Peace, Love and Penguins? Well …

Somehow the Free and Open Source software world acquired this silly image of happy hippies living in perfect harmony, altruistically cranking out awesome code for the betterment of humankind. As if! You will surely be disappointed if that’s what you expect to find. What you will find is it’s founded on healthy values. It is structured to reward both cooperation and independence, so there’s no need for threats of dire punishments to keep people in line, and few limitations on creativity or invention.

It is also based on openness and transparency, which typically induce attacks of culture shock in people raised up in protected corporate cloisters, surrounded by comforting layers of non-disclosure agreements and contractual secrecy. There’s little going on in FOSS that doesn’t go on behind closed corporate doors every day. The difference is it’s all out in the open, with boisterous peanut galleries cheering on the participants, and even wading in to take sides and express opinions with the confidence of people who think their opinions actually matter.

Is this a strength or a liability? Both. The FOSS model of distributed, de-centralized software development applies to all aspects of developing and releasing software: writing documentation, helping users with problems, reporting bugs and suggesting improvements. You can be an official member of a project team, or an interested outsider running a related website, wiki, or a forum, or even writing your own code fork. There is nowhere to hide, which can be disconcerting to someone used to a nice safe corporate shelter, with distributed responsibility and fuzzy accountability. Your work stands on its own merits. All kinds of total strangers feel free to criticize your work, offer unsolicited and unhelpful advice, make demands, and say whatever they want about you. It’s like having geek paparazzi.

The upside is you have the potential of attracting more help and feedback than you could ever get any other way. It can sting a the ego a bit to receive patches, corrections, and suggestions from people you never heard of, and perhaps not worded in a soothing manner. But if you can accept these things as gifts, you will be rich in help, new knowledge, new friends, and genuine achievements. And, good work is recognized, so you’ll likely get some ego strokes after all.

Flame wars

Don’t be scared by flame wars. Remember, it’s just words. Yes, words have power; words hurt. But no one’s coming to your house to punch you in the nose, or slash your tires, or slip you Ex-Lax in chocolate fudge. The trick to surviving a flame war is to either stay out of it entirely, or if you must be part of the discussion, keep your cool. You don’t want to look like a lunatic, but a calm person with self-control and credibility. A great illustration of this is the recent brouhaha over GPL Broadcom code in OpenBSD. Executive summary: Michael Buesch, developer of the GPL wireless Broadcom driver, wrote to the gmane.linux.kernel.wireless.general and gmane.linux.drivers.bcm54xx.devel lists, and copied a number of individuals as well, to put the OpenBSD bcw team on notice for possibly misusing his code:

“The Copyright holders of bcm43xx (which includes me) want to talk
to you, OpenBSD bcw developers, about possible GPL license and therefore
Copyright violations in your bcw driver.

“We believe that you might have directly copied code
out of bcm43xx (licensed under GPL v2), without our explicit permission,
into bcw (licensed under BSD license).”

Theo de Raadt, the founder of OpenBSD, rather than addressing the potential license violation, opted to attack both the messenger and the manner in which the message was delivered:

“Maybe he’ll just
delete the driver and quit even trying, because you chose to cc so
many people, and malign him. Maybe he’ll simply replace every single
line that looks similar, and then he could rightly not even mention
any of the efforts of people like you.”

You don’t have to read the whole thread, which is painful, to get my point – notice how everyone but Mr. de Raadt kept their cool, stuck to the original topic, and stuck to the facts. Mr. Buesch repeatedly offered to cooperate with the OpenBSD developers, and to dual-license his code so they could legally use and distribute it. It took a heroic effort from Mr. de Raadt to cause the offer of cooperation to be withdrawn.

The moral of this story? Stay focused on your goal. When discussions get hot it’s tempting to go nuclear and return fire. But that does not get you any closer to your goal. Most folks are not as intransigent as Mr. de Raadt; sometimes tempers flare for a little while and then cool down, so it pays to not burn bridges.

Do you really need to be part of a discussion like this in the first place? The more time you spend in online arguments, the less time you’re devoting to doing real work.

Manners Matter

I think you’ll encounter more passion in the FOSS world because all of its participants are self-selected. They’re doing work that they care about, and it’s far more personal than being a cog in some corporate sweatshop; it’s more like being an artist, a writer, or any kind of artist or skilled craftsperson. Again, both a strength and a liability; people who care work harder and are continually pushing the boundaries, but the emotions are also more intense. Manners matter, which is why I keep nattering on the subject. A little courtesy, a little tolerance, and a bit of thinking-before-speaking go a long way.


In the Beginning was
the Command Line
, by Neal Stephenson

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