Those Who Can, Do

I finally got around to reading The Cathedral and the Bazaar — I’d known about the collection of essays since it was first published in 1999, and kept meaning to read it. Heck, that link goes to the entirety of the essays, free, online. However, I never did read it, but I recently received a copy of the book, and have been reading it on my commute to work.

It’s very engaging, and still accurate, even now. Of course I think about how MySQL’s growth and business model as I’m reading it.

One of the tenets that keeps appearing is that “Brooks’ law that adding more people adds more complexity and actually slows a project down does not apply to open source.” He gives a few reasons, mostly communication, but there’s one crucial point he misses.

Brooks’ law does not apply to open source because there are little or no startup or coming to speed costs. The first contact with a developer is usually “Here’s the patch I’m submitting.” Now, perhaps that’s included in the management overhead that the essays refer to. However, if that’s the case it is completely unclear. I do not think this changes any parts of the arguments, nor any of the conclusions. But I do think it is important to note that not only are the candidates for modifying open source software filtered on self-selection, they are filtered on ability to actually do the work.

In a traditional job interview, there is very little “testing” done. Sure, there are often questions, some technical, others not; but interviewing is a completely different environment than actually doing the job. Communication may be poorer due to nerves or self-doubt in an interview, when it might not otherwise occur during the actual job. Very occasionally, the traditional closed source world will give a job candidate a task to do on their own, and the completed task and resultant communication are the merits on which hiring is based.

If closed source hiring worked the same way open source hiring (whether for a volunteer position or paid) works, perhaps Brooks’ law would also not apply. Why is this not done, then? Mostly it’s seen that a new employee or candidate would need their hands held, or that they cannot be allowed to see the code, because it’s closed source, and the (or a) revenue stream.

At any rate, those who work and succeed on open source software, whether they garner a paycheck or not, are by definition good at what they do, because they’ve already succeeded. In a traditional job, the costs of finding someone new and the liability of letting someone go because they “aren’t producing” are high. Therefore, it’s much easier to coast in these positions, and there are some folks who do. I have seen some rather impressive resumes for some rather unimpressive job candidates/co-workers.

I have seen some pretty unimpressive open source software (heck, I’ve written some myself); but for the most part, it all works as described. It may lack features, be very inefficient, or be limited on which systems it runs, but it almost always works without hacking. It’s difficult to say the same about closed source; one only needs to look at PeopleSoft or Remedy to see that. I’m sure there are plenty of examples; those are two examples I’m familiar with.

At any rate, the point is, those who can, do. That’s pretty much the motto of open source. I have some co-workers who rib me for donating to the EFF in order to get my name in the MySQL Source Code, because “it’s open source. You can get in there much more easily by submitting a patch.” This is true, in theory. In reality, I haven’t written any C code nor looked at code more complicated than a shell script in 5 years. One of the projects in the pipeline is to delve into the source code, but I’m not there yet.

So instead of submitting patches, I run the Boston MySQL User Group. I write articles in this blog. I help others optimize queries and MySQL configurations. We all do what we can, and that’s what makes open source great.

So the point of this? Do not be intimidated or discouraged because others are successful. Use them as a model, work hard, do what you can do, and you will be successful, too.

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