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April 2015 – Walking Contradiction

PyCon 2015

PyCon 2015 ended over a week ago, so you might be wondering why I’m writing this so late. Well, once again (see my PyCon 2014 post) I blame the location: the city of Montreal. We like it so much that Linda and I planned on staying a few extra days on holiday afterwards. After returning, though, I again payed the price by digging out from the accumulated backlog. It was well worth it, though!

Old Montreal
Old Montreal at night

If you weren’t able to go to PyCon, or even if you were there and don’t possess the ability to be in multiple places at once, you missed a lot of excellent talks. But no need to worry: the A/V team did an amazing job this year, and not only recorded every session, but got them posted to YouTube in record time – many just a few hours after the talk was completed! Major kudos to them for an excellent job.

swagbags The swag table (top) and pile of stuffed bags (bottom)

PyCon is an amazing effort by many people, all of whom are volunteers. One of my favorite volunteer activity is the stuffing of the swag bags. Think about it: over 3,000 attendees each receive a bag filled with the promotional materials from the various sponsors. Those items – flyers, toys, pens, etc. – are shipped from the sponsors to PyCon, and somehow one of each must get put into each one of those bags. Over the years we’ve iterated on the approach, trying all sorts of concurrency models, and have finally found one that seems to work best: each box of swag has one person to dish it out, and then everyone else picks up an empty bag and walks down the table, and one item of each is deposited in their bag. Actually it took two very long tables, after which the filled bag is handed to another volunteer, who folds and stacks it. It’s both exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. We managed to finish in just under 3 hours, so that’s over 1,000 bags completed per hour!

In between talks, I spent much of my time staffing the OpenStack booth, and talked with many people who had various degrees of familiarity with OpenStack. Some had heard the name, but not much else. Others knew it was “cloud something”, but weren’t sure what that something was. Others had installed and played around with it, and had very specific configuration questions. Many people, even those familiar with what OpenStack was, were surprised to learn that it is written entirely in Python, and that it is by far the largest Python project today. It was great to be able to talk to so many different people and share what the OpenStack community is all about.

Last year PyCon introduced a new conference feature: onsite child care for people who wanted to attend, but who didn’t have anyone to watch their kids during the conference. Now, since my kids are no longer “kids”, I would not have a personal need for this service, but I still thought that it was an incredible idea. Anything that encourages more people to be able to be a part of the conference is a good thing, and one that helps a particularly under-represented group is even better. So in that tradition, there was another enabling feature added this year: live captioning of every single talk! Each room had one of the big screens in the front dedicated to a live captioned stream, so that those attendees who cannot hear can still participate. I took a short, wobbly video when they announced the feature during the opening keynote so you can how prominent the screens were. I have a bit of hearing loss, so I did need to refer to the screen several times to catch what I missed. Just another example of how welcoming the Python community is.

gabriellacolemanTrue to last year’s form, one of the keynotes was focused on the online community of the entire world, not just the limited world of Python development. Last year was a talk by John Perry Barlow, former Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sharing his thoughts on government spying and security. This year’s talk was from Gabriella Coleman, a professor of anthropology at McGill University. Her talk was on her work studying Anonymous, the ever-morphing group of online activists, and how they have evolved and splintered in response to events in the world. It was a fascinating look into a little-understood movement, and I would urge you to watch her keynote if you are at all interested in either online security and activism, or just the group itself.

jkmmediocreThe highlight of the conference for me and many others, though, was the extremely thoughtful and passionate keynote by Jacob Kaplan-Moss that attempts to kill the notion of “rockstar” or “ninja” programmers (ugh!) once and for all. “Hi, I’m Jacob, and I’m a mediocre programmer”. You really do need to find 30 minutes of time to watch it all the way through.

This last point is a long-time peeve of mine: the notion that programming is engineering, and that there are objective measurements that can be applied to it. Perhaps that will be fodder for a future blog post…

One aspect of all PyCons that I’ve been to is the friendships that I have made and renewed over the years. It’s always great to catch up with people you only see once a year, and see how their lives are progressing. It was also fun to take advantage of the excellent restaurants that the host city has to offer, and we certainly did that! On Sunday night, just after the closing of PyCon, we went out to dinner at Barroco, a wonderful restaurant in Old Montreal, with my long-time friends Paul and Steve. Good food, wonderful wine, and excellent company made for a very memorable evening.

dinner picture
(L to R) Paul McNett, Steve Holden, Linda and me.

This was my 12th PyCon in a row, and I certainly don’t plan on breaking that streak next year, when PyCon US moves back to the US – to Portland, Oregon, to be specific. I hope to see many of you there!

The Core Deficiency

Core Reviewers

One of the key concepts in OpenStack development is that nothing can get merged into the codebase without being reviewed and approved by others. Not all approvals count the same, though: there are some developers who are designated core reviewers (also referred to as “core developers”) because of their extensive knowledge of the project. No matter how many other reviewers have approved a patch, it takes two core approvals to get any change merged, and any individual core can block a patch. Note: some projects change that requirement, so for this post I’m speaking entirely of Nova.

The Bottleneck

Imposing such a requirement means that there are some very tough hurdles a patch has to clear in order to be merged. This slows down the velocity tremendously. However, I tend to think of this as a very good thing, as it (usually) keeps development from going off in unwise directions. The one time that it is clearly a problem is just before the code freeze, like the one we had a little while ago in Nova for the Kilo release: any code not merged by March 19 would have to wait until the Liberty release, which would be 7 months later! That’s a long time to have to wait to have something that you may have had ready to go months ago. (Yes, there are exceptions to the freeze, but let’s not get into that. The aim is to have zero exceptions).

Core reviewers don’t just review code – they are some of the most active contributors to the project. They also have employers, who frequently require them to attend meetings and attend to other non-OpenStack tasks. And when these demands on their time happen during the rush before feature freeze, the backlog can get overwhelming.

Ideas for Improvement

Joe Gordon posted this message to the openstack-dev list last week, and it touched off a discussion about some issues related to this problem. There were several variations proposed, but they all seemed to revolve around the concept of adding another layer to the mix; in Joe’s case, it was to add a designation of maintainer, whose responsibilities aren’t just about code review, but is a more encompassing notion of investing one’s time to ensure the overall success of the project.

Other ideas were floated around, such as having some additional people designated as domain experts for some part of the Nova codebase, and require one core and one domain expert (junior core? core light?). I think that while that’s a great idea, since cores know the people who are working on the various parts of the Nova code base and tend to rely on their opinions, it would be a logistical nightmare, since a patch could span more than one such sub-domain. The main advantage of having cores approve is that they are familiar with (pretty much) the entire Nova code base, and also have a strong familiarity with the interactions between Nova and other projects, and it is this knowledge that makes their reviews so critically helpful.

The Big Problem

Where I see a problem is that there are only about 15 core reviewers for all of Nova, and there is no clear path to add new cores to Nova. In the early days of OpenStack I was a core reviewer for Nova, but job changes made me leave active development for 2 years. When I came back, it seemed that just about everything had changed! I spent a lot of time revisting code I was once familiar with, tracing the new paths that it took. I’ve caught up a bit, but I realize that it will take me a long time to learn enough to be qualified for core status.

So where are the new cores coming from? In general, it’s been a few very enthusiastic people who routinely spend 60-hour weeks on this stuff. That may be fine for them, but that doesn’t sound like a sustainable plan to me. If we are serious about growing the number of people qualified to approve changes to Nova, we need to have some kind of education and/or training for aspiring cores.

Idea: Core Training

It’s all done rather informally now; I’m just wondering if by making the process a little more explicit and deliberate, we might see better results. Hell, I would love to sit next to Dan Smith or Sean Dague for a couple of weeks and pick their brains, and have them show me their tricks for managing their workloads, and be able to get their insights on why they felt that a certain proposed change had issues that needed correction. Instead, though, I do as many code reviews as I feel qualified to do, and follow as much as I possibly can on IRC and the dev email list. But I know that at this rate it will be quite a while until I have learned enough. I can’t imagine how daunting of a challenge that would be to someone who wasn’t as familiar with OpenStack and its processes

So what would such training look like? It isn’t practical to co-locate a developer with a core, as OpenStack developers are scattered all across the globe (I certainly can’t imagine Dan or Sean wanting me sitting next to them all day, either! ;-). Maybe a regular IRC session? There could be different sessions each week, led by a core in Asia, one in Europe, and one in the Americas, so that developers in different time zones can learn without having to get up at 3am. Perhaps the core could select a review that they feel is illustrative, or the aspiring devs might pick reviews that they would like to understand better. I’m not sure on the details, but I’d like to get the discussion going. I’d love to hear other suggestions.