dw2

28 January 2009

Package Owners contemplating the world ahead

Filed under: architecture, Nokia, packages, passion, Symbian Foundation — David Wood @ 3:13 pm

I’ve just spent two days at the very first Symbian Foundation “Package Owners workshop”, held in a Nokia training facility at Batvik, in the snow-covered countryside outside Helsinki. The workshop proved both thought-provoking and deeply encouraging.

In case the term “package owner” draws a blank with you, let me digress.

Over the last few years, there have been several important structural rearrangements of the Symbian OS software engineering units, to improve the delivery and the modularity of the operating system code. For example, we’ve tracked down and sought to eliminate instances where any one area of software relied on internal APIs from what ought to have been a separate area.

This kind of refactoring is an essential process for any large-scale fast-evolving software system – otherwise the code will become unmaintainable.

This modularisation process is being taken one stage further during the preparation for opening the sources of the entire Symbian Platform (consisting of Symbian OS plus UI code and associated applications and tools). The platform has been carefully analysed and divided up into a total of around 100 packages – where each package is a sizeable standalone software delivery. Each package will have its own source code repository.

(Packages are only one layer of the overall decomposition. Each package is made up of from 1 to n component collections, which are in turn made up of from 1 to n components. In total, there are around 2000 components in the platform. Going in the other direction, the packages are themselves grouped into 14 different technology domains, each with a dedicated “Technology Manager” employed by the Symbian Foundation to oversee their evolution. But these are stories for another day.)

Something important that’s happened in the last fortnight is that package owners have been identified for each of the packages. These package owners are all highly respected software engineers within their domain of expertise.

We’re still working on the fine detail of the description of the responsibilities of package owners, but here’s a broad summary:

  • Publish the roadmap for their package
  • Have technical ownership for the package
  • Be open to contributions to their package from the wider software community
  • Evalutate all contributions, and provide useful feedback to the contributors
  • Maintain a good architecture for the package
  • Act as feature sponsor in their package area
  • Manage package deliveries.

This is a huge task, so most package owners will rely on a network of approved committers and other supporters in order to carry out their role.

(Instead of “package owner”, the word “maintainer” is used with a similar meaning by some other open source projects.)

Over the next month, the nominated package owners (along with some of their line managers) are each attending one of three introductory workshops. Each workshop lasts two days. The goal of the workshop is to review and discuss how software development processes will alter, once the source code for the package is available to a much wider audience. Many processes will remain the same as before, but others will alter, and yet others will be brand new.

As I said, the first of these workshops has just finished. There were people from at least three different continents in attendance. I knew a handful before, but for many others, it was the first time for me to meet them. Without exception, they are singularly impressive individuals, with great CVs, and (in most cases) with glittering track records inside Nokia or Symbian.

Not surprisingly, the newly minted package owners brought a variety of different expectations to the event. Several already have considerable experience working with open source software. Others are, naturally, somewhat apprehensive about the changes.

A series of presenters covered matters such as:

  • An overview of the operation and architecture of the Symbian Foundation
  • Great software developers and open source principles
  • Tips on growing a successful community of external contributors
  • The importance of meritocracy
  • Tools and processes
  • IPR considerations, licensing issues, and legal aspects.

There were also small group breakout sessions on topics such as “What are the key challenges and issues facing package owners?” and “What are we going to do differently from before?”

What impressed me the most were the events on the first evening. After a dinner and optional sauna session, the participants gathered again in the seminar room, and spent another three hours reviewing ideas arising from the group breakout sessions from earlier in the day. The passion of the package owners stood out. In their own individual ways, they displayed a shared strong desire to explore new ways of engaging a wider community of software developers, without destabilising the mission-critical projects already being undertaken. These are all busy people, with multiple existing tasks, but they were ready to brainstorm ways to adopt new skills and processes in order to improve the development of their packages. (And I don’t think it was just the Lapin Kulta speaking.)

I half expected the fervour of the debate to die down after a while, but the buzz in the room seemed as strong at 10.50pm as at 8pm. There was a constant queue of people trying to get hold of the marker pen which had been designated (with limited success) as giving someone the right to speak to group. The workshop facilitator had to speak up forcefully to point out that the facilities would be locked shut in ten minutes.

With this kind of intelligence and fervour being brought to bear in support of the Symbian Foundation’s tasks, I’m looking forward to an exciting time ahead.

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