A programmer complained that Amazon was ignoring its open source community — but the response from an Amazon exec shows that it's 'definitely listening' (AMZN)


Jeff Barr

  • A frustrated developer took to Twitter to complain about Amazon Web Services, saying that it was ignoring the work of volunteer programmers trying to contribute to the cloud giant’s open source projects.
  • He described it as a “slap in the face.”
  • AWS has been under fire of late for its role in the open source community — it’s sometimes accused of using a lot of free open source software, without contributing enough back in turn. 
  • Within hours of this tweet, and this discussion it caused, a well-known AWS developer relations exec publicly responded and promised fixes. The story highlights how Amazon is going to great lengths to make programmers, one of its most important audiences, happy. 
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Hey @awscloud, can we talk about your docs on GitHub?”

That’s how Richard Boyd, a frustrated programmer, began a tweet last week. 

But what happened next is an insightful look at Amazon’s relationship with one of its most important communities: the programmers that use AWS services as paying customers and care enough them to roll up their sleeves and contribute.

Boyd was complaining about the documentation that Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing giant, included on GitHub whenever it shared an open source project. GitHub is a a Microsoft-owned service for hosting open source software — that is, software that anyone can use, fix or contribute to. Big companies like Amazon use it as a way to get the users of their wares to add features and fix bugs.

Amazon Web ServicesDocumentation, the set of instructions on how to use an app or feature, is often considered the bane of the programming world. We know there must be some programmers that love to write documentation, but we haven’t met many. 

So it’s not unusual for documentation on free, open source software to be hurried or have mistakes. That’s one reason why a development team would post their documentation on GitHub instead of, say, their own website, so that anyone who sees a mistake can submit a fix, in a process known as a “pull request,” or PR. The people who run the project can then either reject those suggested changes or accept them via a process called merging. 

Boyd was expressing annoyance not so much at the mistakes in AWS documentation — that could be forgiven, he tells Business Insider — but at how contributions to fixing those mistakes were being treated by Amazon: many of them were just being ignored.

“There are dozens of open PRs that are months old with no action from AWS on merging/denying them,” he tweeted, showing one example from six months ago.

“This feels like one slap in the face to developers who are expected to do free work for the world’s 3rd (2nd?) richest company, then a second slap when that work is completely ignored,” he tweeted.

While some mistakes in documentation, like a typo, might be meaningless, others are significant. One document told people to use an out of date version of another open source project. If people followed those instructions, the feature they were trying to use “just won’t work. It’s an actual usability bug,” Boyd said.

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To add to his frustration, Boyd says that AWS engineers could likely even automate merging many of these pull requests, he tells Business Insider. It doesn’t necessarily require a person’s valuable time to review them all, he believes.

andy jassy aws“When we’re talking about documentation, the impact of an error is much smaller than if we were talking about code. Automation should be able to handle more to make the experience better for contributors,” he said.

The interesting thing about his tweet rant is that within hours, several AWS team leaders jumped on the Twitter conversation to reply.

One of them was Jeff Barr, vice president and chief evangelist at Amazon Web Services.

Within hours of Boyd’s tweetstorm — which also saw other devs jumped in to share their experiences, Barr addressed Boyd’s complaint. He tweeted that Amazon had fixed the six-month old example and said. “we’re working on many others. We definitely don’t expect our customers to write the docs, but we value, prioritize, and pay attention to their feedback.”

Boyd was satisfied enough with that quick response, although he remains skeptical.

“They are definitely listening,” he tells Business Insider. But he’s also watching to see if some of the more serious pull requests get dealt with in a reasonable time frame, like weeks, not months. 

Part of the problem, Boyd suggests, is that each AWS team uses its own communication methods to interact with customers and developers. Some use Slack channels. Some use Gitter, a chat app aimed at developers. Some watch their GitHub contributor activity closely, while others don’t, Boyd said.

Barr, incidentally, is the face of AWS for many developers. He writes the prolific, official AWS blog that explains all the new features that the company continuously rolls out. He’s so well known among the AWS developer crowd that there are cartoon stickers of him, for placement on laptops and notebooks. 

“How you know that you’re in Seattle. Spotting a @jeffbarr sticker on a random bar toilet… ¯_(ツ)_/¯ tweeted Seattle visitor @svdgraaf tweeted last week. (Barr loved that, by the way. He replied with this joke on how Amazon always names all their conferences with a “re:” tweeting back, “Was that at re:Bar”)


Big cloud companies versus open source

All of this happening against a backdrop where cloud computing companies, particularly Amazon, have been accused of being poor partners in the open source world.

Open source stirs up religious fervor in the hearts of developers. It’s a way for many of them to share their creations with their brethren free of the intellectual property legalities and corporate politics that have historically surrounded software. And if a project takes off and becomes popular enough to warrant commercial versions, it can be their entry into riches and success, too. 

Read: Larry Ellison explains Oracle’s restructuring and layoffs: Some of our business units are ‘melting away’ and ‘we just don’t care’

Open source software, where anyone can take the code, use it and modify it for free, works best when people and corporations give, as well as take.

But cloud companies, especially Amazon, have more recently been painted as the Big Bad Wolf of open source. Companies that offer commercialized version of open source software, like MongoDB, have been accusatory, pointing the finger at Amazon with allegations of being all take and no give. 

“We don’t think it is reasonable is for a cloud vendor to come and take a free version, monetize and not give anything back,” MongoDB CEO Dev Ittycheria told Computer Business Review. 

Dev Ittycheria MongoDB CEOAmazon has every legal right to do what it likes with open source code — such is the very nature of open source.

And so, commercial companies like MongoDB and Reddis have used their complaints against Amazon as fuel to change their licenses in order to start putting limits on what cloud providers can do with their free software. 

In turn, Amazon has called out these commercial companies for violating one of the sacred principles of open source by trying to place restrictions on something that was released with the promise of being free and open.  

“Customers must be able to trust that open source projects stay open,” AWS executive Adrian Cockcroft wrote in a blog post in March.

No outsiders allowed

Boyd is less concerned with Amazon’s contributions to other vendors’ software. While he thinks that’s important, he doesn’t think its the only useful metric to judge Amazon’s open source record, he tells Business Insider. 

Read: CERN, the famous scientific lab where the web was born, tells us why it’s ditching Microsoft and helping others do the same

Amazon Open Source projectsHe cares more about how Amazon and the other big tech companies treat the individual programmers who are volunteering to help them improve their code, often using their own personal time to do so.

“What grinds my gears is when they say something is open source, but it’s essentially just ‘source available,'” he said.

What he means is that he gets frustrated when the only accepted code contributions to an open source project are those who “all work for the same company,” while outsiders get rejected. 

“It’s not specific to Amazon…all the big tech companies do this,” he said. 

And that means that a really brilliant programmer making “high quality” contributions to the project never gets any authority in the community, unless the company that’s really powering that open source project hires the person. 

While it’s fine for a company to seed its open source projects with its own staff at first, the strength of open source really blossoms when the users of the software, not just the vendors of it, get to contribute.

“After a certain amount of time, to grow the community, you have to have external contributors,” he says. 

And that’s what really gets his goat about ignored documentation fixes, as it’s a low-risk area to allow people to participate and maybe develop those star external helpers.

Meanwhile, Amazon is protecting its reputation. It’s sending speakers out to talk about open source at conferences, defending the company’s position and reiterating that the company is more devoted than ever to the community. Indeed, Amazon Web Services recently launched its first-ever open source projects.

And it’s even jumping on the tweets of a developer who complains to say that it’s listening and learning.

Amazon declined further request to comment.

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