In recent times we have worked quite a bit to improve the NM process, i.e. the process newcomers go through to become members of the Debian Project. As it happens, I've just read Nathan's recent post on his NM experience and I think it is a perfect example of the joining experience we are trying to offer to all newcomers.

But examples, be them positive or negative, are only anecdotal. To evaluate a process one needs actual data and someone analyzing them, ideally with a scientific approach. This is why I'm happy to host below a guest blog post by Kevin Carillo, who is doing a pretty thorough scientific study about how newcomers join a wide range of Free Software projects, including KDE, OpenSUSE, GNOME, and Debian, of course!

TL;DR: if you started contributing to Debian after January 2010, there's a survey for you; participating will help us improving the NM process even further.

Kevin's guest blog post follows.

Newcomer experience in Debian and other FOSS communities - Survey

My name is Kevin Carillo. I am a PhD student currently living in Wellington (New Zealand) and I am doing some research on Free/Open Source Software communities.

If you have started contributing to the Debian project after January 2010 (within approximately the last 3 years), I would like to kindly request your help. I am interested in hearing from people who are either technical or non-technical contributors, and who have had either positive or negative newcomer experiences.

The purpose of the research is to work out how newcomers to a FOSS community become valued sustainable contributors.

The survey is online and will be available until Tuesday, 27 November, 2012.

Inspiration from Debian New Member

Debian is a successful community that keeps attracting new contributors and that relies on a very unique way to handle the integration of new contributors: the New Member process.

The idea behind the NM process is that it is some sort of filtering procedure allowing to only retain the individuals who have the potential to become valued sustainable contributors in Debian. Within Debian, there is a lot of enthusiasm and pride around the NM process as it seems to be functioning pretty well but the question is: Is this really enough to ensure that Debian remains a healthy and growing community? How does it compare to the way newcomers are integrated in other large projects such as KDE, GNOME, or in other non-Linux related communities such as Mozilla?

I have to admit that the Debian NM process has been among the main sources of inspiration that made me embark in this research project. I have kept being quite impressed when talking to people who had gone through the process as all of them came out of it with a real passion for the project and love for its community.

When reflecting on the reasons why the NM process succeeds, I have a feeling it is some instance of ritualized socialization. In other words, barriers and initiation rituals that require some effort from newcomers, generate members with higher commitment and sense of identification towards the Debian community.

What do newcomers really experience?

The main assumption that motivated this project is that attracting new members has become crucial for a large majority of FOSS communities but this is not a sufficient condition to ensure the success and prosperity of a project. A proportion of a community's newcomers must contribute to the well-being and growth of the community.

Keeping all that in mind, FOSS projects have thus to do a good job at "socializing" their newcomers and turning them into 'good' contributors. Doing a good job here means that FOSS projects shall ensure that they help generate citizenship-like behaviors from newcomers by designing appropriate newcomer programs and procedures.

FOSS communities rely on a wide array of initiatives to facilitate the integration of newcomers but it seems like the other side of the coin is less understood: What do newcomers really experience? And how does this influence their contributions and actions within a project?

How is this study going to help Debian?

The data will help gain insights about the experience of newcomers within the Debian community. In addition, it will allow to understand how to design effective newcomer initiatives to ensure that Debian will remain a successful and healthy community.

The dataset will be released under a share-alike ODbL license so that Debian contributors can extract as much value as possible from the data. Since this survey also involves other large FOSS projects such as Mozilla, KDE, Gnome, Ubuntu, Gentoo, OpenSUSE, and NetBSD, it will also be possible to compare practices across projects in order to identify what works from what does not work when facilitating the integration of newcomers.

About the survey

This survey is anonymous. The raw dataset of everything one fills in the survey will be released under the ODbL. Since all the questions but one are optional, one is free to control the amount of information they are giving away about themselves.

I expect the survey to take around 20 minutes of your time.

If you know members of the Debian community who you think would be interested in completing it, please do not hesitate to let them know about this research.

I will post news about my progress with this research, and the results on my blog. Don't hesitate to contact me.

--- Kevin Carillo