Open Source Rules of Engagement

The Eclipse Development Process (EDP) defines–in its section on principles–three open source rules of engagement: Openness, Transparency, and Meritocracy:

Open – Eclipse is open to all; Eclipse provides the same opportunity to all. Everyone participates with the same rules; there are no rules to exclude any potential contributors which include, of course, direct competitors in the marketplace.

Transparent – Project discussions, minutes, deliberations, project plans, plans for new features, and other artifacts are open, public, and easily accessible.

Meritocracy – Eclipse is a meritocracy. The more you contribute the more responsibility you will earn. Leadership roles in Eclipse are also merit-based and earned by peer acclaim.

In more concise terms, transparency is about inviting participation; openness is about actually accepting it; and meritocracy is a means of limiting participation to those individuals who have demonstrated the desire and means to actually participate.

Transparency is one of those things that I believe most people understand in principle. Do everything in public: bug reports are public, along with all discussion; mailing lists are public; team meetings are public and minutes are captured (and disseminated). By operating transparently, the community around the project can gain insight into the direction that the project is moving and adjust their plans accordingly.

In practice, however, transparency is difficult to motivate in the absence of openness. What is the value to the community of discussing every little detail of an implementation in public? Does anybody really care? The fact of the matter is that a lot of people really don’t care. Most users of Eclipse are blissfully unaware that we even have bug tracking software and mailing lists. But some people do care, and transparency is a great way to hook those people who do are and get them to participate.

A lot of open source projects understand transparency. A lot, however, don’t understand openness. They’re not the same thing. To be “open” means that a project is “open” to participation. More than that, an “open” invites and actively courts participation. Participation in an open source project takes many forms. It starts by creating bug reports and providing patches, tests, and other bits of code. Overtime, contribution increases, and–eventually–some contributors become full-blown members of the project. Courting the community for contributors should be one of the first-class goals of every open source project.

But openness isn’t just about getting more help to implement your evil plans for world domination. It’s also about allowing participants to change your evil plans for world domination. Openness is about being open to new ideas, even–as the EDP states–if those new ideas come from your direct competitors in the marketplace. A truly open project actively courts diversity. Having different interests working together is generally good for the overall health of an open source project and the community that forms around it.

Reference: Open Source Rules of Engagement from our JCG partner Wayne Beaton at the Eclipse Hints, Tips, and Random Musings blog.

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