I have always found that building something out of nothing is hard – whether it be a new feature, or a new product. It’s much easier to fix a bug or make an improvement to working code. Yet, I’ve been on some ambitious projects that got done (building a completely new API for a large ad serving company & a radar program that was designed & built from scratch in 3 years, to name the most difficult). Even though many people thought it was a miracle we got these done, I noticed some techniques that were useful in bringing these projects to fruition which apply to open source projects as well.
Before getting started, you must first give up the idea of building a finished product. You need to make something just usable to start. If you have something useable (and useful), people will start using it – and for open source projects, some of those uses will help make it better. After a project is brought to life, it can evolve into something more – a finished product. The difficultly then lies in making that first usable product.
Nothing has been accomplished yet. You have to start planning and try to eliminate bad ideas before they take up too much time. The most efficient way of doing this is by getting feedback from others. If you find experts, or even just people with different perspectives, they can draw upon their experiences to quickly point out problems, and save you spending days or weeks working on a solution that will never work.
In addition to getting feedback, prototype things and make proof of concept models. Most importantly, don’t invest a lot of time here. You don’t need pretty code – but it should be accurate. The goal is to wrap your head around the problem and discover potential solutions and failures early – not to write something maintainable. The models themselves aren’t important, the data/information you learn from these experiments is what matters.
Build a pre-alpha version
You need to get something working that you can build off of. Most projects have more than 1 component. Even small web apps have a view & controller. Connecting the different parts together is difficult because it is easy to make assumptions about how & what data passed between interfaces.
On the radar system I worked on, many properties of the raw input signal were not planned to be passed along to processes further down the line. But after building the first version of the code, that format of that data quickly changed to include additional information. And after the first version of every component was done, we could look at a display, albeit a very crude one, and see a real object – that is very motivating.
Focus, Iterate & Test
The radar system I worked on was also hard because we were short on time due to an accelerated schedule – time was our most valuable resource. The main reasons we were still able to finish was because the motto of the project was an idea from Voltaire: “perfect is the enemy of good enough”. We were told not to spend any time working on something that already met the specs – we could not spare it. Instead we had to find something that was not good enough, and focus there.
This list of areas we needed to focus became our list of improvements/bugs. We made it past the difficult part of building something from nothing with our pre-alpha version, and now we were working on fixes and improvements – the easy part. After repeating the focus & fix process many times, we got to the point where we had a useable product.
Also crucial here is testing. You need to test so you can confidently make changes without causing regressions. The less effort required to run them, better (automated ;))
Share your project
Alex Martelli gave a talk at PyCon 2013, “Good enough is good enough”. He said, if you make something people need, they will use it, even if it’s not perfect. The catch here is it has to be something people find useful. If enough people use your open source project, some of them will contribute back, fix bugs, and maybe even clean up and optimize code. Even if people do not fix anything, they can file issue tickets. This last weekend we had someone file several issues with example code – perfect test cases.