The Missing Piece: Why Your Project Needs a Maintainer Onboarding Process

The Missing Piece: Why Your Project Needs a Maintainer Onboarding Process


5 min read

In the open source community, we often focus on contributor onboarding. We ensure a clear README, contributing guidelines, and a welcoming community to guide new contributors and help them get started. But what about maintainers?

Maintainers are the backbone of any open source project. They review code, merge pull requests, triage issues, and keep the project moving forward. Just like contributors, maintainers also come and go. They may have other commitments outside the project or experience burnout due to the role's demands.

When I joined a maintainers team, we all started doing what we thought best. However, without a clear standard or guidelines, it quickly became chaotic. We each had our way of doing things, and there was little consistency in handling tasks.

This lack of standardization made it confusing for new maintainers like me. I often felt unsure of the "right" way to do things and had to rely on asking my team for guidance, which wasn't always efficient. It made me wonder, "Why don't we have clear guidelines for maintainers, just like we do for contributors?" From there, these maintainer guidelines were born.

Based on this experience, I will share with you the importance of having maintainers' guidelines and how to create one in this article.

From Confusion to Clarity: Why Onboarding Guidelines Matter

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Maintainer onboarding guidelines are crucial for several reasons.

  • Clear role and responsibilities: Onboarding guidelines provide a clear understanding of the role and its responsibilities. Each project is unique, and maintainers need to know what is expected of them specifically within that project.
  • Standardization and Consistency: Guidelines ensure consistency in handling tasks. Without them, each maintainer may have their own way of doing things, leading to confusion and inefficiency. Standardized processes make it easier for maintainers to collaborate and ensure the project runs smoothly.
  • Knowledge Transfer: Onboarding documentation serves as a valuable resource for future maintainers. It captures the collective knowledge of the existing team, ensuring a smooth transition even when members move on. This continuity is crucial for the long-term health of the project.
  • Reduces Burnout: Clear onboarding processes can help prevent maintainer burnout. They prevent new maintainers from feeling overwhelmed and reduce the need for constant hand-holding from existing members, leading to a more fulfilling and sustainable experience.

Documenting the Journey: From Pain Points to Guidelines

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Every project is different, and understanding the challenges in your project will help you create tailored guidelines.

You can start by acknowledging the pain points you've experienced or witnessed within the project. Here are some examples:

  • When should we close a PR?
  • What method should we use to merge PRs?
  • If changes in a PR are requested and the contributor has resolved them, can we dismiss the review and merge it without waiting for approval from the person who requested the changes?
  • How long do we keep stale PRs open before closing them?
  • What criteria do we use to reject an issue?
  • May a contributor take multiple issues at the same time? If so, how many?
  • How do we handle code reviews and merge conflicts?
  • What are the communication protocols within the team and with contributors? Are there any preferred communication channels, response times, and expectations for tone and language?

And the list can go on.

Once you have a list of your pain points, discuss them openly with the team. Ask them questions such as what their current pain points are. What processes are working well, and what needs improvement? Brainstorm solutions collaboratively and translate them into actionable guidelines.

By asking these questions and documenting the answers, you can start drafting clear guidelines that address the specific needs of your project and maintainer team.

Beyond Onboarding: A Graceful Offboarding Process

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While onboarding is crucial, it's also important to consider the offboarding process for maintainers. This ensures that the transition is smooth and respectful for all involved when a maintainer needs to move on and leave the team.

You can consider the following when drafting your offboarding process:

  • Circumstances for letting a maintainer go: Define the criteria for removing a maintainer from the team, such as prolonged inactivity, lack of engagement, or failure to meet the project's code of conduct.
  • Inactivity notice: Set a timeframe for inactivity before reaching out to gently remind them of their commitment. If inactivity persists, further action can be taken.
  • Retirement process: What happens when a maintainer decides to step down? You might need a procedure for revoking access and ensuring a secure handover of responsibilities.

Collaboration is Key: Building Consensus with the Team

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Once you've drafted the guidelines, it's time to seek final input from the team. Share your work, solicit feedback, and discuss potential revisions.

This collaborative approach provides valuable insights from diverse perspectives and ensures everyone feels invested in the process and is on the same page. Open discussions can further strengthen the guidelines and promote a culture of transparency within the project.

It's important to remember that these guidelines are living documents. They should evolve as the project grows and adapts to changing circumstances. You need to regularly review and update them to ensure they remain relevant and helpful.

Final Words

Investing time crafting clear onboarding documentation for maintainers is more than just good practice; it's a strategic move that strengthens your entire project.

By creating a comprehensive onboarding process for maintainers, you are not just welcoming new team members but setting them up for success. New maintainers are welcomed with a clear roadmap, existing maintainers benefit from a standardized workflow, and the project flourishes with a knowledgeable and empowered team.

So, let's give our maintainers the same warm welcome and clear direction that we offer our contributors!

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