Getting Help the Open Source Way

What happens when the effectiveness of your favorite search engine turns against you, when it becomes almost too effective to be useful, giving you so much information that you're not sure where to start?... Well, my overworked friend, you're in luck. Read the full article below, written by Norbert 'Gnorb' Cartagena

Here's a scenario: The boss just chose you to head a new project in line with the company's new cost cutting, Open Source initiative. He gave you this assignment because somewhere in your resume you said that you're an expert in Open Source technologies: Red Hat, PHP, Apache, Zope - you got it all. In fact, you claimed you've been using Linux since the infamous version 0.99. Of course, this must all be true, because you would never lie on a resume, would you? Anyway, so your boss made you the go-to guy when it comes to Open Source. Now, you're hard at work on your new Open Source project. You're humming along and all the pieces are falling into place. Still, somewhere along the line you run into a problem that doesn't seem to be covered in the included man or info pages. But you're not worried. After all, someone must have run into this problem before, right? Since you're dealing with Open Source software you know that all you have to do is point your web browser at your favorite search engine and begin the quest for your answer there. You're sure that some friendly people out there in Internet-land must have put up some documentation when they ran into this problem. Since you don't really know how to describe the problem or what it is, you start with a vague search and then try to narrow it down. Isn't that how it's supposed to work?

What happens when you've narrowed your search and you're still stuck looking through 100,000 or more pages worth of information for something which needed answering five minutes ago? What happens when the effectiveness of your favorite search engine turns against you, when it becomes almost too effective to be useful, giving you so much information that you're not sure where to start? Of course, the first forty websites that come up are wise enough to use SEO Chat, so their sites come up first, but they're not quite what you're looking for. Conversely, what happens when you can't find your answer anywhere, when your search yields no useful results? You've done the footwork, but nothing has come up. You're getting frustrated. Your team is getting impatient. You need those answers now!

Instead of going through all of this, do you ever wish that you knew someone, anyone, whom you could quickly tap for information on specific subjects so that you can get on your merry developing way? Well, my overworked friend, you're in luck. Today, I'll be covering the holy grail of information gathering: asking people. I'll be discussing some of the most popular methods and locations for free, live help available: Newsgroups, mailing lists, and IRC channels. In the process, I will also show you some of the better locations to begin your searches and give you a few pointers in getting the most out of your queries.

Before I start ranting and raving about where you
ought to go,
I feel obligated to cover some important points when it comes to
information through live sources. Reliable, fast, and friendly as they
be, they don't always turn a blind eye towards people who don't follow
rules, spoken or not. Just keep the following guidelines in mind when
for help:

  1. Keep a good attitude. No one likes a
    loud-mouth know-it-all, so ask nicely and thank people for their
  2. Be willing to do some of your own
    foot-work and learn. Give a man a fish; you feed him for a day. Teach
    him how to fish; you feed him for a lifetime.
  3. Be willing to give answers as well as
    ask for them. Be willing also to give more relevant information on your
    topic when it is requested of you.

Unlike web pages, which don't care whether you're a
jerk or
not, chat channels, e-mail lists, and newsgroups require some amount of
finesse in order to get the information you need quickly and
effectively. This
is especially true in the world of Open Source and Free Software. Like
a search
engine, to get the best results you have to be able to play by the
rules and to
know how to ask a question. The better you know the rules, the faster
and more
accurate results you are likely to receive. Before you go off into the
world of
Free Software and Open Source development, however, make sure you
what you're getting yourself into. Sometimes there's more to keep in
mind that
just getting your project done.

The following are some sources I highly recommend
you check
out now, before you need to start your search for technical knowledge
in the
Open Source and Free Software communities:

  • The Free Software Foundation's href="">

The brainchild of Richard
Stallman (commonly known as RMS), the Free Software Foundation (FSF) is
organization set up on the premise that the practice of Copyright,
unlike in
the paper-and-ink publishing industry, is not particularly appropriate
for the
digital software industry. In 1984, RMS began creating the GNU OS (GNU
is Not
UNIX Operating System), seven years before Torvalds created the Linux
Out of the development of the GNU tools came much software, including
category killer Emacs. A category killer, as Eric Raymond explains in
his work,
The Cathedral and the Bazaar, is a piece of software so good at
what it
does that it has no competition because no one feels the need to
compete with
it. Stallman and the FSF are also to be credited for the creation of
General Public License (GPL), also known as Copyleft. 

Note that Free Software
is not the
same thing as Open Source. Open Source Software, like Free Software,
the principles of creating open, high quality, powerful software. The
claims that unlike Free Software, however, Open Source shuns the ideas
freedom, community, and principle which are at the foundation of Free
Agreeing with the goals and principles of the FSF is not necessary;
what those goals and principles are should be.

  • The Cathedral and the Bazaar - href="">

This monumental work by
Eric S. Raymond (ESR) explains the
methodology and philosophy behind OSS.
This paper, first presented at Linux Kongress in May of 1997, uses the
story of
ESR's creation of Fetchmail to describe how he figured Open Source
should work. In it, he explains his realization of how amazingly
effective peer
reviews and feedback loops are within the Open Source model. His ideas
can be
summarized in the following quote: “Release early. Release often. And
listen to
your customers.