Four Pillars: On learning and opensource: A long post

A prefatory note: I am not ashamed of being called Utopian.

When I started full-time “work” nearly thirty years ago, straight out of university, I had no idea what to expect. So I imagined that work was a natural extension of university. And for me, university was a natural extension of school: I attended a Jesuit collegiate school, a model where you could stay with one institution from the age of five until you completed your first degree: primary school, secondary school and college were all on the same campus, and you moved around the quadrangles for sixteen years. It was a wonderful experience.

I continued to be blessed, and worked for some great companies. Burroughs in the early 1980s was a magical place to be. So, by the time I was 25, I felt I understood what a firm does, what a firm could be. And in my heart of hearts, I felt that every great firm should be modelled on a great university.

Why? Let me try and articulate the reasons:

  • University is about results and outcomes and empowerment; about personal responsibility and empowerment; about discovering things and developing talent and potential; about fitting into society and working in groups and communities; about doing the right thing and not cheating; about realising that there is no substitute for hard work.
  • University is about experimentation and about imitation; about access to historical research and the creation of original research; about personal accountability and the willingness to accept the consequences of your actions; about conversations and discussions almost independent of time and space; about long days and long nights and laughter and tears and successes and failures. And you celebrated them all, because you took what you did seriously, but you never took yourself seriously.
  • University is about the selection and building of values and ethics and mores and norms, about peer pressure, about leading and being led, about respect for authority tempered with passion and curiosity, about discovering new ways of doing things. Some worked, some didn’t. A place where errors and mistakes were seen as opportunities to adapt and improve.
  • University is about periods of almost-torpor and periods of intense activity, about solving problems, about creating new problems in order to find new ways of problem-solving.
  • University is about no carrot and no stick, about people doing things because they are motivated and challenged; about small-group cellular interactions and occasional large congregations, not the other way around; university is about conversations and relationships and continuous improvement.
  • University is about learning and about life.

And for the most part, I’ve stayed with that mindset ever since I’ve started working. And I’ve been allowed to stay with that mindset. [An aside: I find it ironic that while people like me strive to transport good-university experience into the workplace, some universities are doing their best to do the reverse, import the worst of the workplace into university. I wonder why that is. Sponsored research and patents and commercialisation of learning, perhaps? You might as well tell a ten-year-old she needs a regulated certificate of competence and an insurance policy to run a lemonade stand in the driveway. Which will probably happen soon in the regrettably increasingly litigious society we live in].

Now to the point of this post. As you can see I believe that firms should be places of learning as well, that it is the only thing to do. There may have been good reasons why this did not seem a necessity in the past, but now with social software we can help firms acquire the DNA and culture of learning. And thereby prepare for Generation M. Because they won’t put up with what we put up with, however hard we try. They will refuse to understand why things happen the way they do, push back and vote with their feet. It is happening now.

With this in mind, I was really intrigued by Clay Shirky’s piece on View Source, a 1998 article I happened to re-read recently and post about.

What intrigued me? Some part of my DNA is infected with beliefs that learning-by-doing is a good thing, that learning by observation and inspection and imitation is also a good thing. So when Clay inferred that View Source gave us the ability to say “A-ha. So that’s how it is done”, there was something of value for me there.

So I mulled over the need for a large body of evidence of how people do things, so that you could learn from their successes and failures. So that you could learn from stories and anecdotes taken from real life rather than theories written by people whose experience was primarily in writing theories.

And it made me think of the opensource movement, that we now have a wealth of open transparent inspectable learnable-from material about how software should be written. That we could absorb all this learning, and then merge it with our analogies and allegories about architects and artists and creators and makers and fixers and breakers. And make new things and make old things better.
So I started looking for people who used opensource repositories as a source of learning how to write software. And found this pair of books by Diomidis Spinellis.

Code Reading: The Open Source Perspective


Code Quality: The Open Source Perspective

I think anyone and everyone interested in ICT should read the books, even if they have no intention of ever writing code. I’m not going to try and summarise them, suffice it to say that Mr Spinellis knows how to write, has a vocational calling and is passionate about his subject matter.

A taster from the book, in my own words. Everyone knows about cost-time-quality tradeoffs. Everyone understands that cost and time can be varied by what Mr Spinellis calls “management fiat”. Quality is a different matter. So we should take time out to understand quality in the context of what actually happens in the opensource world, using real-life examples.

I promised I wouldn’t try and summarise it, so I’ll stop there.

I can’t help but think there is value here for educational institutions as well, and for creating and embedding a learning culture in firms. Non-trivial worked examples that port well across industry and sector and culture and timezone; real errors made by real people, and what they did as a result. How Not To is as powerful a lesson as How To, maybe more so.

A focus on inspectable quality attributes that endorses, and is endorsed by, opensource principles.

One thought on “Four Pillars: On learning and opensource: A long post”

  1. I think this is part of a profound shift that is going on. Others have mentioned not only the massive distribution of open source code and the ability to learn from it but things as simple as “show source” which has become embedded in our thinking.

    It’s now typical to be able to not only get and use things at no cost but even to be able to view how things work in the general case to be able to learn and extend what has already been done.

    To be able to start with some ideas, a template, some part of an implementation results in a huge increase in personal productivity and when you factor this across an entire global community it really has to generate some powerful results.

    My guess is that we are only seeing the beginning now. At least I hope so.

    Persoanlly I haven’t coded in 20 years but am going back to doing some for my own personal enjoyment and to build some applications that I always wanted and everyone always told me there would never be a market for.

Let me know what you think

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