The Blind Men and the Elephant: A Story of Noobs

If you will indulge me, I'd like to paraphrase a familiar tale:

Once upon a time, deep in the forest, there was a tribe of elephant curators. The elders of this tribe kept sophisticated, detailed notes about the proper care and feeding of elephants, and the villagers tended to follow along. Eventually, they dedicated a large section of the local library to books and articles on the care and feeding of elephants. One day, a group of blind nomads appeared in the village. Each of the blind men went to greet the villagers, and were met with welcomes. Wanting to be helpful, they walked over to one of the elephants and tried to learn about it. The first man, who stood next to the elephant's tail said, "I feel a snake". The second, who stood next to the elephant's leg said, "I feel a tree trunk". And so on. One of the group of nomads, who thought he felt a snake, went to the elders of the village and asked, "I would like to help. How can I feed this creature?" The elder replied: "Sir, if you can't be bothered to search the library for information on the care and feeding of elephants, surely you are wasting our time". Years passed and after a grueling series of trials, the blind men became integrated into the culture, becoming some of the most successful at caring for the elephants. Eventually, another group of blind nomads appeared. The entire village, including the original group, proceeded to berate the new travelers. "We've spent quite a bit of time putting together a section of the library about how to care for these animals. You are wasting our time". Of course, the travelers did not know the creatures were elephants, and so they entered the library, searching for books on feeding snakes and caring for trees. Eventually, an elderly blind man, of the original group stood up and said: "Have we forgotten than we, too, started in this confused state. We should help these travelers and perhaps they will become as wise and helpful as we became".

To many participants in open source communities, this is a familiar tale. When a developer first comes across an open source project, either to use it in a project or to help, he is like a blind man feeling an elephant.

It's easy to spit out "lmgtfy.com" or RTFM, but in truth, these beginners barely know where to look. All too often, we (open source leaders) assume that if someone couldn't figure out the right search term on Google, they can never become a viable community member.

When I first started working on Rails, I distinctly remember not knowing what the request method in Rails controllers was. To some degree, this could be attributed to its exclusion in api.rubyonrails.org, but some judicious Googling turned up the ActionController::Request class. Writing this post years later, the request method still does not reside in the API docs, but I found the Request documentation in seconds.

The problem is that a new developer simply has no conceptual model for the problem at all. In most cases, the "noob" can stare at "the f*ing manual" all day and simply fail to find something staring him in the face. Importantly, this does not reflect a failing on the part of the new developer. Virtually everyone I know who worked their way from noob to senior Rails developer starting feeling around the elephant.

As open source leaders, if we are interested in growing our communities, we should treat new developers as confused people with real potential. That's not to say that sinking dozens of hours down a black hole is a good use of time. On the other hand, the mismatch between how we think about problems once we become experienced and the way we feel around like a blind man when getting started makes the experience of getting started with an open source project far more painful than it needs to be.