Public mistakes are a feature of open source

A dropped coop of ice cream and an ice cream cone lying on a gray stone bench.

I was recently talking with a mentee about some mistakes they had made setting up some processes in their community. “Everyone who is good at something,” I told them, “has a trail of fuckups in their wake.” In most cases, people can fail privately, or at least semi-privately. You don’t hear the dozens of rejected takes that it took your favorite musician to get a song just right. A gymnast falls hundreds of times before you watch their flawless routine. But when you work in the open, everyone can see where you got it wrong.

Working in the open means your mistakes are exposed to public view. As unpleasant as this can be, there are advantages for the community. First, it means that others can learn from the mistakes you make and can avoid repeating them. Just as we learn from each other’s code, we learn from each other’s processes and operational tasks. Second, it builds trust. This may seem counterintuitive, but seeing your response to mistakes helps the community trust you. If you are honest about what caused the mistake and offer a plan to avoid or mitigate it in the future, you’ll build credibility as a professional. Finally, knowing that your mistakes will be public should help focus your attention on getting it right the first time. There will still be mistakes, of course, but you’ll put focus on getting it right the first time. Or even better: improving the process to remove the possibility of a mistake.

Public mistakes are also an opportunity for personal growth. Despite my outward confidence (arrogance?), my ego is pretty fragile. A public mistake used to be mortally embarrassing. But I’ve made enough of them that I’ve learned to take them in stride. How many times did I get some detail wrong in a Fedora go/no-go decision email? (Spoiler alert: many) Making a mistake is no longer the ego-crushing event it used to be. And that makes my life better.

This post’s featured photo by Sarah Kilian 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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