Rockin’ FLOSS Manuals: The CiviCRM book sprint

If you use open source software, and aren’t a programmer, you may wonder how you can give back to the community that provides you with such marvelous tools at no-to-little cost.  At the same time, maybe you’ve run into a problem running some piece of open source software, clicked F1 or otherwise looked for some help in doing something—and found little or no help on offer. There’s a way to solve both these problems: Check out, and get involved with, the FLOSS Manuals project.

Recently I’ve made the time to participate in one of the more fun institutions of the FLOSS Manuals project: the Book Sprint. Programmers of all stripes know about sprints, the Agile technique of defining a set period of time when some new software gets finished. In the open source world, sprints are times where usually far-flung volunteer development teams gather in some specific place for a long weekend for a coding intensive session. New versions don’t necessarily come out of the sprint, but usually it moves a lot closer to “done.” FLOSS Manual book sprints bring writers (and often, programmers) together aiming to finish a manual, new or updated. Occasionally new manuals are even created from nothing in a weekend. The best part is that you don’t always have to get on an airplane to participate. Remote folks are welcome!

Our task for the last weekend in April was to complete a major updating of the CiviCRM user guide. This web application designed as a Drupal module, and now also a  Joomla! extension, is built like a customer relationship manager (hence the CRM) for nonprofits and political organizations. This makes it more like a community organizer’s best friend.

Counting FLOSS Manuals founder Adam Hyde, and O’Reilly editor Andy Oram, there were about a half-dozen participants gathered somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area and two remote copy editors: Me in Milwaukee, and Helen in New Zealand. The writers were busy all day Saturday, and delivered the first chapters to the copy editors late Sunday. Throughout the sprint, a chat stream kept everyone together to get questions answered and occasionally engage in the usual banter. You could access the chat both from a standard IRC client and directly from the Sprint page at FLOSS Manuals. Other communication took place on the FLOSS Manuals standard discussion list, which you can sign up for here.

The editing took place directly on the FLOSS Manuals site, with the standard visual editor (TinyMCE?) Checking out chapters for editing, and checking in edited material was quite simple. If you’ve ever used a tool like Google Docs (or the WordPress visual editor), you can handle this. It may not be overly complicated, but it works very well.

On Tuesday, the sprint ended, and the revision was formally released. But the copy editing continues, and I should be getting back to it!

Seriously, this project is for you if you fit any or all of these characteristics:

  • You are passionate about open source software
  • You like describing how software works to others
  • You want to see if technical writing/communication might be an appropriate career move, but don’t know how to get experience
  • You like hanging out with geeks and/or writers, either in Real Life or virtually

Hope to see some of you over at FLOSS Manuals soon! Look over the projects, and if you see something you’d like to help with, register and have at it. If you want to write about a particular open source project that isn’t listed here, mention it on the mailing list and you can organize your own sprint!

For another perspective on the sprint, visit the CiviCRM Blog posts on the sprint.