What (a subset of) Done Looks Like


I recently ran a workshop on managing research software projects, and one of the questions that came up was, “What does ‘done’ look like?” There are lots of answers elsewhere for the technical side [1, 2, 3], but what about project management and governance? Here’s a first cut of the artifacts used to support those activities for a project with up to a couple of dozen contributors; additions, deletions, and corrections would be very welcome. (As always, please email me: the last time I opened up comments on this site it took all of two days for the trolls to show up.)

  1. A shared Google Drive with a doc called “Roles and Responsibilities”
    • Google Doc because some collaborators aren’t comfortable with Git
      • And to make it easier to paste in figures and screenshots
    • Defines roles and explains what each is responsible for in one page
    • Each role has a doc of its own with its checklists
  2. The same shared Google Drive has one doc per year called (e.g.) “Progress 2022”
    • Section headings are weekly meeting dates
      • Table for each week with columns Name, Progress, Plans, and Problems (bullet points)
      • Anything too long to fit comfortably in the table is linked to an issue in the project’s GitHub repository
    • Project has a little script that lists issues and PRs touched by each person (reminder)
  3. Weekly hour-long status meeting (which often finishes early)
    • On Wednesday so that people aren’t scrambling on Friday or a weekend (or holiday Monday) to write status updates
    • Rotating moderator: last week’s moderator is this week’s note-taker
    • Before meeting, members star points in the status doc they want to discuss
    • Moderator draws up agenda based on starred items
  4. Proposals can be done as either Google Docs (in shared folder) or GitHub issues
    • Must be flagged to moderator the day before the meeting for inclusion
    • Added to agenda
  5. Project has a single repo with code, website, tutorials, etc.
    • So that releases are in sync
  6. Uses Google Docs (again) for publicity materials (because non-programmers)
    • All materials are owned by project account, not personal accounts
    • Every change larger than a typo produces a new doc
    • Every doc has date in title, e.g., “University Press Release 2022-05-13”
  7. Budgets for grant proposals, job contracts, etc., are stored in university system
    • Legal requirement
  8. GOVERNANCE.md in root directory of project explains Martha’s Rules
    • And membership rule: anyone who has had a PR merged in the last year or made some other significant contribution (as determined by the PI)
    • List of active members and alumni is in the foot of GOVERNANCE.md
  9. Another small script checks that the tags in each project repository are consistent and that each issue has at least one tag
  10. Project website has a “skills ladder” on the “Positions” page (even when positions aren’t open)
    • “What we mean by each of these terms for the research and coding tracks”
  11. Project website has a value statement and a contact address that isn’t anyone’s personal address
    • Plus a page for publications
    • Plus a page pointing at all repositories
    • Plus a “Getting Started” page
    • And a “Who’s Using Us How” page
    • And a “People” page
  12. The “help” option for the software includes the URL to the project page

A Note on Consensus

As Jo Freeman pointed out in “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, every group has a power structure; the only question is whether it is explicit and accountable, or implicit and unaccountable. Unfortunately, GitHub’s Minimum Viable Governance guidelines duck this issue:

2.1. Consensus-Based Decision Making

Projects make decisions through consensus of the Maintainers. While explicit agreement of all Maintainers is preferred, it is not required for consensus. Rather, the Maintainers will determine consensus based on their good faith consideration of a number of factors, including the dominant view of the Contributors and nature of support and objections. The Maintainers will document evidence of consensus in accordance with these requirements.

In practice, since people’s idea of what constitutes “good faith” varies widely, “consensus-based” means governance by the self-confident, stubborn, and well-connected, which marginalizes a lot of people. Martha’s Rules and other procedures for putting proposals forward and voting on them aren’t perfect—democracy never is—but they’re better.