Mozilla, Community

Making contribution work for Firefox tooling and data projects

Nov 26th, 2018

One of my favorite parts about Mozilla is mentoring and working alongside third party contributors. Somewhat surprisingly since I work on internal tools, I’ve had a fair amount of luck finding people to help work on projects within my purview: mozregression, perfherder, metrics graphics, and others have all benefited from the contributions of people outside of Mozilla.

In most cases (a notable exception being metrics graphics), these have been internal-tooling projects used by others to debug, develop, or otherwise understand the behaviour of Firefox. On the face of it, none of the things I work on are exactly “high profile cutting edge stuff” in the way, say, Firefox or the Rust Programming Language are. So why do they bother? The exact formula varies depending on contributor, but I think it usually comes down to some combination of these two things:

  1. A desire to learn and demonstrate competence with industry standard tooling (the python programming language, frontend web development, backend databases, “big data” technologies like Parquet, …).
  2. A desire to work with and gain recognition inside of a community of like-minded people.

Pretty basic, obvious stuff — there is an appeal here to basic human desires like the need for security and a sense of belonging. Once someone’s “in the loop”, so to speak, generally things take care of themselves. The real challenge, I’ve found, is getting people from the “I am potentially interested in doing something with Mozilla internal tools” to the stage that they are confident and competent enough to work in a reasonably self-directed way. When I was on the A-Team, we classified this transition in terms of a commitment curve:

prototype commitment curve graphic by Steven Brown

The hardest part, in my experience, is the initial part of that curve. At this point, people are just dipping their toe in the water. Some may not have a ton of experience with software development yet. In other cases, my projects may just not be the right fit for them. But of course, sometimes there is a fit, or at least one could be developed! What I’ve found most helpful is “clearing a viable path” forward for the right kind of contributor. That is, some kind of initial hypothesis of what a successful contribution experience would look like as a new person transitions from “explorer” stage in the chart above to “associate”.

I don’t exactly have a perfect template for what “clearing a path” looks like in every case. It depends quite a bit on the nature of the contributor. But there are some common themes that I’ve found effective:

First, provide good, concise documentation both on the project’s purpose and vision and how to get started easily and keep it up to date. For projects with a front-end web component, I try to decouple the front end parts from the backend services so that people can yarn install && yarn start their way to success. Being able to see the project in action quickly (and not getting stuck on some mundane getting started step) is key in maintaining initial interest.

Second, provide a set of good starter issues (sometimes called “good first bugs”) for people to work on. Generally these would be non-critical-path type issues that have straightforward instructions to resolve and fix. Again, the idea here is to give people a sense of quick progress and resolution, a “yes I can actually do this” sort of feeling. But be careful not to let a contributor get stuck here! These bugs take a disproportionate amount of effort to file and mentor compared to their actual value — the key is to progress the contributor to the next level once it’s clear they can handle the basics involved in solving such an issue (checking out the source code, applying a fix, submitting a patch, etc). Otherwise you’re going to feel frustrated and wonder why you’re on an endless treadmill of writing up trivial bugs.

Third, once a contributor has established themselves by fixing a few of these simple issues, I try to get to know them a little better. Send them an email, learn where they’re from, invite them to chat on the project channel if they can. At the same time, this is an opportunity to craft a somewhat larger piece of work (a sort of mini-project) that they can do, tailored to the interests. For example, a new contributor on the Mission Control has recently been working on adding Jest tests to the project — I provided some basic guidance of things to look at, but did not dictate exactly how to perform the task. They figured that out for themselves.

As time goes by, you just continue this process. Depending on the contributor, they may start coming up with their own ideas for how a project might be improved or they might still want to follow your lead (or that of the team), but at the least I generally see an improvement in their self-directedness and confidence after a period of sustained contribution. In either case, the key to success remains the same: sustained and positive communication and sharing of goals and aspirations, making sure that both parties are getting something positive out of the experience. Where possible, I try to include contributors in team meetings. Where there’s an especially close working relationship (e.g. Google Summer of Code). I try to set up a weekly one on one. Regardless, I make reviewing code, answering questions, and providing suggestions on how to move forward a top priority (i.e. not something I’ll leave for a few days). It’s the least I can do if someone is willing to take time out to contribute to my project.

If this seems similar to the best practices for how members of a team should onboard each other and work together, that’s not really a coincidence. Obviously the relationship is a little different because we’re not operating with a formal managerial structure and usually the work is unpaid: I try to bear that mind and make double sure that contributors are really getting some useful skills and habits that they can take with them to future jobs and other opportunities, while also emphasizing that their code contributions are their own, not Mozilla’s. So far it seems to have worked out pretty well for all concerned (me, Mozilla, and the contributors).