Open Source Strategies

A blog about open source software and business models, enterprise software, and the opentaps Open Source ERP + CRM Suite.

Friday, September 23, 2005

How to Get Support from Open Source Mailing Lists

It is possible to get outstanding support from open source communities if you know how to work with them. Of course, each open source community is different, so please follow its rules and etiquette.

How Open Source Community Support Works

Most open source communities are made up of volunteers. Its members are not paid to provide support. They're there to help each other and help the project. In recent years, as more corporations have started to contribute to open source, there are more contributors who are paid by their employers. In both cases, the contributors have a few things in common: They have a lot of pride in their project and want it to succeed, and they are also usually very busy.

As a result, it is very important on mailing lists to be respectful and to value others' time. This means that you must make it easy for them to help you by asking your questions the right way.

Asking Questions the Right Way

When I see a question on a list or forum, I usually scan and make a very quick decision on whether I would be able to help. If the question is unclear or there's not enough information, I'll usually pass--it's hard to track someone down with a mailing list. So, if you're asking a question, it is very important that you:
  1. Get to the point quickly. In your subject and in the first paragraph, clearly describe what problem you are having. Don't use "Help me!" as your subject.
  2. Furnish all the details. After describing the problem, describe what version you're running and what module or page you are having a problem with. If relevant, describe what platform or database you're using, and paste detailed error log messages. If you have screen shots, post them on issue trackers or upload them to your site and provide a link, but try not to clog up people's email with large attachments.
  3. Try to do some research first. Some communities are more willing to help the inexperienced, but generally it's better if you've made somewhat of an effort to solve the problem first--for you and for others in the community.
  4. Point out how your question might help others. Does it help answer common problems? Does it uncover a new bug?
  5. Focus on solving the problem. Stay on topic; don't digress. Don't use your problem as an opportunity to complain.
Remember: If you make it hard to help you, fewer people will try.

Your Reputation

Longer term, how much support you receive from an open source community will depend on your reputation in it. This is no different than any other group, neighborhood, or community you might belong to. So, as you interact with others on mailing lists or forums, think about how they perceive you:
  • Do you ask intelligent questions?
  • Do you at least make an effort to figure things out?
  • Are you pleasant to work with?
  • Are you helping the project and other community members?
Most open source veterans agree: contributing back to a community, by helping others, writing documentation, or contributing code, will get you better support in turn.

General Etiquette

Finally, there seems to be a general etiquette or standard of behavior which applies to most open source communities:
  • Keep your questions on the list. That way, the answers are available to other community members as well. In addition, many people feel that their emails are for work or personal use, so please respect that.
  • Don't double post on multiple lists. If a community has multiple lists or forums, don't post to all of them at once. Try to figure out which one is appropriate.
  • Be civil. Don't post questions like "Your !#@* software sucks" or use headlines like "HELP! HELP! HELP! HELP! HELP!" to get attention.
  • Be patient. Remember others aren't paid to help you, and their help is a gift. If you can't afford to be patient, get professional support.

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