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Please note: This article was initially published on my previous blog, called Arrogant and Condescending, on 2nd February 2011.

Today Broderick told me he was going to reply to one of my blog posts. Now, I haven’t written in quite some time (six months now), and scanning over the last few posts, I have to say I wasn’t too proud. My post about the veil has crossed a few people, and Yvan and Broderick have made very good points. I’d like to stress out that most of the article was written in a tongue-in-cheek fashion – I realise this doesn’t mean that’s how it reads.

Regardless, I’d like to discuss something completely different, rather than righting my wrongs (I’d much prefer an active discussion rather than just adding verses to an incomplete rhetoric), so after much a due, here we go.

A couple of months ago, Mohamad, one very active community member in Maemo was lamenting about the closed-source components of the operating system. The media player, the conversations, the application manager: these are all bits and pieces that lock the user away from freedom. And that is, obviously, a bad thing.

As the conversation flowed, we pitched the idea of reimplementing the media player completely; writing it from scratch, copying the user interface (as to not alienate users). Apart from a few very serious flaws in Nokia’s current implementation, we wouldn’t actually try to improve change too much, and then let the community decide what is best for the media player. Basically, we wanted to gift the media player’s source code to the Community – an act of faith that Nokia has never deigned to grant its customers.

A few weeks later, and we’re starting to get somewhere. Mohamad has done amazing work on the graphical user interface, various contributors have donated time and brain matter in order to give us a rudimentary clone. I was very pleased. Then, it was decided to “announce” this development effort properly to the community.

People deciding to work, and actually doing it, and for a good cause, nothing could be wrong, right? Wrong. We got slammed. People started flaming about the feasability, about the usability, about the needability; all in a very unobfuscated demeanour of stupidity.

The loudest people were well known Community Trolls: people who seemingly enjoy annoying others and engaging in relatively counter-productive behaviour. At the same time, the Community SSU (allowing the Community to manage the software updates, rather than relying on Nokia, which has abandoned the platform) was announced by very much the same group of people as those responsible for the Media Player reimplementation; by and large the same trollish and counter-productive responses were given to this project as well.

I didn’t understand this. Why, again and again, would people start yelling and screaming as soon as something was done. I first naively attributed it to the fact people don’t like change, but then I noticed, somehow, the same behaviour at work. Luckily not “the same” – we don’t have people behaving like hooligans as soon as one offers food for thought – however both reactions couldn’t be entirely happening at random.

There are two discussions at my company, in particular, that have “leaked” in that sense. One was about Source Control Management, a purely technical discussion that, yes, – hypothetically, could have – affected a few people, the other about the technical architecture of a system-wide method of communication. Both discussions stalled in quite a dramatic manner, mostly because everyone wanted to see their own ideology put forward.

In full disclosure, I pitched the SCM-discussion, and having rather not adapted to the French’s inability to understand candour (‘t was my first week, after all), may be partly to blame for how badly it degenerated.

This being said, the other discussion, about some architectural decision, I believe is an excellent example of misdirected management: instead of asking people how they can contribute (read: help make the current solution better), you ask them if they see an issue. The immediate response, usually, is “Yes, however we don’t have it if we do it my way”. Don’t ask them to offer a solution, insist that they improve the current one.

I then started searching, online, as I would research a technical problem. At some point, someone on Twitter pointed me towards a seemingly random, if well named, website. I’ll quote a bit of it (though, reading the whole page is definitely worth it):

Parkinson shows how you can go in to the board of directors and get approval for building a multi-million or even billion dollar atomic power plant, but if you want to build a bike shed you will be tangled up in endless discussions.

Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far. […]

A bike shed on the other hand. Anyone can build one of those over a weekend, and still have time to watch the game on TV. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, somebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is here.

Whoa. Poul-Henning Kamp, where the hell have you been all this time? There really isn’t much more to say; PHK’s text is so painfully insightful and well written that I don’t have any words.

We all have our bike sheds to build. But frankly, I’d rather not build them over the weekend. So when you hit reply, think very, very carefully about what you are going to type next. Be extremely thorough, and assume good faith. Put your ego aside, and let the person who launched an initiative drive it. You may be piqued that you didn’t do it, that they implemented an idea before you had the time; the truth is you should embrace this.

Regardless of the context in which you interpret these words (an Open Source project, your job), please remember that in most cases everyone is sharing the same goal; everyone is trying to further things, and improve things.

It is not because you think you have the intellectual, or technological, or managerial right to comment on something that you should.

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Sebastian Lauwers



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I'm a software architect and Free Software hacker

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