More than coders

15 April 2019

Lately, the compiler team has been changing up the way that we work. Our goal is to make it easier for people to track what we are doing and – hopefully – get involved. This is an ongoing effort, but one thing that has become clear immediately is this: the compiler team needs more than coders.

Traditionally, when we’ve thought about how to “get involved” in the compiler team, we’ve thought about it in terms of writing PRs. But more and more I’m thinking about all the other jobs that go into maintaining the compiler. “What kinds of jobs are these?”, you’re asking. I think there are quite a few, but let me give a few examples:

  • Running a meeting – pinging folks, walking through the agenda.
  • Design documents and other documentation – describing how the code works, even if you didn’t write it yourself.
  • Publicity – talking about what’s going on, tweeting about exciting progress, or helping to circulate calls for help. Think steveklabnik, but for rustc.
  • …and more! These are just the tip of the iceberg, in my opinion.

I think we need to surface these jobs more prominently and try to actively recruit people to help us with them. Hence, this blog post.

“We need an open source whenever”

In my keynote at Rust LATAM, I quoted quite liberally from an excellent blog post by Jessica Lord, “Privilege, Community, and Open Source”. There’s one passage that keeps coming back to me:

We also need an open source whenever. Not enough people can or should be able to spare all of their time for open source work, and appearing this way really hurts us.

This passage resonates with me, but I also know it is not as simple as she makes it sound. Creating a structure where people can meaningfully contribute to a project with only small amounts of time takes a lot of work. But it seems clear that the benefits could be huge.

I think looking to tasks beyond coding can be a big benefit here. Every sort of task is different in terms of what it requires to do it well – and I think the more ways we can create for people to contribute, the more people will be able to contribute.

The context: working groups

Let me back up and give a bit of context. Earlier, I mentioned that the compiler has been changing up the way that we work, with the goal of making it much easier to get involved in developing rustc. A big part of that work has been introducing the idea of a working group.

A working group is basically an (open-ended, dynamic) set of people working towards a particular goal. These days, whenever the compiler team kicks off a new project, we create an associated working group, and we list that group (and its associated Zulip stream) on the compiler-team repository. There is also a central calendar that lists all the group meetings and so forth. This makes it pretty easy to quickly see what’s going on.

Working groups as a way into the compiler

Working groups provide an ideal vector to get involved with the compiler. For one thing, they give people a more approachable target – you’re not working on “the entire compiler”, you’re working towards a particular goal. Each of your PRs can then be building on a common part of the code, making it easier to get started. Moreover, you’re working with a smaller group of people, many of whom are also just starting out. This allows people to help one another and form a community.

Running a working group is a big job

The thing is, running a working group can be quite a big job – particularly a working group that aims to incorporate a lot of contributors. Traditionally, we’ve thought of a working group as having a lead – maybe, at best, two leads – and a bunch of participants, most of whom are being mentored:

           | Lead(s)     |
           |             |

  +--+  +--+  +--+  +--+  +--+  +--+
  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |
  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |
  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |
  +--+  +--+  +--+  +--+  +--+  +--+
  |                                |

Now, if all these participants are all being mentored to write code, that means that the set of jobs that fall on the leads is something like this:

  • Running the meeting
  • Taking and posting minutes from the meeting
  • Figuring out the technical design
  • Writing the big, complex PRs that are hard to mentor
  • Writing the design documents
  • Writing mentoring instructions
  • Writing summary blog posts and trying to call attention to what’s going on
  • Synchronizing with the team at large to give status updates etc
  • Being a “point of contact” for questions
  • Helping contributors debug problems
  • Triaging bugs and ensuring that the most important ones are getting fixed

Is it any wonder that the vast majority of working group leads have full-time, paid employees? Or, alternatively, is it any wonder that often many of those tasks just don’t get done?

(Consider the NLL working group – there, we had both Felix and I working as full-time leads, essentially. Even so, we had a hard time writing out design documents, and there were never enough summary blog posts.)

Running a working group is really a lot of smaller jobs

The more I think about it, the more I think the flaw is in the way we’ve talked about a “lead”. Really, “lead” for us was mostly a kind of shorthand for “do whatever needs doing”. I think we should be trying to get more precise about what those things are, and then that we should be trying to split those roles out to more people.

For example, how awesome would it be if major efforts had some people who were just trying to ensure that the design was documented – working on rustc-guide chapters, for example, showing the major components and how they communicated. This is not easy work. It requires a pretty detailed technical understanding. It does not, however, really require writing the PRs in question – in fact, ideally, it would be done by different people, which ensures that there are multiple people who understand how the code works.

There will still be a need, I suspect, for some kind of “lead” who is generally overseeing the effort. But, these days, I like to think of it in a somewhat less… hierarchical fashion. Perhaps “organizer” is the right term. I’m not sure.

Each job is different

Going back to Jessica Lord’s post, she continues:

We need everything we can get and are thankful for all that you can contribute whether it is two hours a week, one logo a year, or a copy-edit twice a year.

Looking over the list of tasks that are involved in running a working-group, it’s interesting how many of them have distinct time profiles. Coding, for example, is a pretty intensive activity that can easily take a kind of “unbounded” amount of time, which is something not everyone has available. But consider the job of running a weekly sync meeting.

Many working groups use short, weekly sync meetings to check up on progress and to keep everything progressing. It’s a good place for newcomers to find tasks, or to triage new bugs and make sure they are being addressed. One easy, and self-contained, task in a working group might be to run the weekly meetings. This could be as simple as coming onto Zulip at the right time, pinging the right people, and trying to walk through the status updates and take some minutes. However, it might also get more complex – e.g., it might involve doing some pre-triage to try and shape up the agenda.

But note that, however you do it, this task is relatively time-contained – it occurs at a predictable point in the week. It might be a way for someone to get involved who has a fixed hole in their schedule, but can’t afford the more open-ended, coding tasks.

Just as important as code

In my last quote from Jessica Lord’s post, I left out the last sentence from the paragraph. Let me give you the paragraph in full (emphasis mine):

We need everything we can get and are thankful for all that you can contribute whether it is two hours a week, one logo a year, or a copy edit twice a year. You, too, are a first class open source citizen.

I think this is a pretty key point. I think it’s important that we recognize that working on the compiler is more than coding – and that we value those tasks – whether they be organizational tasks, writing documentation, whatever – equally.

I am worried that if we had working groups where some people are writing the code and there is somebody else who is “only” running the meetings, or “only” triaging bugs, or “only” writing design docs, that those people will feel like they are not “real” members of the working group. But to my mind they are equally essential, if not more essential. After all, it’s a lot easier to find people who will spend their free time writing PRs than it is to find people who will help to organize a meeting.

Growing the compiler team

The point of this post, in case you missed it, is that I would like to grow our conception of the compile team beyond coders. I think we should be actively recruiting folks with a lot of different skill sets and making them full members of the compiler team:

  • organizers and project managers
  • documentation authors
  • code evangelists

I’m not really sure what this full set of roles should be, but I know that the compiler team cannot function without them.

Beyond the compiler team

One other note: I think that when we start going down this road, we’ll find that there is overlap between the “compiler team” and other teams in the rust-lang org. For example, the release team already does a great job of tracking and triaging bugs and regressions to help ensure the overall quality of the release. But perhaps the compiler team also wants to do its own triaging. Will this lead to a “turf war”? Personally, I don’t really see the conflict here.

One of the beauties of being an open-source community is that we don’t need to form strict managerial hierarchies. We can have the same people be members of both the release team and the compiler team. As part of the release team, they would presumably be doing more general triaging and so forth; as part of the compiler team, they would be going deeper into rustc. But still, it’s a good thing to pay attention to. Maybe some things don’t belong in the compiler-team proper.


I don’t quite a have a call to action here, at least not yet. This is still a WIP – we don’t know quite the right way to think about these non-coding roles. I think we’re going to be figuring that out, though, as we gain more experience with working groups.

I guess I can say this, though: If you are a project manager or a tech writer, and you think you’d like to get more deeply involved with the compiler team, now’s a good time. =) Start attending our steering meetings, or perhaps the weekly meetings of the meta working group, or just ping me over on the rust-lang Zulip.