Four Pillars: An open source essay worth reading

It’s not that often that I am by myself in a strange city away from the usual attractions and distractions of life, and one of the things that lets me do is catch up on my reading. [Yes, I know I read a lot and don’t sleep much, but I mean a different type of reading, more like StumbleUpon meets The Big Library in the Sky].

You may know the kind of reading I mean. When you go through your indecipherable notes listing the things you wanted to catch up on when you had the time. And that’s what I was doing, researching some of my pet subject areas, when I came across Paul Graham’s site. And I found some really great stuff there.

Here’s a small sample of excerpts from an essay entitled What Business Can Learn From Open Source: Each quotation is shown in bold and italicised. My comments intersperse the quotes.
A recent survey found 52% of companies are replacing Windows servers with Linux servers. [1]

More significant, I think, is which 52% they are. At this point, anyone proposing to run Windows on servers should be prepared to explain what they know about servers that Google, Yahoo, and Amazon don’t.

My suspicion is that the 48% are all Not-Invented-Here IT departments, and that this number is dropping. It may actually be lower than 48% already, but there’s still a tendency NOT to claim you run Linux, for fear of being considered radical, insecure, pinko, UnAmerican, whatever. So what do we know that Google, Amazon and Yahoo don’t? Probably that our jobs are less secure than theirs, so we act out our secrets and lies.
Like open source, blogging is something people do themselves, for free, because they enjoy it. Like open source hackers, bloggers compete with people working for money, and often win. The method of ensuring quality is also the same: Darwinian. Companies ensure quality through rules to prevent employees from screwing up. But you don’t need that when the audience can communicate with one another. People just produce whatever they want; the good stuff spreads, and the bad gets ignored. And in both cases, feedback from the audience improves the best work.

Paul makes the Good Snowballs Can’t Be Suppressed point a whole lot more elegantly than I did. And touches on the Covenants versus Contracts bit as well.

….the business world was so surprised by one lesson from open source: that people working for love often surpass those working for money. Users don’t switch from Explorer to Firefox because they want to hack the source. They switch because it’s a better browser.

Key point. It’s all about better. As the saying goes, first you need a good doctor, and if he or she is cheap then that is also good. You don’t need a cheap doctor.

As in software, when professionals produce such crap, it’s not surprising if amateurs can do better. Live by the channel, die by the channel: if you depend on an oligopoly, you sink into bad habits that are hard to overcome when you suddenly get competition. [4]

Protectionism Produces Poop.

And finally, a longer extract:

To me the most demoralizing aspect of the traditional office is that you’re supposed to be there at certain times. There are usually a few people in a company who really have to, but the reason most employees work fixed hours is that the company can’t measure their productivity.

The basic idea behind office hours is that if you can’t make people work, you can at least prevent them from having fun. If employees have to be in the building a certain number of hours a day, and are forbidden to do non-work things while there, then they must be working. In theory. In practice they spend a lot of their time in a no-man’s land, where they’re neither working nor having fun.

If you could measure how much work people did, many companies wouldn’t need any fixed workday. You could just say: this is what you have to do. Do it whenever you like, wherever you like. If your work requires you to talk to other people in the company, then you may need to be here a certain amount. Otherwise we don’t care.

I want to meet this guy. Anybody know him and can set it up, please do. And if he is in the Bay Area, please let him know I’m here till Friday 23rd. Just in case.

Paul makes one other important point. Bloggers are writers. To some people, the word “blogger” conjures up something cheap and nasty, and organisational DNA kicks into immunity overdrive. Much like the effect of the word Wiki.

So I salute a writer who’s been around for a while, but who’s only just come to my notice. I shall be linking to your essays, Paul. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

7 thoughts on “Four Pillars: An open source essay worth reading”

  1. As a Java developer working in your organisation, I find your discovery of Paul Graham and unqualified praise for his writings to be rather worrying!

    While it may be true that Paul Graham has said some insightful things, but he’s also said some pretty dumb things. For example he insists that “there are no good Java developers”… apparently because no self-respecting programmer would develop in Java*. Also his assertion that open source code is _necessarily_ and _inevitably_ better quality than commercial code seems to ignore the vast quantity of useless rubbish that can be found on SourceForge etc.

    * We should all be coding in LISP, apparently. Time to start practising my bracket-counting?

  2. I quote myself. “I found some really great stuff there”. Not “I found a Bible which I will take literally from beginning to end”.

    The same is true for most people I link to. I don’t necessarily agree with everything they say, but certain bits I like a lot. And I like this essay of Paul’s, and a few others as well.

    I don’t agree with everything he says. I don’t expect people to agree with everything I say. Every now and then even I don’t agree with something I say, and correct myself.

    In fact that’s part of the magic of the blogosphere, that it’s not all black and white, that people discuss things and write provisionally. And learn from each other.

    I’m sure I’ve said enough dumb things as well. I’m sure I will say more dumb things. And learn.

    I disagree with your point on what appears on SourceForge, that’s a common criticism of opensource and a false one. It’s like saying all blogs are good because they are opensource thoughts. Anybody can post anything, that does not make all blogs good. Or opensource code good.

    You have to take it in the all-bugs-are-shallow context. There is a lot of crap out there, but it is not being adopted, used, enriched or extended. Only through that process of Nobody Owns It Everyone Can Use It Anyone Can Improve It does software become opensource.

    If commercial code had the same open standards and open community reach and open adaptability and NEA characteristics as opensource code, then it would be as good as opensource code. In fact I wouldn’t know how to differentiate it from opensource, because that’s what makes opensource opensource.

    Thanks for the comment. Feel free to catch me for a coffee to discuss further, if your anonymity will let you.

  3. A valuable question that needs to be deeply explored but which has barely been scratched is; “what can education learn from open source?” The power of collaborative international networks designing a product or working on a facet of knowledge is something with the power to revolutionize education and unfortunately, we know very little about it.

  4. If employees have to be in the building a certain number of hours a day, and are forbidden to do non-work things while there, then they must be working. In theory. In practice they spend a lot of their time in a no-man’s land, where they’re neither working nor having fun.

    Perfect :) Sounds like I should introduce a blog post with that.

  5. Re Clarence’s comment. It’s exactly what I felt when I heard about TutorVista, which you can see at

    A good idea, but a missed opportunity. If the tutors and students were to form an opensource community, then the value would go up exponentially as the network grew.

    It is only through opensource processes that we can establish the first step towards a global education market, the step of having a common set of curricula and syllabi. Humans appear to have an increased ability to migrate, and the educational system is not capable of taking the strain.

    From a teacher/lecturer viewpoint, it will also help us achieve the capacity to manage the long tail of demand: currently I believe there are many students (but numbered in ones and twos for a given location) who cannot follow the courses they desire because of a shortage of qualified teachers. I have to believe that this shortage will get resolved if we had a global network. Sometimes it will be resolved only as a result of the demand becoming transparent and aggregated, but resolved it will be.

    The quality and consistency of the teaching materials will also improve as a result, on the same all-bugs-are shallow principle. The capacity to airbrush history (or for that matter science) will also be sharply reduced.

    Most important of all, students will be able to participate in the design and delivery. Something I have rarely seen.

    Since so much of the money spent on education is “state” money, this should theoretically not be difficult to achieve. But for whatever reason, take-up has been infinitesimal.

    Clarence, if you hear of or see anything where I can help make this happen, please do let me know.

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