddit, and will be leaving Automattic in September.

I will take a break from contributing to WordPress until the end of the calendar year, if not permanently. I think the transition from a full-time, paid contributor to a part-time, volunteer contributor is made smoother with ample “reset” time.

Taken at WordCamp Toronto 2018

I was hired by Automattic in 2011 to implement a new WordCamp program, which had been designed and launched by Jen Mylo (Jane Wells at that time) and Matt Mullenweg. Helping WordPressers understand why it was necessary for them to follow rules/guidelines/expectations was… a challenge, I’m not going to lie! Looking back, I can clearly remember all of my mistakes, and only dimly remember my successes… but we’re all still here, so I guess we didn’t do too badly in the end.

Speakers, sponsors, volunteers, and attendees gather for the inaugural WordCamp US 2015 #wcus, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wordcampunitedstates/23801673750

Since starting that journey I’ve organized events large and small, advised/cajoled/cautioned/mentored/encouraged countless contributors, resolved and de-escalated conflicts, spoken at conferences, recruited innumerable contributors, and trained many, many leaders. I’ve helped onboard people and businesses all over the world to open source culture and philosophies, and helped bring people together to work on (and sometimes solve!) complex problems. I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve all accomplished together!

The “silly” group photo from the WordPress Community Summit 2017, in Paris

I am so grateful to have spent the last 10 years working with WordPress contributors. I don’t think there’s a better place to learn about and grow open source, and it’s been my honor to collaborate with so many ambitious & independent optimists over the years, even if we didn’t all always agree! I absolutely *LOVE* to learn new things, and the WordPress ecosystem has never failed to bring me valuable lessons on the regular.

I know that I’m leaving the people of WordPress in excellent hands with Josepha and all the other clever, compassionate leaders that have joined us over the years. I hope that, if you’re a WordPresser and you have the energy to help, that you’ll take every opportunity to lead at any level, making WordPress a little more friendly and welcoming for others. If I’ve helped you in any way, the best way to thank me is by helping someone else. Maybe even more-than-one someone else. 🙂

I plan to continue using this site to share my musings and learnings about community, open source, and leadership, as I discover what Reddit has to teach me. If you want to keep in touch, be sure to subscribe to this blog (in the footer), or come find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Thanks for all the fish, WordPress! It’s been a wonderful decade, and I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Even more tenderness, even more compassion

In the US, we hear the pandemic is ending. A billion people have been vaccinated worldwide, and government restrictions are relaxing in many places. I’ve been fully vaccinated, and my pod will be fully vaccinated by next weekend. I have plans to see family members I haven’t seen in almost a year, and I’m so grateful for the hard work and science that went into the rapid creation of the COVID vaccines. 

And I’m sad. I’m so very sad, and so very angry, and so very, very, VERY tired.

I thought I knew exactly how tired I could get, because 2020. This time last year, I was tired in my bones — the stress of uncertainty, invisible risk everywhere, supply chain failure, the late stages of the Trump re-election campaign and presidency… it was exhausting.

So much of that rotten stuff is gone now, and I don’t feel better.

UGH! I just don’t feel better, and it makes me both mad and afraid. Anyone with chronic mental illness or a history of trauma will be familiar with the thoughts that surge: “What if I never feel better again? What if my capacity for joy and peace is just gone? What if this broke me permanently, like nothing else has been able to do… quite… so far?”

I keep talking to people who feel the same way. “Things are getting better,” we tell each other. “Why don’t I feel better? I feel so sad, so unhappy; why?” We look at each other in shared, helpless, irritated anguish. 

Here’s the thing about traumatic events: when a crisis hits, many people (like me) shift into survival mode, and focus on getting through the crisis with minimum damage and risk. I’m excellent at this, and so is my partner. We both survived traumatic events in our past, so survival mode is even familiar, in an almost-comforting way. You put as many feelings aside as you can, and you get the job done. One foot in front of the other; take a breath, and keep moving. 

But of course feelings don’t just go away because I’ve gotten too busy for them. And when it’s time to get out of survival mode, the feelings are there, and they suck. 

This is a kind of delayed grief, even a delayed reaction to trauma, and as far as I know, the only way out is through.

Image of a small dejected child, head lowered, with hair covering face. Child is wearing a fluorescent yellow shirt. Image is very dark.

I know I’m not alone in this — all around me, I see co-workers, friends, and family struggling with exhaustion and deeply painful emotions. This is a time to be tender with ourselves. “But I’ve been reaching for gentleness, for patience and kindness all year, and last year too!” my stubborn brain might say, “Surely it’s time for something else!” 

“It’s time for even more,” says my heart. “It’s time for even more tenderness, even more compassion.” However you get there: whether you start by being compassionate with someone else, and then find that same compassion for yourself… or if you need to start with yourself first, and then bring it to others. 

Because you can’t get blood from a stone. Productivity may have to wait a while longer; goals may be delayed. Quality might have to slip in some places. We’re not back to normal yet; not even close.

If we must be wretched a while longer, let us do so with grace, and grant grace to others.

Three white wines from Firstleaf

Like many people, I’m starting to buy more wine online, which is a new one for me. (There are LOTS of new things happening lately, aren’t there? I’m not a fan.) In yet another unusual pattern, I clicked on an Instagram ad for Firstleaf wines, checked out the pricing and the wines, and made an impulsive purchase of 6 bottles: three whites and three red. Today I will tell you about the whites, and in a week or so I hope to tell you about the reds.

2018 Ophidian Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa

A photograph of Ophidian Sauvignon Blanc, next to a glass, in front of a computer.
2018 Ophidian Sauvignon Blanc

I was… dubious about this one, but if I’ve drunk a South African Sauvignon Blanc, I certainly don’t remember it well. Chenin Blanc is the white wine variety I associate most closely with South Africa, for good reason: it’s the most widely planted grape there, followed closely by Cabernet Sauvignon.

But Sauvignon Blanc isn’t super-hard to grow, and sometimes displays really distinctive character depending on the vineyard’s terrior, so I figured it was worth seeing if this wine fell more in the French tradition, the New Zealand tradition, or other.

According to the Wine Enthusiast in 2017, “Many Sauvignon Blancs from South Africa combine herbaceous notes and rich fruit.” I’m sure that could be true, but what got my attention about this wine was the creaminess on the nose, and the acidity which provided structure but not bitingly so. (My notes were: good bones but not in a knobbly way.) While Firstleaf was eager to tell me about the effusive citrus I’d be smelling here, I got a lot more tropical fruit — more of a mango/maguey situation, albeit possibly with a little lime squeezed over — than citrus-for-days. Happily, the acidity was enough to keep the tropical aspect from tripping over its train and falling into indolent lushness. I thoroughly enjoyed this wine, which stayed interesting to sniff and taste for three days in the fridge.

2018 Lazy Breeze Grüner Veltliner, Edna Valley California

2018 Lazy Breeze Grüner Veltliner

I frequently think of Grüner Veltliner as the whippet of white wine varieties. You know whippets: spare, lean to a fault, and nearly vibrating with nervous energy? Grüners can be like that: the wine version of a splash of ice water to the face. Whew! I’m awake now!

Originally from Austria, Grüner can serve up some unusual aromas: white pepper, celery, lentil (yum, right? feeling like opening a bottle yet?), and then your more typical wine-smells of citrus, peach, spice, and mineral. The wine can apparently age as well as Chardonnay and Riesling, but I’ve never been lucky enough to taste an aged Grüner.

I’ve also never had one from Edna Valley, which is a personal favorite California region for Pinot Noir. And it’s actually quite rare to find Grüner Veltliner grown in the US, even though it’s one of the most popular food wines out in the rest of the world. So! Anticipation!

Y’know, it was pretty darn good? Lime, lime, celery, lime, and celery. But not.. like, bad celery, you know? Good celery. There was a great minerality on the nose as well, which moderated the vegetal and citrus notes. This is definitely a whippet wine — no fat anywhere, and it’s quivering with acidity and VIM! but in a refreshing rather than nerve-wracking way. I enjoyed drinking this bottle over a few days as well. A night or two in the fridge (ok, maybe just one, the news was particularly disturbing those nights) did not do this wine any harm. Good stuff, would drink again. Went well with the Lays Barbecue potato chips I was snacking on for while, but would also be great with spicy Thai or Vietnamese food, or a brisk Veracruzana seafood cocktail, vuelve a la vida-style.

2019 Chanme Mechant Grenache Blanc, Pays d’Oc, France

2019 Chanme Mechant Grenache Blanc

My friend Kellie loves a Grenache Blanc. I’m… less enthusiastic, but well-disposed to be pleased. Firstleaf really wanted me to know they were proud of this one, and put a “92” sticker on it, letting me know it was award-winning. Ooh la la!

Don’t put too much stock in wine awards, friends — it’s not super-hard to find a wine contest that is willing to give out a gold medal or five, if you try hard enough. It’s not a BAD sign, but also needn’t make you weak in the knees.

Grenache Blanc is getting popular in the US I guess, as a full-bodied white wine that isn’t Chardonnay, which got too popular for a while? Grenache/Garnacha is from northern Spain originally, but is grown widely in France as well, and is used as a blending grape in the Rhone Valley, where they make very interesting white blends with grapes like Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier. Grenache Blanc usually inhabits the role of the drab in that lineup of blowsy, dramatic characters, so I suppose it’s cool that folx are finally putting the spotlight on Grenache Blanc itself. You go, GB!

This wine is plush. They oaked it, they gave it malolactic fermentation, they stirred the lees… this wine got the works. It’s heavily perfumed, with lots of cream and white flower scents, followed by peach (and also PEACH, and did we mention the peach?) on the nose, and a lot of body. Only 13% alcohol according to the fancy wine card they put in my shipment (that sounds snide, but I actually like that they send literature), but it tastes like there’s more alcohol in there — this thing has some heft. It’s not flabby, but it’s… fleshy. Ample. Rubinesque? Maybe not quite.

Drink this with pasta alfredo, fried fish, butter chicken, and maybe, just maybe, a paprikash? (Maybe not. That might be a bridge too far.) Of the three, this is the one I would be least likely to buy again, but I will say that it’s probably a much more affordable full-bodied & floral overperformer than single-variety Viogniers or Roussannes. So! Maybe I would buy it again if I had a rich meal to put it with. Or French Onion Sun Chips, which I might try with it tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it goes. Update: YASSSS the French onion sun chips are a perfect compliment to this wine. I’m not trash; you’re trash.

A first look at Firstleaf

The pejorative term for a company like Firstleaf is a “juice mill.” They buy from estates or wineries that have extra juice on their hands, and bottle it under their own label and sell it directly to consumers, neatly sidestepping the absurd American three-tier system for alcohol sales. I drink a fair amount of Trader Joe’s private label wine (now that I’m no longer “in the business” and have to buy my wine retail), and 90% of the time I find it to be an excellent value and very drinkable. I’ve never been one to buy from this kind of mail-order private label house, but heck, it’s a global pandemic! Try new things!

So far, so good? These last three wines are an *excellent* value at the discount price they gave me for my first order, which averaged out to about $6.50 per bottle. From now on, it looks like I’ll pay about $12-14 per bottle, which is still a good price for this quality of wine. Their offerings are not monolithic, and so far the wine has been consistently interesting. Does it express terrior? Is it the expression of place in a glass? Mmmmm no. Does it engage my intellect as well as my senses? Sure! Will I order from them again? Not sure yet! Stay tunes for my notes on the reds. 🙂

Musings from speculative fiction: Queen of the Tearling

As a lifelong fan of speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy), I read the genre for both leisure and intellectual stimulus. When a book or series captures my attention, it’s usually because at least a few of the following things are true: the plot is well-constructed, the characters are interesting/engaging, the writing is competent, and something in the story is relevant to my life (past or present).

Cover art for Queen of the Tearling, first book in the trilogy

The plot of the Tearling trilogy centers around a young woman who lived in isolation with two foster parents until she turned 19, at which point she leaves home to reclaim her dead mother’s throne. She is supported by a small group of soldiers, the Queen’s Guard, but has no real political support within the nobility, military, or clergy. She makes some rash through ethical political decisions upon taking the throne from her profoundly corrupt uncle — decisions that her impoverished nation does not have the power to back up. Luckily, magic saves her in a number of dangerous situations and shores up her credibility with her few supporters and the people.

I’m now reading the second book in the series, The Invasion of the Tearling, and what keeps hooking me is how her guard keeps urging this 19yo queen to avoid alienating other influential people in the kingdom… which she does anyway, because they’re all pretty corrupt and terrible. Her people maintain surveillance on her enemies but fail to share the information they have gathered with her. Thus (or perhaps despite this?) she keeps making rash decisions that seem to be lining her up for inevitable failure. I figure magic will intervene, but I really want to shout at the lot of them.

That said, it’s interesting to think about how one’s ability to lead is weakened by insecure connections both inside and outside one’s organization. Kelsea Glynn and her supporters apparently accept that there are some things she should not know, which makes it harder for her to do her job, and harder for her supporters to do theirs. Whatever obstacles my team and I face, I hope that we always go into it fully united through communication and unity of purpose — especially since we can’t count on magical sapphires to bail us out of sticky situations.

A walk along Johnson Creek

Your 30 seconds of Johnson-Creek-watching zen

I took a walk around midday, today — between rain showers — and stopped to watch the rushing waters of our swollen local creek. I like living close to water, even when it’s a (usually) small body. There’s something both evocative and calming for me, watching the points of movement and stillness — I find myself thinking about where in my life I am the rock, and where I am the water… and remembering how I am also the creek itself.

Today I am really enjoying listening to the audiobook version of The Anatomy of Peace, a book about conflict resolution. It’s a little corny in places, but also has some rich, powerful ideas that I’m enjoying revisiting. For example, I am reminded that, “We separate from each other at our peril.” Following the example of the characters in the book, my thoughts flow and eddy around the people that I have, in large and small ways, distanced myself from.

Meal plan for Jan 25-31

One of the ways I ensure our family eats healthfully while managing my mid-week stress, is to plan out our meals every week. I try to incorporate leftovers from other meals, as you can see below. I also consider what kind of evening activities we might have scheduled, and if I know an evening will be rushed, make that dinner dish on the weekend if I can.

Here’s this week’s plan:

  • Sat: Indian Butter Chickpeas w/rice (pictured)
  • Sun: cannellini bean pasta with beurre blanc
  • Mon: fried rice w/leftover poached chicken (make ahead)
  • Tues: chicken and wild rice soup (make ahead)
  • Wed: black bean bowls
  • Thurs: leftovers
  • Fri: pizza
  • The lost city of Bayocean

    If you enjoy watching short documentaries, and you’re interested in learning more about Oregon, you might check out the Oregon Public Broadcasting show called Oregon Field Guide.

    Tonight I watched a really interesting and very sad episode about the lost city of Bayocean, Oregon. Apparently in 1907, a family of real estate developers founded a resort town on a spit in Tillamook Bay, which they marketed as “The Atlantic City of the West.” The town was built, lots were sold and things were thriving… until a single jetty was built on the north side of the bay entrance. Because a southern jetty was not built, ocean currents immediately began eroding the land that Bayocean was built on, until eventually the town had to be abandoned. Everyone who had invested in the town or bought their retirement home there… lost everything.

    Stories like this always make me so hungry for more detailed background on how these civil engineering decisions were made, and what motivated the people who made the final calls that basically condemned an entire resort development. (Not that I think it was necessarily the wrong decision; just because something is built doesn’t mean it has the right to exist or should be prioritized over other things that have also been built, or y’know, people.) 

    Seemingly simple decisions can result in so many unforeseen consequences, and can affect people who weren’t considered when the decision was being made. I wonder what the relevant Army Corps of Engineers leadership regrets about Bayocean, if anything. (Maybe nothing at all!)

    Good things

    When your job involves a lot of finding where things are broken and fixing them, it’s easy to get in the habit of only paying attention to broken things. To help me offset all the criticism I regularly pile on my own head (there’s a lot), a friend recommended a simple little app called 3 Good Things.

    It’s so basic that it seems absurd to have an app for this, but the design is friendly and spare, which I like. You set a time to receive the prompt, “What went well today?” And then you can journal about the high points of the day. On some no-good, very bad days, I confess I just write things like “had a nice cup of tea” or “tv on the couch” or “my socks are warm.” On better days, there’s better stuff, like “great conversation at dinner” or “the kids’s joy at the trapeze lesson.”

    A mobile screenshot of the 3 Good Things App Store listing

    It’s silly and minimal, but it helps me notice where hope, love, and sometimes even joy, are hiding in my life. You might like it too?

    Dancing with production

    I always enjoy the excellent podcast Hurry Slowly (hat tip Josepha Haden Chomphosy for the recommendation), and a recent episode called “Are you Satisfiable?” really resonated with me this week. The episode centers on the ideas of writer, facilitator, and activist adrienne maree brown, who recently published the book Pleasure Activism.

    The whole interview is wonderful, but this particular passage caught my attention:

    I think in the workplace, it’s been interesting to see how that kind of thinking, like “oh everything should be scheduled and controlled and managed,” moves us further and further away from the natural and organic rhythms at which creativity and miracle actually want to happen.

    And I’m getting curious and interested about spaces that are starting to adapt to… what does it mean to acknowledge that we have organic human beings, um, in these places, and that there are processes that have an organic pace to them….

    There’s something about being in right relationship to change that acknowledges that not all change is mean to be driven; some of it is meant to be experienced in other ways. And that perhaps the changes we’re in now, which are climate apocalypse changes, perhaps those changes are only happening because we’ve been trying to drive production, and instead we need to slow down and learn to dance with it, dance with what’s happening in the world, and I’m really getting curious about that.

    adrienne maree brown, on the Hurry Slowly podcast “Are you Satisfiable?”

    Personally, I am very comfortable when everything is scheduled and controlled and managed, but have found that I am much more able to think creatively when I am not scheduling and controlling and managing.

    Likewise, I frequently find myself with a seed of an idea, that escapes me when I try to force it into being. If I leave it alone, though (I think of it as allowing the idea to gestate in my “back brain”), the seed is much more likely to grow and bear fruit. It resonates with me that my organic brain might best create on an organic pace.

    I also love the idea of dancing with production, rather than trying to drive it. So much of technology work — development, design, documentation, support — is creative work. What could happen if more respect and space were given to the non-linear, non-schedule-able process of creation?

    Innovation and Empathy for Loss

    In reading Megan Risdal‘s excellent article, Reflections on Stack Overflow: Building Successful Communities, I was struck by a particular passage:

    Have empathy. Loss aversion is a very real thing. Even if simplifying something is the best thing for users by all other accounts, taking something away still hurts. And this impacts not just end users, but the people who originally worked on a feature. You can have empathy by understanding how they use the feature and asking about the historical context around its original creation.

    – Megan Risdal, Reflections on Stack Overflow: Building Successful Communities

    Here’s a good definition of loss aversion: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-loss-aversion/

    I think technologists in particular — because we are so fond of innovation — tend to look down on people who express aversion to loss. That disparaging attitude isn’t very respectful, and thus doesn’t lead to very respectful or productive conversations.

    Certainly, change is a part of life, but likewise every change is a kind of a death — perhaps the death of something that should die, but any loss can cause deep sadness… and even a crisis of belonging. When innovating, it’s worth asking yourself whether you can find a way to give people the space to grieve the loss associated with the change, holding space for their pain, rather than just brushing them off as short-sighted enemies of progress.