Sunday, February 4, 2007

How to Post on an Open Source Mailing List

I was going through some slide presentations on my computer and I stumbled upon a deck that my friend Renaud Richardet presented on my panel at the 2006 Boston Gilbane Conference. Renaud talked about how to join a community and gave some tips on getting help from a mailing list. Looking at some lists that I subscribe to, it looks like this advice needs to get out more. If you find no one is answering your questions, it might not be the community. It might be you. Sometimes someone will (perhaps brusquely) rebuke you for poor forum manners. Other times you might be ignored or (worse) silently blacklisted. To prevent this from happening, I suggest you practice the following habits:
  • Lots of projects have guidelines for using the mailing list. Read them and follow them. They often include some good advice like you see here.
  • Do your homework before posting on the list. Search the archives. Read the documentation. Only ask after you have tapped existing resources and came up blank - not because you are too busy to try. Everyone else is busy too.
  • Indicate the work that you have done in your post by saying things like "I followed these instructions (with link) and this is what I am seeing" and "I tried the following approaches."
  • Give as much background information as possible including what you are trying to do, the version of the components you are working with, your platform, code snippets, and excerpts from your log files (BTW, be sure to edit down your log files to remove confidential information such as passwords etc.).
  • Even if your problem is urgent, don't treat the community like they are your paid help. Avoid demanding language in ALL CAPS, etc. No tantrums allowed.
  • If you are really stuck, many projects have IRC channels that may give you more a immediate response. It is a good idea to hang out in these channels to get to know the community and learn. Sometimes the conversation may lean toward the social/fun side. Feel free to participate.
  • If your request does not get a response, reply to your message with more information that shows you are still working on the problem and are trying different things. This will also bubble your message to the top so that more people can see it.
  • Remember to thank anyone who responds - even if they have the wrong answer.
  • Frequently there are independent consultants participate in the lists. Consider hiring one if you are really stuck. Think of it as spending a fraction of the money you are saving by not buying an annual support subscription. If you find yourself frequently needing hands-on help, consider building a formal relationship with a support provider.
  • If you figure out the problem on your own, reply to your message with the answer.
  • If you see people with similar problems, engage them to work together to figure them out.
  • Consider publishing the information that you could have used in the documentation wiki of the project.
If you follow these guidelines, you do more than just help yourself. Well worded questions and good follow up make the mailing list archive a richer resource for others to search. If you are already an expert in the community, try to be as patient with the n00bs as possible and gently coach them on list etiquette. Community karma swings both ways.