Side projects and swag-driven development


I work at Mozilla. I work on a lot of stuff:

  • a main project I do a ton of work on and maintain: Socorro

  • a bunch of projects related to that project which I work on and maintain: Antenna, Everett, Markus

  • some projects that I work on occasionally but don't maintain: mozilla-django-oidc

  • one project that many Mozilla sites use that somehow I ended up with but has no relation to my main project: Bleach

  • some projects I'm probably forgetting about

  • a side-project that isn't related to anything else I do that I "maintain": Standups

For most of those projects, they're either part of my main job or I like working on them or I get some recognition for owning them. Whatever the reason, I don't work on them because I feel bad. Then there's Standups which I work on solely because I feel bad.

This blog post talks about me and Standups, pontificates about some options I've talked with others about, and then lays out the concept of swag-driven development.


Standups originated many years ago as a side-project by the SUMO engineering team. We were working with a group that wanted a very detailed and up-to-date account of what we were working on. Following checkins on GitHub or components in Bugzilla wasn't good enough. We somehow had to keep them up to date, but do it in a way that didn't involve spending gobs of time in meetings [1].

So we wrote Standups. It was social-media-esque. We could interact with it via a bot in our project IRC channel. It had feeds. Later, I wrote a system that would roll up a week of Standups updates, throw them in an email, do some rough analysis, and send it weekly. It worked. It was good enough.

While writing Standups, we experimented with writing Flask apps, IRC bots written in Node, Persona authentication, and other things. That was cool, too.

Then a bunch of other people showed up and started using Standups. They had various requests. Suddenly we had all this additional maintenance work to support new users and new usages.

The SUMO team broke up. None of them still use the system. I use it on and off depending on how overwhelmed I'm feeling and probably some other things.

In January 2016, we had this situation that can be rougly summarized like this:

  1. None of the original maintainers still used it.

  2. It was effectively abandoned.

  3. No one knew that.

  4. Standups had a bunch of technical debt including that it was using Persona which was getting shut down.

  5. Standups had a bunch of users who were using it as a tool in their work lives to help them do important things.

Paul indicated some interest in rewriting it just before the London All Hands in 2016. Over the next few months, we rewrote it in our spare time and thus was born Standups v2. I wrote a blog post about Standup v2.

Now I've got this project I'm working on in my spare time [2] that I'm pretty much doing solely because I feel bad.

Flash-forward a year and a half with Paul and I doing guilt-driven development and wishing anyone else would show up and help out and/or take it from us.

Generally, the situation stinks--it's not good for me and not good for the users--and there's nothing to indicate it will change any time soon.

So what are the options for failing, but important side-projects?

Let's step back a bit from my poor choices on how I spend my copious lack of free time.

While the details I recounted so far are specific to Standups, I wonder how many other side-projects at Mozilla are like this: someone starts it to solve some immediate need, a bunch of users show up, no one helps out, someone continues maintaining it because it's become a critical part of peoples' work infrastructures.

How many guilt-driven development projects are there?

What are some options for climbing out of that free fall into the burnout abyss?

One option I keep hearing is, "Walk away." That has some niceties--it's easy to do. But I feel bad for the people using the project. Seems like they're now hosed. One might think, "If it was really important, then someone will pick it up." But that has never happened in my experience except for the things I picked up. As near as I can tell, things like this become a ticking timebomb of technical obsolescence and then ends up as a HUGE problem later on when people discover they rely on breaks.

Another option I keep hearing is to push Mozilla leadership into making side-projects real. That seems like a good option and I think it happens periodically. I sort of did this with Bleach. I spent tons of time trying to get Bleach turned into a real project and it sort of is now.

Based on that experience, I think it requires a bunch of people and meetings to come to a consensus on validating the project's existence which is a lot of work and takes a lot of time. It's important that projects paid for by budgets have impact and value and all that--I get that--but the work to get a side-project to that point is unpleasant and time-consuming. I bet many side-projects can't pass muster to become a real project. I think what happens instead is that side-projects continue to exist in the misty "there be dragons" part of the Mozilla universe map until the relevant people leave and stuff breaks.

There are probably other options.

I've been wondering about an option where where the maintainers aren't locked into choosing between walking away and guilt-driven development for a project that's important, but for some reason doesn't have a critical mass and doesn't pass muster enough to turn into a real project.

I started wondering if my problem with Standups is two fold: first, I have no incentive to work on it other than bad feelings, and second, it's a free service so no one else has incentive to work on it either.

One incentive is getting paid in money, but that's messy, problematic, and hard to do. But what if we used a different currency? There's a lot of swag at Mozilla. What if we could use swag to drive development?

Swag-driven development concept

Some of the swag at Mozilla is really neat! Many groups are making stickers and t-shirts and plushies and a variety of other things. Some swag is temporal--it exists in a time and a space and then it's gone. There's value to swag!

I propose swag-driven development is an interesting possibility.

As a maintainer of a swag-driven development project, you could do something like this:

  1. Add a statement to the project documentation, README, and other similar places:

    This project follows swag-driven development. If this project is helpful to you, swag donations are encouraged and welcome.

  2. When marking bugs fixed, add a note like this:

    I work on this as a side project. If this is helpful to you, swag donations are encouraged and welcome.

  3. When asked to work on a bug that seems in-scope for the project and possibly helpful to someone, but it's not something you want to work on, you could respond like this:

    I recognize you want this feature implemented and it seems helpful, but this isn't something I want to work on. I would accept a pull request! Alternatively, if it's really important to you and no one else will do it, I'd be up for implementing this feature for a plushie.

As a user of a swag-driven development project (or any project, really), you could do something like this:

  1. Show appreciation for the maintenance efforts:

    This project helps my work significantly! I really appreciate you working on it! I've got some fab stickers--I'll get them to you!

  2. Offer incentives to implement/fix things that are important to you:

    I realize this feature is a total slog, but it's really important to me! My team is doing plushies and I'll make sure you get one at the next All Hands [3]!

  3. Join and help out:

    Holy crap! I saw you strutting around the last All Hands in fancy A-Team snow pants [4]! I'd love to score a set of those. I want to help out with maintaince! Where can I sign up!?

Maybe something like this doesn't solve all the problems. Maybe it makes some aspects of project maintenance worse. Maybe it only works in some situations with side-projects that have certain properties.

But it sounds really neat! I know when I was talking about it with Paul, he saw potential! There's a lot of neat swag out there! Lots of people like swag!

Seems like it's worth trying.

Standups is switching to swag-driven development

I need to flesh out some phrasing such that requests for swag aren't mean-spirited klaxons of heartless capitalist cruelty, but rather angelic arpeggios of an angelic harp that evokes the eternal struggle of free time versus the empathy and understanding that our side-projects help you do your work and that's important to you and to us, too.

As soon as we figure that out, Standups is switching from guilt-driven development to swag-driven development and we'll see whether that helps or not.

Want to comment? Send an email to willkg at bluesock dot org. Include the url for the blog entry in your comment so I have some context as to what you're talking about.