A ROSCon 2023 Recap24 Oct 2023
One of the benefits of being on sabbatical is that I don’t have to rush back to work after ROSCon - and so I can sit around and write up some thoughts and themes from the show.
Don’t expect me to tell you what the best talks were - I didn’t actually attend any talks. You are not alone if that seems strange to you, my reasoning is that all the talks get recorded and will be posted in a week or two but walking around talking with people can only be done in person.
Getting New Contributors into Open Source Robotics Software
On the Tuesday prior to ROSCon, PickNik Robotics hosted MoveItCon with more than fifty community members in attendance. The most interesting takeaway came from the opening presentation slides:
Over the past year, 29 of 66 contributors to MoveIt2 were FIRST TIME contributors. This stands in stark contrast to many of the more core ROS packages. I had numerous discussions at both MoveItCon and ROSCon about why MoveIt2 has been so successful in luring new contributors. The consensus was really around how little friction new contributors encounter.
MoveIt2 has a large group of very active maintainers - who especially take the time to help new contributors run through the gauntlet they might encounter. There are a number of maintainer strategies at play for MoveIt2, but here are a few you could apply to your own projects:
- Actively maintain the list of tickets/issues on a project, culling out of date ones.
- Instead of spending time tackling some of the easier issues, tag them “Good First Issue” and then spend that time to help a new contributor to solve the bug or implement a new feature.
- Respond quickly to new PRs. Make sure feedback is constructive.
- Have great documentation, especially around how to setup the development environment.
- Be a cool/glamorous project. Ok, this is a bit harder for some of the essential open source packages - but it is hard to deny that MoveIt2 and Nav2 aren’t both benefitting at least a bit from this glamour.
During the closing at ROSCon, the audience was asked to raise their hand if this was their first year at ROSCon - and I would say a majority of hands went up. I’m sure some of them might be long time users or developers of ROS - but I wonder how many more of those people we could help to contribute to ROS over the next year?
The Kids Are, Well, No Longer Kids
There have been 12 ROSCon/ROSWorld events. The folks that have been there from the beginning are getting a bit older. We don’t stay out as late after the conference, and some of us have likely forgotten what it was like just starting out in ROS or robotics. If you have been around in ROS and robotics for a while, here’s some ideas for you:
- Mentor some junior engineers. Connect them to people working on similar problems. Point them at all that documentation you wrote years ago - you wrote documentation, didn’t you?
- You don’t have to just write code - review some code. Help junior developers get their contributions merged.
- Don’t burn out - take care of yourself physically and mentally - there were more than a few people I talked to who aren’t actually as old as they feel - but much of robotics is still taking place in fast-paced startups, and they can take a toll on you…
I certainly wish I had better paid attention to that last point when I was at Fetch Robotics. Since leaving Fetch, I’ve lost 85 pounds and am probably in the best shape of my life - and know I could have been a much better leader and mentor at Fetch if I had not been burnt down most of the time.
What About Those New Faces?
If you are relatively new to ROS or robotics, you’re not alone - the community is still growing fast. I had a number of people at both MoveItCon and ROSCon ask about what they should be studying or learning. My answer evolved a bunch over the course of the week - here’s what I landed on:
- Find some really good mentors. ROS, and robotics in general, moves quicker than most university programs can evolve. I’ve been fortunate to have some really great mentors throughout my career, it is probably the biggest benefit from my Willow Garage days.
- Contribute some open source. Help out an existing project, or even find something that is missing and go make it exist. At Cobalt Robotics, I encouraged my younger colleagues to get involved and in addition to various bug fixes to ROS packages, they have also published some pretty cool work - including an image assembler for Livox lasers and AR visualization of what your robot sees.
We Are So Back
I cannot even count how many people I talked to who have moved back to the greater Boston area, or even the East Coast in general. Further, so many of them talking about work-life balance. I really want to organize a “ROSCon In The Woods” next summer where we just go for a hike and have a BBQ in like southern New Hampshire. Drop me a message if you’d be interested in such a thing.
The Elephant In The Room
Finally, at ROSCon there was the elephant in the room - the acquisition of Open Robotics by Intrinsic. Not much has really changed in how ROS is operating since the acquisition, but there were still certainly discussions of “what if the level of support and funding goes down?”.
We in the ROS Community can’t actually do anything about that - so instead we should focus on what we can do. Having a large open source project so largely maintained and funded by a single organization is never great - just look at the struggle after the demise of Willow Garage. Instead of worrying about what might happen, this is a great opportunity to convince whomever you work for to contribute more to ROS, with both developer time and money. Everyone can be an advocate for open source robotics software.