The unwritten rules of open source support

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Sun, 07/13/2008 - 09:19 -- John Locke

What's extraordinary about the open source community is that this level of support happens all the time, every day, without charge, in hundreds, thousands of projects out there. People that can get to the bottom of a problem and fix it at the source, not just provide a workaround, are directly reachable and motivated to see their software work as well as possible. They're not hidden away from the public behind a large corporation, unreachable with layers of clueless support script readers stuffed between you and them. Here are some rules for getting open source support directly from the projects:

  • Before asking anybody, do your homework. Use Google, read the project FAQ, make some attempt to learn the basics without pestering people with questions they've already answered hundreds of times. Nine times out of ten, your problem has already been encountered and somebody has figured out a workaround.
  • Limit the scope of your question to the fundamental problem. Get to the point. I'm obviously guilty of being tremendously long-winded at times, but unless your question is right at the top and asked directly, you'll probably get ignored. Developers are busy, they don't want to read a novel, but they're usually happy to answer a question.
  • Provide supporting details after asking your question. Many programs will create a log with lots of information that can help somebody diagnose your problem. Find what looks relevant in the logs. Specify what version of operating system, distribution, application, etc. Specify what you were trying to do, what you expected, and what really happened. But provide this stuff after asking your initial question--people aren't going to wade through a long email to find your question.
  • Contribute something. The easiest way you can contribute is by answering other people's questions. The whole thing works because people help each other, and this help goes both ways. If you always ask questions and never answer anybody else's, or provide any other sort of contribution, you'll eventually start getting ignored.
  • Always, always, be positive, respectful, and polite when asking your questions. Developers have a lot invested in their project, and insulting it won't gain you any favors. Developers are under no obligation to help you either--you haven't paid for it. Common courtesy is valuable. Complements are welcome.
  • Be patient. Sometimes the person who has the answer to your question is away from the computer. Usually you'll get your problem solved quicker than you would calling some tech support line, but there are times it's going to take a while. If you don't get any response in a reasonable period of time (judged by how active the list or forum is, reasonable could be a couple hours or a couple days), there are several likely reasons: You haven't been specific enough in your question; you're in the wrong forum (e.g. users when it's a developer question); nobody else is trying to do what you're doing (in which case you may need to hire someone with the right skills); the project is dead (it happens sometimes--find another one); or the developers are swamped (give them more time, or come up with a new scenario that sheds light on your problem in a different way).

That list describes how we get open source support at Freelock. Aside from a couple unsupported hardware devices, or issues with proprietary programs, we have yet to get stumped, in over 6 years of extremely heavy Linux and open source use. We've never paid a dime for this support, though we have provided help to many others in return.

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