April 22nd 2000, 23:59 EST

Non-Developer Supporters in Free Software

Copyright © 2000 , All Rights Reserved.

Jacob Moorman of the Marble Horse Free Software Group writes: "With the increase in size of many new and long-term Free Software development projects, it is important to recognize the crucial value non-developers may hold in advancing the efforts of these projects."

They may stand outside the spotlight on the project. They may not invest time in writing code. Whether they are on the listed staff of a project or not, project supporters who do not contribute code still play a crucial role in the day-to-day perception, acceptance, and strength of most Free Software projects. The people most frequently recognized in conjunction with a project are the administrative staff (maintainer or lead developer) and the developers who contribute the largest portions or most important portions to the code base for the project. What of the others?

Developers usually test their changes prior to submitting them for inclusion in the project, though the time it takes to do a complete evaluation of these changes is enormous. Many projects have official test staff, people who download the latest project materials and invest a considerable amount of time validating software functionality and bug fixes. Other projects have unofficial test staff, people who seem to live for new releases, downloading them as soon as they become available. The reports of testing staff help make a Free Software project smoother, generating a higher quality final product and reducing the amount of time developers need to spend doing things other than writing code.

General project supporters come in many flavors. Some aid in the propagation of the software, assisting in large implementations of the software or installfests, or providing inexpensive physical media (such as CDs) containing the software. Others provide themselves as a support resource for the product, helping new users with the installation or implementation of the software, responding to concerns on mailing lists, and providing direct support via IRC for other end-users. Project supporters play an important role which reduces the amount of time developers and administrators need to invest in support, the foundation of all good projects.

Why are testing staff and general project supporters not often recognized for their efforts? In some cases, it is because the administration of a project is unaware of their efforts; people providing unofficial assistance do not always make their efforts known to the administration. In other cases, it is because developers and administrative staff may not understand the importance of these volunteers; they may ask more questions of the developers at times, but certainly reduce the overall question load.

It is my belief that administrative staff of Free Software projects should seek out information on people helping to support their efforts. These details should be showcased, not tucked away behind the scenes. Granted, some project supporters may not want to be in the spotlight, but I suspect most would not feel adversely about receiving due recognition.

On a few development projects, there is one other class which is often overlooked in correspondence, the end-user. It is important that every end-user receive a response to her question, even if the answer is one stating that the software is not yet ready for public consumption. To ignore the comments of end-users, the issues they most frequently report during installation or use, or requests for assistance, is to abandon the best interests of your project. Without end-users and general support staff, who does your project help and who would be there to support them on a day-to-day basis?

To those who already make effort in recognizing those who support their projects, I applaud. For those not already making effort to recognize excellence in non-developers, I propose some basic things you can do to encourage this type of behavior. First, post a Web page containing the names of those you wish to recognize for their efforts. Even if they stop these efforts in the future, leave their names on the recognition list; consider this an honor roll. Second, consider including them in project decisions you feel may affect them or may be of interest to them. Finally, give them verbal encouragement for their efforts; people who are thanked for their efforts are much more likely to continue in this capacity.

With the growth of Free Software worldwide, we must increase awareness of how people may help these projects and recognize those who already support our efforts. Most of our greatest supporters know no programming languages.

is the Project Lead (and an active developer) for the Marble Horse Free Software Group (though by day, he currently works as a Systems Programmer/Analyst for a healthcare-related corporation). In conjunction with the Marble Horse Free Software Group, he supports the use and development of a wide variety of Free Software solutions in programming, documentation, and advocacy.

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