September 11, 2008

Test Tools - Open Source Feedback and Participation

Here is a story and some observations I have made as an Open Source developer:

I had a specific need for a tool to test web services a few years ago ('02-'03). I had been rolling my own tools in various languages for quite a while and had some stuff that I thought others might be interested in; so I setup a SourceForge project and released it in Jan'04. The tool is called WebInject. Not many people used it at first. I just kept adding features and releasing. I was scratching my own itches and using my tool internally at a company I was working for. Eventually I got a few bites and some people started to download it and try it out. As of today, the tool has been downloaded over 60,000 times. I've had feedback from all corners of the world.

In the early days, *any* bug that was reported, I would dive into immediately. I was turning around fixes and new releases in crazy time. This personal attention sparked a lot of lengthy email conversations where I was starting to get real feedback. It wasn't the case where I could just sit back and expect quality feedback. I really engaged the users and asked questions. Pretty soon I was getting more feedback than I could reasonably handle. Around this time I started getting some patches sent to me. This accelerated development as I started to get various ideas from other people. A few silly bugs were also cleaned up; stuff I never would have caught on my own. Encouraging patches is huge. Once someone gets a piece of their own code into your code base, they have an intimate connection.

I don't maintain WebInject much any more. I think it is cool and useful, but it's a rats nest of Perl code that needs some serious love. There is some stuff that bothers me so much about it that I barely want to touch it sometimes :) I spend all my time on newer tools these days, but I still keep on top of it enough to facilitate others using it and posting patches/updates to it (though I haven't released in a long time). Oddly, it has become somewhat entrenched in monitoring systems. Most of the users lately seem to be people running Nagios (open source monitoring system) that need an intelligent web plugin/agent.


Some basic thoughts on open source tool adoption and getting feedback:

  • A tool without documentation doesn't exist.. without quality documentation, don't even bother.. nobody will touch it.

  • If it takes someone more than 10 minutes to install, configure, run, and see the results from a simple test case.. nobody will use it. Once someone sees something work, it is tangible and they become engaged. I achieved this with my tool. if you download and run it, you are presented with a GUI. Pressing "run" executes a preconfigured sample test case that hits my site. I wanted the most clueless of people to be able to immediately see a green "PASS", and say "hey, cool it actually did something". This satisfaction must come immediately or it will be abandoned. (unless of course you already have a user base that has made it past this hurdle and can encourage others to put in the effort to get it working)

  • Make your tool easy to get. The online presence of your tool should allow someone to visit the website and immediately download it. I have seen tools released that take 5 levels of navigation before you get to the download options, or don't even have a web site or project page somewhere.

  • Announce your tools.. release early, release often.. who cares.. blog it, forum it, email it, digg it, usenet it, comment about it.. see if anyone has interest. Don't annoyingly spam it, bet let people know it exists. If you announce your tool once only, buried deep in a technical mailing list, don't expect people to come rushing.

  • Encourage participation. Go out of your way to let people know that you encourage and appreciate feedback, bug reports, offers for collaboration, patches, etc.

  • You need a forum or a mailing list with a web accessible archive. It has to be super simple to talk to you in public and let others see answers to questions and begin to participate on their own and to offer advice. Using a many-to-one scheme where you just tell people to email you isn't gonna work. It is too private.. people want to know what is going on and hear from each other and offer tips. I have had several thousand posts to my forums for this little tool.
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