The Art of Closing

Saturday, June 4, 2016 ยท 4 min read

Being an open source software maintainer is hard. The following post is geared towards maintainers and not contributors. If you are a new contributor to open source I would stop reading now because I don’t want you to get the wrong idea or discourage you. Tons of patch requests get merged per day, but this is going to focus on the ones that don’t.

I’ve talked to maintainers from several different open source projects, mesos, kubernetes, chromium, and they all agree one of the hardest parts of being a maintainer is saying “No” to patches you don’t want.

To quote some very smart people I’ve worked with in the past:

To make this rather unpleasant experience of closing someone’s patch request easier I have a few ways of going about it. Now of course I am no expert in this area, but on the Docker project we have stats for just about everything. I might have used this data to make a “Ultimate Dream Killers” chart with the maintainers who closed (without merging) the most pull requests, AND I might have been #1 on this chart for some time.

None of the suggestions below are going to save you from that person hate mailing you since you didn’t merge their patch. But hey anything helps.

  1. The ego stroke and close.

    People love hearing how awesome they are. They also love hearing how awesome their code is. In this option you use this to your advantage. Here’s an example:

    “Thanks so much for spending time on this amazing patch. We really appreciate it. However I do not think this is something we want to add right now, because of yadda yadda but in the future this can change. Thanks so much!”

    AAAANNNDD close.

  2. Close early.

    No one wants to have to do 300 rebases before learning the design of their patch isn’t approved. If you know there is no way you will ever accept their patch, close it right then. Making someone wait and/or do more work while waiting will just make the situation worse when you do close it.

  3. The “I kinda like this but it’s just not right”.

    If someone creates a new feature that you might like if it was done differently but the current implementation has no way of being merged (maybe for design flaws etc.) I believe it’s best to close with opportunity for the person open another patch with the desired design. Here’s an example:

    Hi X, We really appreciate you taking the time to make this patch. However the design was not discussed prior to writing it. We do see potential in what you are trying to build, but we think it would be more effective as blah, blah, and blah. We are going to close this but would love to see you open a patch that takes the above direction. Thanks, this could really be an awesome feature!

    See how the ego stroke comes in handy here too :). AAAAAAND close.

  4. The carry.

    Carrying a patch is when a maintainer will take a user’s patch and add edits on top of it so it is mergable. On the docker project we do this every so often and for various reasons:

    • Contributor disappeared but the patch is viable just needs some edits.
    • Patch is like #3 above but it would be easier if we just did the implementation itself.

    It’s important to note if you are going to carry a patch, DO NOT close the original patch request until you have opened your carry patch. You obviously need to let the contributor know before hand you will be carrying it so they don’t waste their time. Also be sure to keep their original commit’s and add yours on top so the right people get credit :)

    Here’s an example:

    Hi X, we really like your patch, but since there hasn’t been a response in Y days we are going to carry this patch and make the edits ourselves. We will link to the new pull request here when it’s ready.

    Maintainer works on patch… opens new patch… then you can close the original patch request. See if you close it before opening the new one, the contributor will assume you are lying and never going to do it.

These are just a few of the techniques we’ve used in the past. I hope if you are a maintainer of a project they are helpful for you, but I would love to know your tips as well.

Happy Maintaining and always be closing!