<antirez>

antirez 95 days ago. 106561 views.
Months ago the maintainer of an OSS project in the sphere of system software, with quite a big and active community, wrote me an email saying that he struggles to continue maintaining his project after so many years, because of how much psychologically taxing such effort is. He was looking for advices from me, I’m not sure to be in the position of giving advices, however I told him I would write a blog post about what I think about the matter. Several weeks passed, and multiple times I started writing such post and stopped, because I didn’t had the time to process the ideas for enough time. Now I think I was able to analyze myself to find answers inside my own weakness, struggles, and desire of freedom, that inevitably invades the human minds when they do some task, that also has some negative aspect, for a prolonged amount of time. Maintaining an open source project is also a lot of joy and fun and these latest ten years of my professional life are surely memorable, even if not the absolute best (I had more fun during my startup times after all). However here I’ll focus on the negative side; simply make sure you don’t get the feeling it is just that, there is also a lot of good in it.

Flood effect

I don’t believe in acting fast, thinking fast, winning the competition on time and stuff like that. I don’t like the world of constant lack of focus we live in, because of social networks, chats, emails, and a schedule full of activities. So when I used to receive an email about Redis back in the early times of the project, when I still had plenty of time, I was able to focus on what the author of the message was trying to tell me. Then I could recall the relevant part of Redis we were discussing, and finally reply with my real thoughts, after considering the matter with care. I believe this is how most people should work regardless of what their job is.

When a software project reaches the popularity Redis reached, and at the same time once the communications between individuals are made so simple by the new social tools, and by your attitude to be “there” for users, the amount of messages, issues, pull requests, suggestions the authors receive will grow exponentially. At the same time, at least in the case of Redis, but I believe this to be a common problem, the amount of very qualified people that can look at such inputs from the community grows very slowly. This creates an obvious congestion. Most people try to address it in the wrong way: using pragmatism. Let’s close the issue after two weeks of no original poster replies, after we ask some question. Close all the issues that are not very well specified. And other “inbox zero” solutions. The reality is that to process community feedbacks very well you have to take the time needed, otherwise you will just pretend your project has a small number of open issues. Having a lot of resources to hire core-level experts for each Redis subsystem, to work at OSS full time, would work but is not feasible.

So what happens? That you start to prioritize more and more what to look at and what not. And you feel you are a piece of shit at ignoring so many things and people, and also the contributor believes you don’t care about what others have to give you. It’s a complex situation. Usually the end result is to develop an attitude to mostly address critical issues and disregard all the new stuff, since new stuff are yet not in the core, and who wants to have a larger code base with even more PRs and issues there? Maybe also written in a more convoluted way compared to your usual programming style, so, more complexity, and good luck when there is a critical bug there to track the root cause.

Role shifting

As a result of the “flood effect” problem exposed above, you suddenly also change job. Redis became popular because I supposedly am able to design and write software. And now instead most of the work I do is to look at issues and pull requests, and I also feel that I could do better many of the contributions I receive. Some will be better quality than I could do, because there are also better programmers than me contributing to Redis, but *most* for the nature of big numbers will be average contributions that are just written to solve a given problem that was contingent for the folks that submitted it. While, when I design for Redis, I tend to think at Redis as a whole, because it’s years I write this thing. So what you were good at, you have no longer time to do. This in turn means less organic big new features. My solution with that? Sometimes I just stop looking at issues and PRs for weeks, because I’m coding or designing: that is the work I really love and enjoy. However this in turn creates ways more pressure on me, psychologically. To do what I love and I can do well I’ve to feel like shit.

Time

There are two problems related to working at the same project for a prolonged amount of time, at least for me.
First, before of the Redis experience I *never* worked every week day of my life. I could work one week, stop two, then work one month, then disappear for other two months. Always. People need to recharge, get new energy and ideas, to do creative work. And programming at high level is a fucking creative job. Redis itself was created like that for the first two years, that is, when the project evolved at the fastest speed. Because the sum of the productivity of me working just when I want is greater than the productivity I’ve when I’m forced to work every day in a steady way.

However my work ethics allowed me to have a very discontinue schedule when I was working alone with my companies. Once I started to receive money to work at Redis, it was no longer possible for my ethics to have my past pattern, so I started to force myself to work under normal schedules. This for me is a huge struggle, for many years at this point. Moreover I’m sure I’m doing less than I could because of that, but this is how things work. I never found a way to solve this problem. I could say Redis Labs that I want to return to my old schedule, but that would not work because at this point I really “report” to the community, not to the company.

Another problem is that working a lot at the same project is also a complex matter, mentally speaking. I used to change project every six months in the past. Now for ten years I did the same thing. In that regard I tried to save my sanity by having sub-projects inside Redis. One time I did Cluster, another time disk-storage (now abandoned), another was HyerLogLogs, and so forth. Basically things that bring value to the project but that, in isolation, are other stuff. But eventually you have to return back to the issues and PRs page and address the same things every day. “Replica is disconnecting because of a timeout” or whatever. Let’s investigate that again.

Fear

I always had some fear to lose the technological leadership of the project. Not because I think I’m not good enough at designing and evolving Redis, but because I know my ways are not aligned with: 1) what a sizable amount of users want. 2) what most people in IT believe software is. So I had to constantly balance between what I believe to be good design, set of features, speed of development (slow), size of the project (minimal), and what I was expected to deliver by most of the user base. Fortunately there is a percentage of Redis users that understand perfectly the Redis-way, so at least from time to time I can get some word of comfort.

Frictions

Certain people are total assholes. They are everywhere, it is natural and if you ask me, I even believe in programming there are a lot more nice people than in other fields. But yet you’ll always see a percentage of total jerks. As the leader of a popular OSS project, in one way or the other you’ll have to confront with these people, and that’s maybe one of the most stressful things I ever did in the course of the Redis development.

Futileness

Sometimes I believe that software, while great, will never be huge like writing a book that will survive for centuries. Note because it is not as great per-se, but because as a side effect it is also useful… and will be replaced when something more useful is around. I would like to have time to do other activities as well. So sometimes I believe all I’m doing is, in the end, futile. We’ll design and write systems, and new systems will emerge; but anyone that just stays in software, instead of staying in “software big ideas”, will ever set a new mark? From time to time I think I had potentially the ability to work at big ideas but because I focused on writing software instead of thinking about software, I was not able to use my potential in that regard. This is basically the contrary of the impostor syndrome, so I guess I’ve a big idea of myself: sorry for that I should be more humble.

That said, I was able to work for many years doing things I really loved, that gave me friends, recognition, money, so I don’t want to say it was a bad deal. Yet I totally understand people struggling a lot to stay afloat once their projects start to be popular. This blog post is dedicated to them.
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