How to be a great code sprinter

written by Eric J. Ma on 2019-07-29

software development sprint code sprint open source community community development

This blog post is the second in a series of two on participating in code sprints. The first one is here. In this post, I will write about how a sprinter themselves can also help contribute to a positive sprint experience all-ways.

Read the docs to understand the scope of the project

As a sprinter, we may often have preconceived notions about what a project is about. It helps to have an accurate view on what a project is and isn’t about. This is oftentimes best accomplished by reading the documentation of that project, assuming the docs are well-written. Doing so can help you better align what you think should be done on the project with what the package maintainer sees as priorities for the project.

Be ready to make documentation contributions of any scale

Documentation is oftentimes the hardest thing for a package maintainer to write, because it often entails slowing down to a beginner’s speed (an unnatural speed at this point), while knowing one’s own blind spots on where a beginner would stumble (also challenging to do).

If you are newcomer sprinter, by focusing on the sections of the docs that pertain to “processes” (e.g. getting development environment setup) and slowly working through them and documenting what’s missing, that can go a long way to helping other newcomers get set up as well. Anything that the maintainer leaves out may need to be made explicitly clear - and you can help make it clear!

Package maintainers, and prior contributors, are human. That means that there inadvertently may be errors in language that may have been inserted into the package. Any small patch that fixes the docs, including even small typographical errors, can be very helpful to improving documentation quality.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions...

You will find that asking questions can really accelerate your own progress on the project. This is important for getting unstuck, wherever you might be stuck.

...but also try keep your questions to the non-obvious things.

That said, asking the too-simple questions that can be answered by a Google query is likely going to steal time and attention away from other sprinters who might have more substantial questions on hand.

A pet peeve of mine is asking questions that can be answered in the docs. Asking these questions of the maintainer doesn’t reflect positively on you, the sprinter. Whether or not you intended, what often gets received/communicated to the maintainer is carelessness and a lack of attention to detail, the opposite of both being generally good qualities to possess and project.

There’s a pretty broad balance point between the two, so don’t feel inhibited by fear of not hitting a precise balance between looking for docs and asking questions.

For any feature requests, try to be ready with a proposed implementation

This one I find very important. Having a proposed implementation on hand for a thing that you think should be in the library goes a long way to helping the package maintainer (or other contributors) see what exactly you’re trying to accomplish with that feature. Having a sketch on-hand makes it much easier for the package maintainer to say “yes” to the new feature, and having written the documentation and a proposed suite of tests for that new feature makes it even easier.

If you aren’t able to propose an implementation, then raising an inquiry rather than a request makes a world of difference in how a package maintainer perceives the communication of the issue at hand.

As an example:

The latter are more thoughtful, and communicates much less a sense of entitlement on the part of the sprinter’s request.

We’re all building mental maps of each others’ knowledge

When two colleagues meet for the first time, we have to build a mental model of each others’ strengths. At a sprint, the package maintainer has to multiply this by however many people are sprinting.

If they are making an effort to map your skills against theirs, they may be very verbose, asking lots of questions to clarify what you do and don’t know. It pays to be patient here.

If they don’t have the bandwidth to do so (and this is a charitable description for some maintainers), then they may be glossing over detail. Rather than being stuck, it pays to interrupt them gently and clarify. (Taking notes is a very good way of communicating that you’re treating this process seriously too!)

Give your sprint leader sufficient context

As mentioned above, the sprint leader will oftentimes be context switching from person to person. It’s mentally exhausting, so spoon-feeding a bit more context (such as the thing you’re working on), and condensing your question to the essentials and asking it very precisely can go a long way to helping your sprint leader help you better.