Colin Watson
   


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Mon, 02 Mar 2009

Bug triage rants

I hate to say this, but often when somebody does lots of bug triage on a package I work on, I find it to be a net loss for me. I end up having to go through all the things that were changed, correct a bunch of them, occasionally pacify angry bug submitters, and all the rest of it, and often the benefits are minimal at best.

I would very much like this not to be the case. Bug triage is supposed to help developers be more efficient, and I think most people who do bug triage are generally well-intentioned and eager to help. Accordingly, here is a series of mini-rants intended to have educational value.

  • Bugs are not like fruit.

    Fruit goes bad if you leave it too long. By and large, bugs don't, especially if they're on software that doesn't change very much. There is no reason why a bug filed against a package in Ubuntu 4.10 where the relevant code hasn't changed much since shouldn't still be perfectly valid. Even if it isn't, it deserves proper consideration.

    My biggest single annoyance with bug triage is people coming around and asking if bugs are still valid when they haven't put any effort into reproducing them themselves. This annoys bug submitters too; every so often somebody replies and says "didn't you even bother to check?". This gives a very bad impression of us as a project - wouldn't it be better if we looked as if we knew what we were talking about? There is a good reason to do this kind of check, of course: random undiagnosed crash reports and the like may well go away due to related changes, and it is occasionally worth checking. But if the bug is already well-understood and/or well-described, you should just go and check whether it's still there rather than asking.

    As I understand it, the intended workflow is that people file bugs, then if they aren't clear enough bug triagers work with the submitter to gather information until they are, then they're passed to developers for further work. We seem to have added an extra step wherein submitters must periodically give their bug a health-check, and if they don't then it gets closed as being out of date. In a small minority of cases this is useful; in most cases, frankly, it makes us look a bit clueless. Can we please stop doing this? The more we waste people's time doing this, the less likely it is that they'll bother to respond to us, and this might help our statistics but doesn't help the project as a whole.

    I know that there's a problem with bug count. I think every project of non-trivial size has that problem. But, honestly, the right answer is to fix more bugs - and, personally, I would be able to spend more time doing that if I weren't often running around trying to make sure that bugs I care about aren't getting overenthusiastically closed just because somebody thinks they've been lying around too long.

    There is a good way to expire bugs like this, of course. It goes something like this: "I've read through your bug and tried to reproduce it with a current release, but I'm afraid I can't do so. Are you still experiencing it? If not, then I think it might have been fixed by [this change I found in the package's history that seems to be related]." You can't do this en masse, but you'll get a much better response from submitters, you'll learn more doing it, and in the process of doing the necessary investigation of each bug you'll find that there are many cases you don't have to ask about at all.

  • Wishlist bugs are not intrinsically bad.

    There are certainly cases where something is far too broad or vague for a bug report; but there are also plenty of cases, probably far more, where the wish in question is a relatively small change to the program, or doesn't need any more sophisticated tracking, and a wishlist bug is just right. If you don't know the program very well, it may be difficult to tell whether a wishlist bug is appropriate or not; in that case, just leave the bug alone.

    Please, for the love of all that's holy, don't close wishlist bugs saying that people should use Brainstorm or write a specification instead! If you don't want to see wishlist bugs in your statistics, just filter them out; it's quite easy to do. Even worse, don't tell people that something probably isn't a good idea when you aren't familiar with the software; people who have gone to the effort of writing up their idea for us deserve a response from somebody who knows the software well. I've encountered cases where friends of mine submitted a bug report (sometimes even at my request) and then a triager told them it was a bad idea and closed their bug. This sort of thing puts people off Ubuntu.

    Specifications are software design documents. As such, they are best written by software designers. People who tell other people to go and write a specification may not realise that as a result of doing this for three years it's now essentially impossible to find anything in the specification system! The intent was never that every user of Ubuntu would need to write a specification to get anything changed; specifications are used by developers to document the results of discussions and write up plans. They are not a straightforward alternative to wishlist bugs, nor do they turn out to work very well as what many formal processes call "requirements documents"; the process of refining the latter in the context of Ubuntu might involve wishlist bugs, mailing list threads, wiki pages, private discussions with developers, or things of that nature, and probably shouldn't involve creating a specification until the requirements-gathering process is well underway.

  • Closing a bug is taking an item off somebody's to-do list.

    You wouldn't go up to a colleague's whiteboard and take an eraser to it unless you were sure that was OK, would you? Yet people seem to do that all the time with bugs. It's OK when the bug is really just like a support request - "help, it crashed, what do I do?" - and either you're pretty sure it's user error or there's just no way to get enough information to fix it. But once the initial triage process is done, now it's on somebody's to-do list.

    This is closely related to ...

  • If a developer has accepted it, leave it alone.

    Every so often I find that there's a bug that I have accepted by way of a bug comment or setting to Triaged or whatever, or even a bug that I filed on a package I work on as a reminder to myself, and somebody comes along and asks for more information or asks if we can still reproduce it or something. The hit rate on this kind of thing is extraordinarily low. There's a good chance that the developer went and verified the bug against the code, and in that case it certainly doesn't need more information (or they would have asked for it) and it probably isn't going to go away without anyone noticing.

    In most other free software projects, developers file bug reports themselves as a reminder about things that need to be done, and people leave them alone unless they're intending to help with the fix. In Ubuntu, developers also have to spend time making sure that those to-do items don't get expired. Nobody is helped by this.

    launchpad-gm-scripts includes a Greasemonkey script called lp_karma_suffix, which can help you to identify developers without having to spend lots of time clicking around.

  • Check whether the package is being actively worked on.

    Some packages are actively worked on in Ubuntu; some aren't (e.g. we just sync packages from Debian, or they're basically orphaned, or whatever). It's worth checking which is which before doing any kind of extensive triage work. If it's being actively worked on, why not go and talk to the developer(s) in question first? It's only polite, and it will probably help you to do a better job.

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