Are bug reporters contributors?

A pink dragonfly on the tip of a bright green leaf.

I’ve said that bug reports represent a meaningful contribution to your project. I stand by that unequivocally. But contribution and contributor are slightly different in meaningful ways. I would not consider all bug reporters to be project contributors.

Why ask this question?

Project leaders like to know how many contributors are in the project. This helps with things like sizing infrastructure, ordering t-shirts, etc. Tracking the number of contributors over time can give you a sense of community health. If the contributor community is shrinking, that’s probably bad. If the contributor community is growing steadily, that’s probably good. If the contributor community is growing rapidly, that may be good but can lead to problems.

You’ll notice in the previous paragraph that I used “contributor community” instead of just “community.” Knowing the size of the user community is helpful, too, but when you’re thinking specifically about contributors, you want to make sure you’re sorting correctly.

What is a contributor?

So how do you sort? However you want, really. But Fedora Project Leader Matthew Miller provided a good definition earlier this year. He proposed a Fedora Project contributor is anyone who:

  1. Undertakes activities
  2. which sustain or advance the project towards our mission and vision
  3. intentionally as part of the Project,
  4. and as part of our community in line with our shared values.

In other words, the person has to participate multiple times over some period and feel like they are part of the project. He goes on to say that a contribution is any of those activities. I accept that with a slight caveat: all contributors make contributions, but not all contributions are made by contributors.

So what about bug reports?

Bug reporting is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for being a project contributor. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that some contributors have never filed a bug. They make valuable contributions to the project in other ways, but not that particular way.

Other people contribute entirely by filing bugs. They test the software and file bugs when things go awry. It’s hard to argue that they’re not contributors.

On the other hand, filing a bug doesn’t automatically make a person a contributor. I have filed many bugs over the years in projects where I’m just some guy stopping by to file a bug. I have no intention of sticking around to make other contributions — I just have a particular thing I’d like fixed.

So what it comes down to is this: if it’s a one-time (for some values of “one”) “drive by” bug report, the person isn’t a contributor to your project. If it’s part of a pattern of activity where the person feels like they’re part of your project, the person is a contributor to your project. One path to growing your project is to convert those non-contributors into contributors, but that’s for another post.

In the meantime, whether they’re made by a contributor or not, bug reports are valuable contributions to your project. Treat them that way.

This post’s featured photo by Andre Mouton on Unsplash.

Ben formerly led open source messaging at Docker and was the Fedora Program Manager. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.


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