Holding focused meetings, also known as "sprints," over several days to develop, test and document software, is proving very helpful to the open-source Plone community in quickly adding more functionality to its content management software.
The project was started in 2000 by Alan Runyan and Alexander Limi, who now works at Google in the user experience team, and has proven popular particularly because the software supports more than 50 languages. Plone helps users manage documents, files and images through a Web interface and also lets them publish that content to the Internet or to an intranet.
The latest Plone sprint is in full swing at the Boston offices of the daily newspaper the Christian Science Monitor, attracting more than 20 attendees, including one a-piece from Germany and Finland, and seven remote participants based in Australia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the U.S. The aim by close of play Sunday (July 22) is to have produced release 1.0 final versions of Plone4Artists Audio and Calendar software and a beta version of the Video component. Work will center on improving how the Plone content management software handles audio and video files and images.
In putting together a sprint, one of the hardest things to prioritize what's achievable over the three or five days that the event will last, according to Nate Aune, one of the leaders and organizers of the Boston sprint. You need to take into account the skills levels of the participants and the features both they and the community as a whole are clamoring for.
There have been around 30 Plone sprints since the first such event took place in Berne, Switzerland in February 2003. Tres Seaver, a senior software developer, begun to use sprints in 2002 as a way to speed up the development of Zope 3, an open-source Web application framework that's written in the Python programming language.
The idea is to have small groups of developers, say two to three individuals in each group, working on specific issues over several days. Plone is built using Zope and so it was natural for the community to also embrace the concept of sprints. Plone sprints aren't limited to coders though, Aune said. Participants with other skills, for instance, writing documentation and software testing, are also welcome.
As the event begins, sprinters tend to naturally gravitate into small groups and event organizers only have to help that process a little by doing a spot of matchmaking, Aune said. For instance, encouraging people with the same interests, say calendaring, to sit next to each other and start talking.
There's "a huge geek factor" among the sprinters, Rocky Burt said, meaning there can be some social awkwardness, but in his role as Boston sprint leader and provider of technical assistance he makes sure he talks to everyone. The event also kicks off with a group meeting to define goals and each day ends with a similar get-together where all participants report on what they've been doing.
"Sprints really help the momentum of the project," Burt said. As with any volunteer-led development effort, people will lose interest from time to time and sprints can provide a real boost to Plone as community members become re-energized about the work. That not only applies to the participants, but also to other Plone users who can tune into what's going on at sprints by live video and audio feeds.
Sprints vary in how they're run. Some organizers insist upon sprinters clocking in at a particular time each day. The Boston event is less formal with people rolling in whenever they choose. Typically, the day gets under way around 9 a.m. and finishes up around 6 p.m. "It can be hard to make people stop," Aune said. "You sometimes have to coax them out with food."