Don’t try to guess contributor affiliations

A man's arm holding a glass ball in front of the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge is inverted inside the ball.

One question folks often asked me when I was the Fedora Program Manager was “how many Fedora contributors are Red Hat employees?” My answer was “I don’t know and there’s no good way to find out.” The problem I faced is that some contributors were Red Hat employees contributing as part of their job, others happened to be Red Hat employees but weren’t contributing as part of their job, and of course some weren’t Red Hat employees at all. Depending on the intent behind the question, the answer could change.

Your open source project may have similar questions, particularly if it has corporate or foundation sponsors. Here are some reasons you shouldn’t try to answer it:

  • The email address people use might not reflect their affiliation. I knew of several Red Hat employees who used a personal email address for Bugzilla and their Fedora Account. I don’t know why, but that’s what they chose to use.
  • People have more than one affiliation. It’s not uncommon for the same person to maintain a package in multiple Linux distributions. If I’m maintaining SomeCoolSoftware in both Fedora and openSUSE and I contribute a fix to the upstream project, should they count me as a Fedora contribution or an openSUSE contribution? Or maybe I’m actually fixing it on behalf of some other organization entirely.
  • They may not be contributing under the affiliation you know about. I work for Docker, which many people know, but if I contribute something to Fedora, I’m doing it as me, not as a Docker employee. But if I contribute a fix to the Moby package, maybe I am?

If you absolutely must answer this question, then you should ask contributors to self-report affiliation. Understand that many won’t, either by active refusal or passive forgetting. The affiliations that do get reported will be out of date eventually, and sometimes sooner rather than later.

This post’s featured photo by Brendan Church 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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