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Charming Developers to Make Great Software

This entry is part 10 of 13 in the series The Cathedral and the Bazaar

The 10th part of The Cathedral and The Bazaar by Eric Raymond.

10. Necessary Preconditions for the Bazaar Style

Early reviewers and test audiences for this essay consistently raised questions about the preconditions for successful bazaar-style development, including both the qualifications of the project leader and the state of code at the time one goes public and starts to try to build a co-developer community.

Linux Kernel Developers (25 years event)

It’s fairly clear that one cannot code from the ground up in bazaar style [IN]. One can test, debug and improve in bazaar style, but it would be very hard to originate a project in bazaar mode. Linus didn’t try it. I didn’t either. Your nascent developer community needs to have something runnable and testable to play with.

When you start community-building, what you need to be able to present is a plausible promise. Your program doesn’t have to work particularly well. It can be crude, buggy, incomplete, and poorly documented. What it must not fail to do is (a) run, and (b) convince potential co-developers that it can be evolved into something really neat in the foreseeable future.

Linux and fetchmail both went public with strong, attractive basic designs. Many people thinking about the bazaar model as I have presented it have correctly considered this critical, then jumped from that to the conclusion that a high degree of design intuition and cleverness in the project leader is indispensable.

But Linus got his design from Unix. I got mine initially from the ancestral popclient (though it would later change a great deal, much more proportionately speaking than has Linux). So does the leader/coordinator for a bazaar-style effort really have to have exceptional design talent, or can he get by through leveraging the design talent of others?

I think it is not critical that the coordinator be able to originate designs of exceptional brilliance, but it is absolutely critical that the coordinator be able to recognize good design ideas from others.

Both the Linux and fetchmail projects show evidence of this. Linus, while not (as previously discussed) a spectacularly original designer, has displayed a powerful knack for recognizing good design and integrating it into the Linux kernel. And I have already described how the single most powerful design idea in fetchmail (SMTP forwarding) came from somebody else.

Early audiences of this essay complimented me by suggesting that I am prone to undervalue design originality in bazaar projects because I have a lot of it myself, and therefore take it for granted. There may be some truth to this; design (as opposed to coding or debugging) is certainly my strongest skill.

But the problem with being clever and original in software design is that it gets to be a habit—you start reflexively making things cute and complicated when you should be keeping them robust and simple. I have had projects crash on me because I made this mistake, but I managed to avoid this with fetchmail.

Ubuntu Developer Conference

So I believe the fetchmail project succeeded partly because I restrained my tendency to be clever; this argues (at least) against design originality being essential for successful bazaar projects. And consider Linux. Suppose Linus Torvalds had been trying to pull off fundamental innovations in operating system design during the development; does it seem at all likely that the resulting kernel would be as stable and successful as what we have?

A certain base level of design and coding skill is required, of course, but I expect almost anybody seriously thinking of launching a bazaar effort will already be above that minimum. The open-source community’s internal market in reputation exerts subtle pressure on people not to launch development efforts they’re not competent to follow through on. So far this seems to have worked pretty well.

There is another kind of skill not normally associated with software development which I think is as important as design cleverness to bazaar projects—and it may be more important. A bazaar project coordinator or leader must have good people and communications skills.

This should be obvious. In order to build a development community, you need to attract people, interest them in what you’re doing, and keep them happy about the amount of work they’re doing. Technical sizzle will go a long way towards accomplishing this, but it’s far from the whole story. The personality you project matters, too.

It is not a coincidence that Linus is a nice guy who makes people like him and want to help him. It’s not a coincidence that I’m an energetic extrovert who enjoys working a crowd and has some of the delivery and instincts of a stand-up comic. To make the bazaar model work, it helps enormously if you have at least a little skill at charming people.

Note :

[IN] An issue related to whether one can start projects from zero in the bazaar style is whether the bazaar style is capable of supporting truly innovative work. Some claim that, lacking strong leadership, the bazaar can only handle the cloning and improvement of ideas already present at the engineering state of the art, but is unable to push the state of the art. This argument was perhaps most infamously made by the Halloween Documents, two embarrassing internal Microsoft memoranda written about the open-source phenomenon. The authors compared Linux’s development of a Unix-like operating system to “chasing taillights”, and opined “(once a project has achieved “parity” with the state-of-the-art), the level of management necessary to push towards new frontiers becomes massive.”

There are serious errors of fact implied in this argument. One is exposed when the Halloween authors themseselves later observe that “often […] new research ideas are first implemented and available on Linux before they are available / incorporated into other platforms.”

If we read “open source” for “Linux”, we see that this is far from a new phenomenon. Historically, the open-source community did not invent Emacs or the World Wide Web or the Internet itself by chasing taillights or being massively managed—and in the present, there is so much innovative work going on in open source that one is spoiled for choice. The GNOME project (to pick one of many) is pushing the state of the art in GUIs and object technology hard enough to have attracted considerable notice in the computer trade press well outside the Linux community. Other examples are legion, as a visit to Freshmeat on any given day will quickly prove.

But there is a more fundamental error in the implicit assumption that the cathedral model (or the bazaar model, or any other kind of management structure) can somehow make innovation happen reliably. This is nonsense. Gangs don’t have breakthrough insights—even volunteer groups of bazaar anarchists are usually incapable of genuine originality, let alone corporate committees of people with a survival stake in some status quo ante. Insight comes from individuals. The most their surrounding social machinery can ever hope to do is to be responsive to breakthrough insights—to nourish and reward and rigorously test them instead of squashing them.

Some will characterize this as a romantic view, a reversion to outmoded lone-inventor stereotypes. Not so; I am not asserting that groups are incapable of developing breakthrough insights once they have been hatched; indeed, we learn from the peer-review process that such development groups are essential to producing a high-quality result. Rather I am pointing out that every such group development starts from—is necessarily sparked by—one good idea in one person’s head. Cathedrals and bazaars and other social structures can catch that lightning and refine it, but they cannot make it on demand.

Therefore the root problem of innovation (in software, or anywhere else) is indeed how not to squash it—but, even more fundamentally, it is how to grow lots of people who can have insights in the first place.

To suppose that cathedral-style development could manage this trick but the low entry barriers and process fluidity of the bazaar cannot would be absurd. If what it takes is one person with one good idea, then a social milieu in which one person can rapidly attract the cooperation of hundreds or thousands of others with that good idea is going inevitably to out-innovate any in which the person has to do a political sales job to a hierarchy before he can work on his idea without risk of getting fired.

And, indeed, if we look at the history of software innovation by organizations using the cathedral model, we quickly find it is rather rare. Large corporations rely on university research for new ideas (thus the Halloween Documents authors’ unease about Linux’s facility at coopting that research more rapidly). Or they buy out small companies built around some innovator’s brain. In neither case is the innovation native to the cathedral culture; indeed, many innovations so imported end up being quietly suffocated under the “massive level of management” the Halloween Documents’ authors so extol.

That, however, is a negative point. The reader would be better served by a positive one. I suggest, as an experiment, the following:

Pick a criterion for originality that you believe you can apply consistently. If your definition is “I know it when I see it”, that’s not a problem for purposes of this test.

Pick any closed-source operating system competing with Linux, and a best source for accounts of current development work on it.

Watch that source and Freshmeat for one month. Every day, count the number of release announcements on Freshmeat that you consider ‘original’ work. Apply the same definition of ‘original’ to announcements for that other OS and count them.

Thirty days later, total up both figures.

The day I wrote this, Freshmeat carried twenty-two release announcements, of which three appear they might push state of the art in some respect, This was a slow day for Freshmeat, but I will be astonished if any reader reports as many as three likely innovations a month in any closed-source channel.

(to be continued)

Click here to read the other parts of The Cathedral and The Bazaar

Series Navigation<< “What Language?” – For humans or For computers?Democratic Centralism for Organizing Groups >>

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