Sunday, January 8, 2006

Grave responsibility

I really just realized the extent of the responsibility I put on myself in supporting the free software that I have on my website. If I keep doing what I'm doing, for years and years to come, I'm going to be answering questions about my software. If I kept it up for five years and then it disappeared from the face of the internet and I never answered another question about it, that's still at least five hundred hours of my life that were occupied responding to peoples' questions about something I provide for free. That's never really sunk in before.

So, what's the solution, if it's really a problem? First of all, my sites could use a facelift and a redesign. I haven't really touched them in years. I know from experience that improving the website and the download and installation process reduces the amount of email I get. If people could help themselves more easily, I'd mostly just get email from the people who are truly lost. And, people would be happier if they didn't have to wait for my response.

I could try ads. I've never put ads on my site. I've had a website for close to a decade, and it's never had ads. Ads don't even really solve anything. They're a response, not a solution. If I'm spending so much time on something, maybe I'd be happier doing it if I made money from it. Then again, money is not really my limiting resource right now; time is. It's with more useful time that I gain more happiness.

I could try paying less attention on purpose. This would work in combination with the more helpful website. I could maybe set up a community of users of my products, and the burden of helping people could be shared with others. I honestly don't know why this works—why there are people who care so much about certain pieces of software that they visit forums and answer questions—but they're there. I'd get rid of the email form on the website, and never answer another question again about where the Start button is. But there are many problems with this model. First, I'd have to accept that there are people who would never search or post to forums, or even search the web, and they'd end up never using my programs. That computer-phobic single mom who wants to make a crossword for her home-schooled son would give up on the idea, frustrated that she didn't know what to do. I know this from experience. I know this from working with people, and from answering peoples' questions.

And in the end, I think that fixing up the website and helping the so-inclined to help themselves is all that I should do. While expensive in terms of time, supporting my software has been an incredibly valuable experience. There's no better way to get in touch with real people, people who don't really even understand how to download and install a program they find on the internet, people who just want to make a crossword puzzle. Building and supporting my software has probably been the most useful thing I've done for my career. I've learned so much; far more than I did in school. It's like an internship with the world.

It's an unbelievable time sink. I'd have so much more time to play games, or socialize, or work, or even build new versions of my software if I didn't spend so much time answering email. But doing all that has helped me realize that there's so much more to building software than a nice class hierarchy, an efficient algorithm, and proper commenting. Had I built something like EclipseCrossword that "normal" people would want to use just a few years back, I might be a very different person now.

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