Assessment Essay

matthew's picture

Tonight, i wrote the following essay for my entrance assessment to Western Governors University. I hope you might find it informative and entertaining. It was fun to write!


In 1998, Terry Weissman of the fledgling Mozilla Foundation faced a daunting task: to create a public bug-tracking system capable of handling millions of bug reports. Unfortunately, the Foundation's internal, Netscape-specific bug-tracker was insufficient for a global audience. Terry, therefore, decided to re-write this bug-tracker, called “Bugzilla”, in the Perl programming language, and released the source code to the world.

Shortly thereafter, a nascent community of enthusiasts embraced and later extended Bugzilla. With enthusiasm and gusto, the community ushered in new version after version of the bug-tracking software. However, there was one important item missing from their project: documentation on how to install and maintain Bugzilla.

That's where I came in.

In 1998, I was a UNIX system administrator for iMall, an e-commerce startup with big dreams and a tiny pocketbook. One of my tasks as a new employee was to implement a replacement bug-tracking system. iMall had a growing stable of programmers and support engineers, and the software license for their existing bug-tracker was both too expensive and proved to perform too poorly under heavy load.

I lined up a series of vendors for the executive team, but the products were usually dismissed in short order for being too expensive. During my research, I often encountered notes in Internet newsgroups about a new open-source product called “Bugzilla”. Finally, after several disappointing weeks of vendor negotiations, I decided to install this free software product in hopes of pleasing the executive team.

Bugzilla proved extremely difficult to install. Although the product – once installed – was fairly user-friendly and included sufficient documentation for users entering and maintaining bugs, the spartan README file included with the software distribution was wholly insufficient to the task of easily installing Bugzilla on a UNIX host. As I continued my attempts to make this software work, I kept copious notes in a text “Bugzilla help file” on my workstation.

Eventually, I succeeded in installing the product, and a brief user evaluation proved Bugzilla was popular with the software engineers within the company. I presented Bugzilla to the executive team, and they were immediately enthusiastic. They told me to spend roughly half of my administrative hours per week maintaining and improving the product, the second half managing our growing system administration team.

Within weeks my “Bugzilla help file” had grown to several pages of quotations from newsgroup archives and humorous anecdotes. I realized my document might have value to others, and posted a copy to the netscape.public.mozilla.webtools newsgroup. Shortly thereafter, I found myself posting my FAQ once per month to satiate the ever-increasing demand for decent Bugzilla documentation.

Over time, this document became huge, comprising thousands of words and dozens of pages. I often pondered the monstrosity I had created. I eventually realized that, faced with such a mountainous document, most new users still preferred to ask frequently-answered questions in the newsgroup rather than dig through my disorganized FAQ. I felt that perhaps what these new administrators lacked was an index, a table of contents, and specific task-based documentation.

As a result, I undertook to write the first edition of a comprehensive response to this need: The Bugzilla Guide in DocBook SGML markup. On December 20, 2000, I released the first edition of the Guide to correspond with the 2.11 release of Bugzilla. By the 2.12 release several months later, I'd devoted hundreds of hours to revisions of the Guide based on suggestions by early reviewers, and by 2.13 it had become an integral part of the Bugzilla release cycle, updated with each new feature. The Guide became an indispensable resource for first-time Bugzilla administrators around the world.

Today, as Bugzilla heralds the recent 4.0 release in early 2011, my copyright notice is no longer contained in the masthead of the accompanying Guide. I relinquished my copyright on the document to the Mozilla Foundation several years ago. Few remember the heady days of early development between 1998 and 2000, when for lack of decent documentation Bugzilla languished in obscurity. Yet today, each time a user describes a successful install of the product in the forums and mailing lists that replaced the old Netscape newsgroups, I get a thrill knowing that I helped that administrator find his way that day.