Karl Fogel

Chicago, March 14, 2004.

A bad Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) sheet is one that is composed not of the questions people actually ask, but of the questions the FAQ's author wishes people would ask. Perhaps you've seen the type before:

Q: How can I use Glorbosoft XYZ to maximize team productivity?

A: Many of our customers want to know how they can maximize productivity through our patented office groupware innovations. The answer is simple. First, click on the File menu, scroll down to Increase Productivity, then…

The problem with such FAQs is that they are not, in a literal sense, FAQs at all. No one ever called the tech support line and asked, How can we maximize productivity? Rather, people asked highly specific questions, such as How can we change the calendaring system to send reminders two days in advance instead of one? and so on. But it's a lot easier to make up imaginary Frequently Asked Questions than it is to discover the real ones. Compiling a true FAQ sheet requires a sustained, organized effort: over the lifetime of the software, incoming questions must be tracked, responses monitored, and all gathered into a coherent, searchable whole that reflects the collective experience of users in the wild. It calls for the patient, observant attitude of a field naturalist. No grand hypothesizing, no visionary pronouncements here—open eyes and accurate note-taking are what's needed most.

What I love about this book is that it grew out of just such a process, and shows it on every page. It is the direct result of the authors' encounters with users. It began with Ben Collins-Sussman's observation that people were asking the same basic questions over and over on the Subversion mailing lists: what are the standard workflows to use with Subversion? Do branches and tags work the same way as in other version control systems? How can I find out who made a particular change?

Frustrated at seeing the same questions day after day, Ben worked intensely over a month in the summer of 2002 to write The Subversion Handbook, a 60-page manual that covered all the basics of using Subversion. The manual made no pretense of being complete, but it was distributed with Subversion and got users over that initial hump in the learning curve. When O'Reilly decided to publish a full-length Subversion book, the path of least resistance was obvious: just expand the Subversion handbook.

The three coauthors of the new book were thus presented with an unusual opportunity. Officially, their task was to write a book top-down, starting from a table of contents and an initial draft. But they also had access to a steady stream—indeed, an uncontrollable geyser—of bottom-up source material. Subversion was already in the hands of thousands of early adopters, and those users were giving tons of feedback, not only about Subversion, but also about its existing documentation.

During the entire time they wrote this book, Ben, Mike, and Brian haunted the Subversion mailing lists and chat rooms incessantly, carefully noting the problems users were having in real-life situations. Monitoring such feedback was part of their job descriptions at CollabNet anyway, and it gave them a huge advantage when they set out to document Subversion. The book they produced is grounded firmly in the bedrock of experience, not in the shifting sands of wishful thinking; it combines the best aspects of user manual and FAQ sheet. This duality might not be noticeable on a first reading. Taken in order, front to back, the book is simply a straightforward description of a piece of software. There's the overview, the obligatory guided tour, the chapter on administrative configuration, some advanced topics, and of course, a command reference and troubleshooting guide. Only when you come back to it later, seeking the solution to some specific problem, does its authenticity shine out: the telling details that can only result from encounters with the unexpected, the examples honed from genuine use cases, and most of all the sensitivity to the user's needs and the user's point of view.

Of course, no one can promise that this book will answer every question you have about Subversion. Sometimes the precision with which it anticipates your questions will seem eerily telepathic; yet occasionally, you will stumble into a hole in the community's knowledge and come away empty-handed. When this happens, the best thing you can do is email and present your problem. The authors are still there and still watching, and the authors include not just the three listed on the cover, but many others who contributed corrections and original material. From the community's point of view, solving your problem is merely a pleasant side effect of a much larger project—namely, slowly adjusting this book, and ultimately Subversion itself, to more closely match the way people actually use it. They are eager to hear from you, not only because they can help you, but because you can help them. With Subversion, as with all active free software projects, you are not alone.

Let this book be your first companion.