Open Source Management: A Work in Progress

March 20, 2014

I have attended a couple of “open source” events over the year. Most of the attendees are male, serious, bright, and similar to the fellows in my advanced high school math class and our math club.

The few women present were notable because there were so darned few of them. I attended the first Lucene Revolution with two exceptionally competent females, one a law librarian and one a PhD in operations management.

My recollection is that no one from Lucid, the sponsoring organizations, or the general attendance group paid either much, if any, attention, even when I introduced them.

As I recall, one of the then-senior executives of Lucid Imagination (now Lucid Works) blew off suggestions made by my PhD colleague. It was not what the Lucid person said. It was the facial expression that communicated, “Wow, do I have to listen to yet another idea from a PhD from Kentucky. I have better things to do with my really valuable time.”

I found the meeting amusing.

The female PhD did not share my point of view. Eighteen months later, that male Silicon Valley “superstar” was sucked by Lucid’s revolving door and spit into the ever sunny Silicon Valley job market. My team and I moved on, concluding that at least one open source search company was pretty much like my high school classmates in the math club. Others? Who knows? Who cares?

So what?

Well, I read a fascinating East Coasty article in the April Harper’s Magazine. The story is “The Office and its Ends”, a book extract from Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. Harper’s is into the Trotula recycling approach to content. Nikil Saval and his publisher Doubleday are, no doubt, thrilled by the East Coasty endorsement. Book sales are the name of the game.

Here’s the passage I noted. The extract is describing the workplace at GitHub, where much search source codes resides. The GitHub begins on page 14. You will have to snag a hard copy of the library on a newsstand, even though these are getting hard to find in rural Kentucky. Good hunting, gentle reader.

GitHub seems to be a case example of how to do the workplace.

The hook is in my opinion:

Chacon [the GitHub CIO and a founder] described this [the GitHub workplace approach] as having developed from the open source model: ‘You have all these projects that you can work on, and people choose the crossover of what they’re good at… Leadership can be ephemeral.’

No doubt about leadership ephemerality in open source companies. The whizzing of the revolving door can be discerned in Harrod’s Creek, Kentucky.

This passage struck me as one to underline:

Yet Scott Chacon, one of the company’s founders and its current CIO, kept referring to the value of employees’ being able to ‘serendipitously encounter’ one another throughout the workday. When I [Mr. Saval] asked Chacon how this was supposed to occur if most of the staff wasn’t actually required to come into the office, he explained that he wanted these encounters to be rare, once every month or two, and to ‘deeper interactions.’…’That’s way more valuable to me that ‘I saw this person when I was going to the bathroom,’ or ‘I had to wait in line behind them when I was waiting for food.’ It seemed to me [Mr. Saval] a valid rebuke to the lazier ideas the proliferated in office-design-speak around the world.

I think Mr. Saval sees GitHub as a model for other companies to emulate. There you go. A model for alleged harassment.

By chance, I came across a CNNMoney article “GitHub Suspends Founder over Gender Harassment Claims.” I have no idea if CNN was able to put sufficient resources into researching GitHub because most of the “news” efforts are directed at a missing airplane story. Nevertheless, I will assume the write up is semi-accurate. Here’s the snippet I noted:

“I’ve been harassed by ‘leadership’ at GitHub for two years,” she wrote. “I’m incredibly happy to moving to join a more healthy work environment, with a team who doesn’t tolerate harassment of their peers.”

I circled this passage as well:

It’s hardly the first time a female entrepreneur has pointed out sexism in tech. Last year, tech developer Adria Richards posted to Twitter after taking offense to a sexual reference made by male attendees at tech conference PyCon. One of the men who made the reference was fired, and in a bizarre twist, Richards was also fired for “publicly shaming the offenders.” In another incident at annual tech conference TechCrunch Disrupt, entrepreneurs came under fire for pitching controversial apps…

Several observations:

  1. I wonder how Mr. Saval perceives this situation. I am not sure the GitHub workplace is where I want my daughter to work. If Mr. Saval has a daughter, a wife, a female cousin, I wonder if he would use his connections at GitHub to get one of these females a job.
  2. I wonder if the Lucid Imagination former executive is aware that my PhD colleague could have interpreted his treatment of her as untoward behavior. My hunch is that the disconnect between this Silicon Valley warrior an an African American PhD was so great that bridging the gap was impossible. I wonder if the fellow from Lucid Imagination even knew there was a gap.
  3. What does this Janus-like approach at GitHub say about open source management methods? I have a few ideas, but I will tuck them in my pocket for now.

To wrap up, the East Coasty approach to open source is intriguing. How will other open source companies manage. Will the guy-centric math club approach change? At my 50th high school reunion, the math club folks sat by themselves. Some behaviors are consistent through time I believe.

The major challenge open source faces is management. I will clutch this assertion until someone demonstrates that whiz bang, I’m too busy, my plane is late methods really do deliver value to stakeholders and employees. With venture funding pouring into “open source plays”, how will these companies generate sufficient revenue to pay off the investors? Do Facebook, Google, IBM, and Yahoo have sufficient resources to buy every open source start up?

A decade ago even Google was smart enough to admit that it needed adult supervision. Even with an adult on the job, Google is a case study cornucopia; for example, the alleged relationship between a Google founder and a Glass marketer. Ample evidence appears to exist that high tech management has not found its sweet spot outside of the high school math club. If tech is the future of America’s industrial performance and open source software is the heir to proprietary software, when will management manage? One hopes in time to prevent the alleged unfortunate problems at GitHub from becoming more widespread.

Stephen E Arnold, March 20, 2014


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