Last month I was very lucky to attend the first Wontfix_Cabal, organised by Maintainerati and hosted at GitHub HQ in San Francisco.

It was totally awesome - and this is why.

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Concept & Style

This event was in the style of an “unconference” and was organised BY open source software maintainers FOR open source software maintainers. The event organiser Jess Frazelle explains the concept behind it as a place “where attendees could discuss topics candidly with their peers from other open source communities”. You can read Jess’ blog post for more of her insight into the event, where she also references the response to a previous blog post she published that appears to have unlocked the concept in her mind. It seemed to her that many maintainers were all coming up against the same issues, and they needed a space to vent - this is where Maintainerati and the Wonfix_Cabal were born.

The verb to “vent” refers to “giving free expression to (a strong emotion)”, and this is definitely applicable here. Everyone in the room had at least one burning issue they wanted to address, and the simple question “What would you like to discuss?” allowed the process to begin without censorship.

The event was a huge success, and I think this is mainly due to the style of event, and this focus on free expression.

Topics & Discussion

Attendees were invited to add themselves to the participants list in the preceding weeks, with the schedule deliberately very low key, and led by direct contribution on the day.

The process went a little something like this:

1: Suggest topics for discussion
2: Vote on topics you REALLY REALLY want to discuss
3: Join the focus group for one of the topics and discuss!
4: Summarise points for the larger group
5: Feel a new sense of acceptance, understanding and justification - HOORAY!
6: And repeat!

Disclaimer: Others may not have experienced #5 as strongly as me, but I hope they did!

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Topics included:

  • Metrics in OSS and community health
  • Ethics and work
  • Documentation
  • Onboarding/finding maintainers
  • Toxicity within communities
  • Saying no
  • Sole maintainers

You can find session summaries in the repo for more details.

There were many, many interesting and useful talking points of the day, and I’ve added the things that resonated most with me below.

“Being a maintainer is like being a politician”

Someone (I can’t recall who) offered this little gem, and I couldn’t agree more. I’d also possibly add “like being a parent” in the sense that you can expect your community to behave in a way that is both modelled and accepted by its members.

As a maintainer you will likely spend a lot of time engaging your diplomatic side - from dealing with questions such as “Is this project still maintained?” to interacting with disgruntled developers whose PR probably won’t be accepted, or users with far-fetched feature requests.

Management of expectations seems key

Whether you’re dealing with toxic behaviours in your community, how to contribute to a project (yours or others), onboarding new users/members or writing documentation - setting expectations will go a long way to making a smooth(er), happier life.

Some specific takeaways were:

Community behaviour

  • negative personal statements should be explicitly unacceptable
  • informal hierarchies rarely work as they can allow privileges to determine power, instead have a clear hierarchy and escalation policy
  • use a bot for some responses e.g. easy PR checks. This removes the emotive aspect and the possibility to take it personally
  • highlight good/non-toxic behaviours

Contribution - Ensure you respect contributors time

  • establish and maintain a list of easy but high impact/value projects and issues
  • highlight and value non-technical contributions
  • create a guide for contribution that clearly outlines the expected process, including ongoing maintenance
  • get to know your members and their individual motivations


  • something is better than nothing, and if it is expected of everyone then everyone is more likely to do it
  • just do it

Learn from your peers and lead by example

We are all in the same boat, as demonstrated by the success of this event, and the topics discussed at length and with great interest and passion. We can make the changes we would like to see, and we can start with ourselves!

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