Sustaining and growing LoopBack as a successful open source project

The history

LoopBack 1.0 was announced on September 18th, 2013 (the announcement). Within the next year, we were able to get more than 20 people to contribute to our new framework (the stats), some of them contributed non-trivial features and were promoted to maintainers (fabien, clarkorz and STRML to name a few). What a great start!

Unfortunately we did not play the midgame similarly well. As the number of users started to grow, there were more questions to answer, more issues to triage and fix, more pull requests to review and land. It soon became way too much for our team of three to keep up with, and thus the number of open pull requests started to grow, the number of open issues skyrocketed and many early adopters and contributors left the project.

If you are following the trends in open-source, or if you were around Node.js before the io.js fork happened, then this should sound all too familiar to you. Our struggles were not exceptional, they were (and still are) rather the norm in most open-source projects.

But does it have to be this way? Is there any light at the end of this dark tunnel?

In his excellent post on Healthy Open Source, Mikeal explains the concept of users, contributors and commiters and describes what a healthy open-source project looks like (emphasis is mine):

This is what a healthy project should look like. As the demands on the project from increased users rise, so do the contributors, and as contributors increase more are converted into committers. As the committer base grows, more of them rise to the level of expertise where they should be involved in higher level decision making.
If these groups don’t grow in proportion to each other they can’t carry the load imposed on them by outward growth. A project’s ability to convert people from each of these groups is the only way it can stay healthy if its user base is growing.

And here is what happens to a project when it’s not healthy:

A massive user base is pushing a lot of contributions onto a very small number of maintainers.
(…)
We know what happens to unhealthy projects over a long enough time period, more maintainers leave, contributions eventually fall, and if we’re lucky users leave it. When we aren’t so lucky adoption continues and years later we’re plagued with security and stability issues in widely adopted software that can’t be effectively maintained.

Personally, this is exactly what I was seeing in LoopBack for the past several years and what I was trying to change (with little success).

Now that we have sort of a clean start with LoopBack 4 (a.k.a loopback-next), I’d like us to take this opportunity to not only fix our code, but also fix our processes to make our project sustainable again; so that when LoopBack 4 starts gaining more and more popularity, the number of contributors and committers will keep growing too.

Another aspect I’d like to point out is integration between different features offered by the framework. For example, LoopBack 3.x offers pretty good SDK for Angular.js and also a storage component for persisting large(ish) files in the cloud. However, to this date, there is no easy way how to upload new files from Angular.js applications via the storage component APIs. IMO, this is a part of a bigger problem of (a lack of) feature completeness and ease of use (think about missing support for SQL JOINs in querying, or inability to attach additional metadata to uploaded/stored files for more examples)

As I see it, we were good at releasing an MVP version that brought lots of attention, but we failed to address the feedback from the early adopters and did not follow up to improve the MVP into something actually useful.


The proposal

P1: build our community

I am proposing to make it our priority #1 to take a good care of people contributing to LoopBack in any way — from asking questions about parts that are not easy to use, to reporting issues and submitting pull requests. In my experience, this boils down to several practices:

  • Be responsive, don’t let pull requests/issues/comments go unnoticed for days. (Or months, as is the case in our old repositories!)
  • Be empathetic, try to put yourself in the shoes of the other person. What problem are they trying to solve? How can we help them to be successfull with LoopBack?
  • Read between the lines and look for root causes. A person asking a question that looks silly to us may be giving us valuable feedback about something that’s missing in our documentation. More often than not, the need for extensive documentation may mean that our design is too complex and difficult to use. We should use these opportunities to rethink the big picture and improve the developer experience.
  • Especially when reviewing pull requests, unless there are good reasons why to reject the proposed changes, we should default to accept community contributions. At the end of the day, feedback from people putting our framework into real word use is usually more relevant than ideas we may have in the ivory tower we (full-time maintainers) live in. (This does not mean we should be landing crappy code not following our coding style or breaking the builds though!)
  • We should be willing to give up control. As we grow in number of modules and features, we should encourage more contributors and grow them into committers.

We need to have the mindset that the community are our (paying) customers to make the framework successful. Take issues, questions and pull requests seriously and responsively. Put extra efforts to review/refine/merge PRs and use the exercise to mentor and develop future committers. It’s our team’s mission to have more and more happy customers.

P2: fix bugs quickly

Let me quote from No Bugs of James Shore’s Agile Book:

Programmers have long known that the longer you wait to fix a bug, the more it costs to fix. In addition, unfixed bugs probably indicate further problems. Each bug is the result of a flaw in your system that’s likely to breed more mistakes. Fix it now and you’ll improve both quality and productivity.

I’d like us to prioritize bugs reported from LoopBack users over work on new features and try to maintain the state of zero open bugs in our issue tracker.

There are two important things to consider:

First, not all bugs deserve to be fixed, there are times when closing a bug as “won’t fix” makes perfect sense.

Secondly, in order to attract new contributors, we need to have a collection of issues suitable for first-time contributors. (GitHub promotes using the label “good first issue” for those issues.) If we fix all easy bugs right away, we will miss the opportunity to let a new contributor to fix it for us.

I think this can be easily addressed by delaying the work on fixing easy bugs until the next sprint. This way there is usually an opportunity window of 1–2 weeks for community contributions, but if nobody picks up the challenge, then the bug will be still fixed in reasonable time.

P3: focus on finishing our Minimum Viable Product

Right now, LoopBack 4 is not feature complete enough to allow building even the simplest applications. As a result, there are very few people trying our new framework and giving us feedback on what works and what needs improvements. It should be our highest priority to deliver a Walking Skeleton (issues labelled as MVP), that will allow our early adopters to start building their first applications and provide us with feedback on what are the important areas to improve and what popular features we are missing.

Without MVP, we risk building features that very few people will use, wasting our precious time on implementing things with low impact, while missing important uses cases that are deal-breakers for potential new users.

Post MVP

Once we have the first usable version, it’s crucial to keep the discipline in building a sustainable process.

  • Always care about the developer experience. Sometimes trivial fix or improvement helps a lot.
  • Seek a good balance between fixing existing problems or adding new features driven by the community and our vision.
  • Be bold to admit failures in certain areas and remove bad features from the main stream.
  • Prioritize work on refactoring code that blocks us from adding new features or fixing bugs in cleaner ways.

Closing thoughts

My blogpost outlined a high-level strategy we would like to embrace going forward. There are tactical details we need to figure out as a team, for example what are we going to start doing differently to deliver on this strategy? How exactly are we going to balance between community support, fixing bugs and working on new features pushing the framework forward? I don’t have answers for this question yet, but I am sure we will figure it out!

You may be also wondering about the current 3.x version of LoopBack, will it see better support too? The answer is yes and now. Our bandwidth is limited and with all work on LoopBack 4, there remains only very little time to support 3.x version for non-paying users. At the same time, we value community contributions highly and if you invest your time in sending us a pull request, we promise to do our best to review it in a timely manner.