Maintaining your email

One of the difficulties of being a kernel maintainer for a busy subsystem is that you will often end up getting a lot of mail that requires reading and handling which in turn requires sending a lot of mail out in reply. Some of that requires thought and careful consideration but a lot of it is quite routine and (perhaps surprisingly) there is often more challenge in doing a good job of handling these routine messages.

For a long time I used to hand write every reply I sent but the problem with doing that is that sending the same message a lot of times tends to result in the messages getting more and more brief as the message becomes routine and practised. Your words become more optimised and if you’ve stopped thinking about the message before you’ve finished typing it then there’s a desire to finish the typing and get on to the next thing. This is I think a lot of the reputation that kernel maintainers have for being terse and unhelpful comes from – messages that are very practised for someone sending them all the time aren’t always going to be obvious or helpful for someone who’s not so intimately familiar with what’s going on. The good part of it is that everyone is getting a personalised response and it’s easy to insert a comment about that specific situation when you’re already replying but it’s not clear that the tradeoff is a good one.

What I’ve started doing instead for most things is keeping a set of pre-written paragraphs for common cases that I can just insert into a mail and edit as needed. Hopefully it’s working well for people, it means the replies are that bit more verbose than they might otherwise be (mainly adding an explanation of why a given thing is being asked for) but can easily be adapted as needed. The one exception is the “Applied, thanks” mails I used to send when I apply a patch (literally just saying that). Those are now automatically generated by the script I use to sync my local git repository with kernel.org and very much more verbose:

From: Mark Brown <broonie@kernel.org>
To: ${CCS}
Cc: ${LIST}
Subject: ${SUBJECT}
In-Reply-To: ${MSGID}

The patch

   ${TITLE}

has been applied to the ${REPO} tree at

   ${URL} ${BRANCH}

All being well this means that it will be integrated into the linux-next
tree (usually sometime in the next 24 hours) and sent to Linus during
the next merge window (or sooner if it is a bug fix), however if
problems are discovered then the patch may be dropped or reverted.

You may get further e-mails resulting from automated or manual testing
and review of the tree, please engage with people reporting problems and
send followup patches addressing any issues that are reported if needed.

(unfortunately this bit seems to be something that it’s worth pointing out)

If any updates are required or you are submitting further changes they
should be sent as incremental updates against current git, existing
patches will not be replaced.

Please add any relevant lists and maintainers to the CCs when replying
to this mail.

Thanks,
Mark

(the script does try to CC relevant lists). As well as giving people more information this also means that the mails only get sent out when things actually get published to my public repositories which avoids some confusion that used to happen sometimes with people getting my replies before I’d pushed, especially when I’d been working with poor connectivity as often happens when travelling. On the down side it’s very much an obvious form letter which some people don’t like and which can make people glaze over.

My hope with this is to make things easier on average for patch submitters and easier for me, feedback on the scripted e-mails appears to be good thus far and the goal with the pasted in content is that it should be less obvious that it’s happening so I’d expect less feedback there.

4 thoughts on “Maintaining your email

    1. The script isn’t published anywhere public at the minute, it’s very tied to my personal infrastructure and use of patchwork and is in a repo with a bunch of other things I definitely shouldn’t be publishing.

  1. I don’t work on the kernel, so perhaps I shouldn’t comment, but I think there’s something to be said for getting the terse message patch applied which is that patch authors also have a bunch of mail to deal with so the less you make them read the better.

    1. Right, so one advantage I didn’t mention of the form letter being an obvious form letter is that people can get the gist of it without actually reading the whole thing. Prior to doing that I was getting a noticeable number of questions about what the status of patches after I’d applied them so there was a definite set of people who were confused about what was going.

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