Working in a bubble, contributing outside of it

The holiday season is usually a great time for personal projects, particularly for people like me who don’t go back “home” with “the family” — quotes needed, since for me home is where I am (London) and where my family is (me and my wife.) Work tends to be more relaxed – even with the added pressure of completing the OKRs for the quarter, and to define those for the next – and given that there is no public transport going on, the time saved in commuting also adds up to an ideal time to work on hobbies.

Unfortunately, this year I’m feeling pretty useless on this front, and I thought this uselessness feeling is at least something I can talk about for the dozen-or-so remaining readers of this blog, in an era of social media and YouTube videos. If this sounds very dismissive, it’s probably because that is the feeling of irrelevancy that took over me, and something that I should probably aim to overcome in 2020, one way or another.

If you are reading this post, it’s likely that you noticed my FLOSS contributions waning and pretty much disappearing over the past few years, except for my work around glucometerutils, and the usbmon-tools package (that kind-of derives off it.) I have contributed the odd patch to the Linux kernel, and more recently to some of the Python typing tooling, but those are really drive-by contributions as I found time for.

Given some of the more recent Twitter threads on Google’s policies around open source contributions, you may wonder if it is related to that, and the answer is “not really”. Early on, I was granted an IARC approval for me to keep working on unpaper (which turned out possibly overkill), for the aforementioned glucometerutils, and for some code I wrote while reverse engineering my gaming mouse. More recently, I’ve leveraged the simplified patching policy, and granted approval for releasing both usbmon-tools and tanuga (although the latter is only released as a skeleton right now.)

So I have all the options, and all the opportunities, to contribute FLOSS projects while in employment of a big multinational Internet company. Why don’t I do that more, then? I think the answer is that I work in a bubble for most of the day, and when I try to contribute something on my spare time, I find myself missing the support structure that the bubble gives me.

I want to make clear here that I’m not saying that everything is better in the bubble. Just that the bubble is soft and warm enough that makes the world outside of it scary, sometimes annoying, but definitely more vast. And despite a number of sensible tools being available out there (and in many cases, better tools), it takes a significant investment in researching the right way to do something, to the point that I suffer from CBA syndrome.

The basic concepts are not generally new: people have talked out loud at conferences about the monorepo, my friend Dinah McNutt spoke and wrote at length about Rapid, the release system we use internally, and that drives the automatic releases, and so on. If you’re even more interested in the topic, this March the book Software Engineering at Google will be released by O’Reilly. I have not read it myself, but I have interacted on and off with two of the curators and I’m sure it’s going to be worth its weight in gold.

Some of the tools are also being released, even if sometimes in modified ways. But even when they are, the amount of integration you may have internally is lost when trying to use them outside. I have considered using Bazel for glucometerutils in the past — but in addition to be a fairly heavy dependency, there’s no easy way to reference most of the libraries that glucometerutils need. At the end of the day, it was not worth trying to use it, despite making my life easier by reducing the cognitive load of working on opensource projects in my personal time.

Possibly the main “support beam” of the bubble, though, is the opinionated platform, which can be seen from the outside in form of the style guides but extends further. To keep the examples related to glucometerutils, while the tests do use absl‘s parameterized class, they are written in a completely different style than I would do at work, and they feel wrong when it comes to importing the local copy of the module to test it. When I looked around to figure out what’s the best practice to write tests in Python, I could find literally dozens of blog posts, StackOverflow answers, documentation for testing frameworks, that all gave slightly different answers. In the bubble you have (pretty much) one way to write the basic test — and while people can be creative even within those guidelines, creativity is usually frown upon.

The same is true for release engineering. As I noted and linked above, all of the release grunt work is done by the Rapid tool in the bubble — and for the most part it’s automated. While there’s definitely more than one way to configure the tool, at least you know which tool to use. And while different teams have often differing opinions on those configurations, you can at least find the opinion of your team, or the closest team to you with an Opinion (with the capital O) and follow that — it might not be perfect for your use, but if it’s allowed it usually means it was reviewed and vouched for (or copy-pasted from something else that was.)

An inside joke from the Google bubble is that the documentation is always out of date and never to be trusted. Beside the unfairness of the joke to the great tech writers I had pleasure to work with, who are more than happy to make sure the documentation is not out of date (but need to know that’s the case, and most of them don’t find out until it’s too late), the truth is that at least we do have documentation for most processes and tools. The outside world has tons of documentation, and some of it is out of date, and it’s very hard to tell whether it’s still correct and valid.

Trying to figure out how to configure a CI/CD tool for a Python project on GitHub (or worse, trying to figure out how to make it release valid packages on PyPI!) still feels like going by the early 2000s HOWTOs, where you hope that the three years old description of the XFree86 configuration file is still matching the implementation (hint: it never did.) Lots of the tools are not easy to integrate, and opting into them takes energy (and sometimes money) — the end result of which is that despite me releasing usbmon-tools nearly a year ago, you still need an unreleased dependency, as the fix I needed for it is not present in any released version, and I haven’t dared bothering the author to ask for a new release yet.

It’s very possible that if I was not working in a bubble all of these issues wouldn’t be be big unknowns — probably if I spend a couple of weeks reviewing the various options for CI/CD I can come up with a good answer for setting up automated releases, and then I can go to the dependency’s author and say “Hey, can I set this up for you?” and that would solve my problem. But that is time I don’t really have, when we’re talking about hobby projects. So I end up opening up the editor in the Git repository I want to work on, add a dozen line or so of code to something I want to do, and figure out that I’m missing the tool, library, interface, opinion, document, procedure that I need, feel drained, and close the editor without having committed – let alone pushed – anything.