The Apache Software Foundation Blog

Monday December 05, 2016

Success at Apache: Project Independence

By Mark Thomas

I've been involved in The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) since 2003. I was using Apache Tomcat at work and I hit a problem that needed a new feature to be implemented. There was already an enhancement request in Bugzilla so I submitted a patch. After some re-work by the project committers, the patch was applied and the feature available in the next release. I enjoy problem solving, so I started to take a look at the other open Tomcat bug reports and my involvement grew from there to include Apache Commons, the Infrastructure Team, the Security Team and, most recently, the Board of Directors to which I was elected in March 2016.

Apache Tomcat has always been at the heart of my involvement and is where I spend most of my time. Tomcat started with a donation to the ASF by Sun in 1999 and, some seven major versions later, the project continues to be very successful. A significant part that success is due to the involvement of a wide range of individuals from different companies. The reason those companies are happy co-operating on Tomcat is because of the importance the ASF places on project independence.

There are many aspects to project independence but, for me, the most important is that committers and Project Management Committee (PMC) members contribute to the project as individuals and do so with the intention of doing what is best for the community as a whole. Some committers contribute in their free time – I did for the first five years or so with Tomcat – and some are allowed /directed to spend time contributing to Apache projects by their employer. However, those committers contributing on their employer's time still need to act in the best interests of the community rather than the best interest of their employer.

To give a specific example, my employer has a product that is built around Apache Tomcat. The sales folks at my employer asked if I could add a feature to this product. The problem was that this feature required access to low-level Tomcat internals in order to implement it effectively. For this to be possible, I would have needed to make some ugly API changes to Tomcat to provide the integration points required. Rather than try and push those changes through, I persuaded my employer that it would better to donate the entire feature to the Apache Tomcat project.

This feature also demonstrates other important elements of a successful ASF project: the ability to make decisions in public and always aiming to achieve community consensus with those decisions. As the development of this new feature progressed, the design evolved as the community reviewed the commits and suggested improvements. This isn't always the quickest way of working but the quality of the end result – both technically but more importantly in terms of community health - more than makes up for that.

The perception of project independence is as important as projects actually being independent. It is a key factor in many projects choosing the ASF as their home so projects need to ensure that the perception agrees with reality.

Things can and do go wrong. With 350 projects it is pretty much a given that there will be a handful of ongoing issues at any given time. For example, there might be an attempt to push a project in a particular direction or to suggest that some external entity controls / leads / manages the project. Typically these are self-corrected by the PMC. Sometimes the PMC needs help to resolve the issue e.g. from V.P. Brand Management or possibly the ASF Board.

Being a board member is often viewed as more significant than it is. I have no more status in Apache Tomcat, Apache Commons or any other project as a board member than I did before my election to the board. I can still have bad ideas and my fellow community members still point it out when it happens. I don't get to always have my way just because I am board member. It is the board as a whole, rather than the individual board members, whose voice carries significant weight. It is fairly rare for any board member to speak on behalf of the board. To give that some context, I've probably done it no more than once a month since joining the board. It is sufficiently rare that board members always include an explicit "on behalf of the board" when speaking for the board rather than as an individual. Sometimes this point isn't appreciated and the views of an individual board member are incorrectly taken to be the views of the board.

The ASF board is also very different to a corporate board. The board manages the Foundation but it is the PMC that manages the project and sets the direction. The board has no role in the technical direction of a project. The board has responsibility for corporate governance, finance, legal etc., but its primary role is monitoring, mentoring and coaching our project communities to help keep them healthy. As part of this, the board reviews all projects on a regular basis. Newly graduated projects are reviewed monthly for typically 3 months before moving to quarterly reviews. The project V.P. (PMC Chair) is an important part of this. They are the eyes and ears of the board. While the board will look for warning signs as part of its regular review, the V.P. has much more in depth knowledge of the project and can flag specific issues early. Where issues are identified, the aim is to get the PMC to self-correct. The board will provide mentoring / coaching / guidance as necessary but it will be the PMC members who do the work to correct the issue.

As an example of the board working with a PMC, earlier this year the V.P. for a particular project became unavailable. The board became concerned because the regular reports were not being produced for the project. In this instance, no-else on the PMC had experience of being a project V.P so the board worked with the PMC to identify a new V.P. and to then mentor the new V.P. as they found their way in their new role.

For the last 17 years, the ASF has provided a home for a large and diverse set of open source projects. Key to this success has been the importance the ASF places on project independence as part of the Apache Way. By continuing to adhere to the principles of the Apache Way, I am confident that the ASF will continue to be successful for another 17 years and a long way beyond.

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