Friday 17 July 2009

The job of the pumpking

The job of a pumpking is a difficult one. It demands technical and human skills, and constant commitment.

Historically, the pumpking has been the one who applied most of the patches. (That's actually the origin of the word -- the pumpking holds a semaphore known as the patch pumpkin.) Applying a patch is never completely trivial. Even if the code change is clear enough, you'll have to look at the regression tests, and eventually write some; make sure the docs are still correct and complete (and eventually write some); if applicable, increment the version numbers of the core modules, or contact the maintainer of the module if it's dual life.

Sometimes, the code change is not clear at all, or really big, or it touches areas of the code that the pumpking is not familiar with. In this case he has to learn about the surrounding code, or ask experts in that field (if any are around and willing to respond), understand how the patch works, determine what kind of performance or footprint impact it will have, think about possible better implementations, detect potential subtle regressions, and consider test coverage of the new code.

Even if it's a doc patch, he will have to check that the new documentation is right, doesn't duplicate or contradict information elsewhere, and is written clearly enough and in a grammatically correct English. (Which makes it only more difficult for non-native pumpkings.)

Putting it shortly, patch application is a time consuming activity, and it demands a fair amount of concentration. In any case, that's not something you can do when you have ten minutes free between two tasks.

Is it rewarding? Well, not really. Applying patches is a lot like scratching other people's itches. You don't get much time left to work on what would interest you personally. Like, fixing funny bugs, or adding new functionalities. And people tend to get upset when their patches are not applied fast enough.

Sometimes you have to reject a patch. You do this in the most diplomatic way possible, because the person who sent it usually is full of good will, and volunteered some of his own free time, and you don't want to drive volunteers off. So you ask, could I have some more docs with that, because I don't understand it fully? or: what problem does it solve for you? or: excuse me, but have you considered this alternate implementation that might be better suited? Care to work on it a bit more? Thanks. Even when you know at the first sight that a patch is totally worthless, you can't reply, "ur patch iz worthless, lol", you have to try to be pedagogical about why the proposed patch is a bad idea.

And all of this, you do on borrowed time, because you're not paid for it. You could be sleeping, or cooking, or having fun with your family and your friends, or enjoying a nice day's weather. No, you stay inside and you apply other people's patches. And why do you do it? Because you like Perl, you want to make it better, and you're not doing a bad job at it. And probably because no-one else would be doing it for you.

And of course no-one except the previous pumpkings fully realize what all of this really means. No. You take decisions, lead by technical expertise and years of familiarity with perl5-porters. Sometimes heat is generated, but that settles down quickly and stays contained within the mailing list. You listen to all parties and you show respect. And you take an informed decision, trying to remember, as Chip Salzenberg noted, that good synthesis is different from good compromise, although they're easy to mistake for each other, and that only the first one leads to good design. All of this is normal, and expected.

Being a pumpking is difficult. It's demanding; it's not rewarding. But that's not why I quitted. I quitted because I can't continue to do it under constant fire. I want my work to be properly criticized based on technical considerations, not to be denigrated. (Also, I want a pony, too. I realize that it's difficult to deal with people who are in the middle of the "hazard" peak of this graph.) That's also why I would refuse to be paid to be a full-time pumpking: in my day job, I get recognition.

Actually, I don't think that a new pumpking will step up, and I think that this will be for the best. P5P probably needs to transition from pumpkingship to a more oligarchic form of governance. More people need to take the responsibility to review and apply patches. More people need to back up the technical decisions that are made. A vocal consensus is stronger than a single pumpking, and it will force us to write down a policy, which will be a good thing and increase the bus factor of Perl. Moreover, a system involving many committers would scale better. All committers are volunteering time. It's a scarce resource, but can be put in common. And new major Perl releases are not going to happen without more copious free time.

As a side-effect, if many people start handling the patch backlog, that means that I'll be able to devote time to long-standing issues without feeling guilty. Like the UTF-8 cleanup I have been speaking about.

For once, I plan to take some vacations this summer -- away from P5P. That didn't happened to me since years. I think I deserved it.


Unknown said...

They refer to that as pumpkining? That's so funny. I think someone should post a fake job for that on Job Nob, it would be hilarious to see who actually applied.

Ask Bjørn Hansen said...

You do indeed deserve a vacation! :-)