Exhibiting aggressive competence
This last term I facilitated the participation of five MSU students in the Undergraduate Capstone Open Source Projects (UCOSP) program, in which students do distributed open source software development and receive home institution credit. UCOSP was managed out of U Toronto by Greg Wilson, and I was (and am) enthusiastic to participate as it's clearly a good way bring open source into education.
However, I was less thrilled to see that the majority of the MSU students received, ahem, "less than passing" grades from their project leaders. I knew about the problems in one particular project from having met with the students on a regular basis, but the other results caught me by surprise. I would love to kick and scream and complain that I should have been made more aware of what was going on -- and where I had constructive things to suggest, I did -- but the more important failure may have been a mismatch between the MSU students' approach to these projects, and project expectations.
The students variously had a number of problems, ranging from team miscommunication & poor conduct to an inability to get the software to compile. This meant that for several students, no visible work got done -- for example, in one project, it regularly happened that person X was working on a patch, and person Y committed an overlapping patch first. Or on another project, person Z spent two months trying to get the basic project infrastructure compiled, and was reduced (at the very end) to submitting code fixes without testing them in the full project context. Or several times, person A spent a week working out how to refactor a test into something reliable, and resulted in what looked like (and maybe was) a trivial code change.
All of these situations may result (and did result) in low evaluations. This is understandable: no visible work got done, so how is an evaluator supposed to grade them!? Yet, all of the situations are legitimate issues that block progress. What is a student to do?
The answer won't be too hard to guess for anyone who has worked on real-world team projects: make your struggles visible.
Someone steps on your patch? Fine -- submit your patch too, and explain why it's better (or worse) than the first patch. Code review the other patch, while you're at it: who better to do the review than someone who really understands the issues? Then when you get poor marks for not having contributed code, point at your patch. (You are using version control, right?)
Can't compile the software? Fine -- write down what's going wrong, and post it publicly. Document your fix attempts. Ask for help. Bash your head against the wall repeatedly. Either fix the problem, or document the problem thoroughly. Either someone will help you, or you'll figure it out, or you'll leave an audit trail so that others won't have to do all that fail work. Then when you get poor marks for not having contributed any patches, point out that the project has technical issues and either no one could help you (project FAIL) or you spent all your time fixing them.
Trying to debug niggling details that turn out (in the end) not to involve big impressive code changes? Submitting too many unimpressive patches that no one seems to value? Write down why your contributions are valuable. At the end of the day the evaluation may (rightly or wrongly) be "not too smart, but sure did work hard" -- but that's better than "no evidence of any work having been done".
Note how a lot of this seems to involve communication? Right -- that. For team projects, being an effective communicator is more important than being a kick-ass programmer.
At the end of the day, there are things you can control, and things you can't control. You can't control what other people think of you, and you can't control how other people (including project leaders and professors) evaluate you. But you can visibly work hard, and defend yourself based upon that evidence.
I call the general approach of throwing energy at a project "aggressive competence", and I think it's a necessary component of effective team software development. Everyone has days, or weeks, or even months where they look incompetent or ineffective; often that's because outsiders don't understand or appreciate the work that you've done. Tough on you, but I don't think it's reasonable to expect your boss, or colleagues, to look hard at your work to find reasons to praise you. Fundamentally, it's your responsibility to "manage up" and communicate your progress to others effectively.
In open source projects (and elective college courses) the immediate ramifications of a poor evaluation may not be clear -- I'll leave you, dear reader, to figure out the longer term consequences. But I think the ramifications of a poor evaluation are immediately obvious in the context of a capstone course, or a paying job.
Incidentally, this illuminates one of the reasons why I'm such a big fan of UCOSP: it is reality. You're working on an existing project, with other developers, at a distance; and it's not anyone else's responsibility to frame the problem for you. It's your responsibility to make progress.
This is where I think there were mismatched expectations. The students expected that they were going to be managed, helped, and given clear expectations. They weren't. So they got bad evaluations.
What do I plan to do? Well, assuming that UCOSP + MSU goes forward next term, I will be communicating my expectations quite clearly to the students. And I will be asking for regular progress reports, sent to me and CCed to the project leaders. And I'll be sending them this blog post. And I'll be failing the ones that don't listen.
I'll end with a paraphrase of one of my favorite sci-fi authors: "every new developer has problems on a new project. The extent of our sympathy for those problems, however, will be dictated by the efforts made to overcome them."
p.s. It's also a good way to figure what projects you don't want to work on: I once got dinged for working too hard in a company; I was told that I was "rowing too fast and the boat was going around in circles." My response (that perhaps others might consider rowing faster) was not received well. That's the kind of job situation you can leave without guilt (as I did).
p.p.s. Code reviews can be an extraordinarily effective passive-aggressive way to correctively interact with jerks on a project, too.