6 tips for receiving feedback on your open source contributions

Receiving feedback can be hard. These tips will help.
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In the free and open source software world, there are few moments as exciting or scary as submitting your first contribution to a project. You've put your work out there and now it's subject to review and feedback by the rest of the community.

Not to put it too lightly, but feedback is great. Without feedback we keep making the same mistakes. Without feedback we can't learn and grow and evolve. It's one of the keys that makes free and open source collaboration work.

Unfortunately, most of us have a hard time receiving feedback, let alone accepting it. We identify too closely with our contribution, such that criticisms of it—no matter how valid—are taken personally and put us on the defensive.

It doesn't help that most of us also have a hard time giving feedback, often delivering criticisms without empathy or in ways that are directed more at the person than at their contribution.

Both receiving and giving feedback are skills that can be learned and honed through practice. As you enter into this world of free and open source contributions, I encourage you to remember these tips:

  1. You are not your contribution. Even if the person providing the feedback is unskilled at it, and their criticisms come across as personally directed, try not to take their comments in that way. Try to focus on the aspects of their feedback that relate directly to your contribution, then guide the feedback conversation toward these elements.
  2. It's not personal. Problems found with your contribution are not problems found with you. You've put a lot of time and effort into that contribution, so naturally you feel a bit attached to it and that's OK. It's right to feel pride in what you've created and accomplished. But it's better to recognize that there's always a way to improve your contribution. Collaborate with those providing feedback to help evolve the contribution, the project, your knowledge, and your skills.
  3. Feedback is a gift. When people provide feedback on your contribution, they're freely sharing their knowledge and experience with you. You can use this feedback to grow into a more skilled contributor, then one day pay that gift forward as you provide feedback to others. This is part of the beneficial cycle that allows free and open source to grow.
  4. Feedback and questions help make you better at what you do. That's because feedback and questions help you see things you never have before and expand your mind and
    Collaborate with those providing feedback to help evolve the contribution, the project, your knowledge, and your skills.
    experiences in ways you never anticipated. None of us are perfect. None of us are all knowing. All of us have been in your position before: feeling excited at the newness but more than a little lost in it as well. It's OK. Ask questions. Ask for feedback. It's the only way not to feel lost, and we all want to help you.
  5. If you get angry at some feedback, step away for a bit to cool off before responding. It happens: A piece of feedback will get under your skin. Perhaps it was the way it was phrased. Maybe it's dismissing an implementation about which you have strong opinions. Or maybe the person who gave the feedback is just an indelicate chowderhead. Like I said: It happens. Just because you're angry does not mean you have to react immediately. Replying in the heat of the moment rarely ends well for anyone involved. Take time to cool off before responding. Go for a walk. Play with your pets or your kids. Spend some time on a hobby or other project. Fire up a good movie or video game. Whatever it takes, give yourself space from the offending comment. Once you've had the time to cool off and think it over more, then you can respond rather than react.
  6. Always Assume Good Intent. Above all, always assume good intent with all feedback. No matter how poorly a piece of feedback may be delivered, the person providing it is still giving you that gift of their knowledge and experience. They're not (usually) doing it to show off; they want the best for the project, for the contribution, and for you. Respect that and them and help them help you provide the best contribution you can. They mean well. Do you?

These tips will help you keep the perspective needed to get the most out of the feedback you'll receive on your first contribution. But what if you're the one providing the feedback? The next article in this series has you covered there, too.

Adapted from Forge Your Future with Open Source by VM (Vicky) Brasseur, Copyright © 2018 The Pragmatic Programmers LLC. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher.

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VM (aka Vicky) spent most of her 20 years in the tech industry leading software development departments and teams, and providing technical management and leadership consulting for small and medium businesses.

1 Comment

It's also worthwhile remembering that valuable comments can come from people who understand very well the technical matters at hand but struggle with clearly expressing their comment, perhaps due to lack of mastery of the language (often English) or the socio-cultural expectations of the context.

Copyright © 2018 The Pragmatic Programmers LLC.