Even Leaders Need to Take a “Leak”

April 16, 2005


You know it’s bad when the Three Stooges analogies start to emerge. In the proprietary software world, folks love to point fingers at Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy, and Bill Gates. And if the analogy is supposed to mean that these three men have done some incredibly bone-headed things (amidst all the great things they’ve accomplished) , then the analogy may have merit.

But now the open source community has its own set of humorous “bunblers.” In a recent article, the Register points to Larry, Mungo and Tridge. In this case, we are talking about Larry McVoy (BitKeeper proprietor – and not an open source luminary), Linus Torvalds (Linux uber-geek) and Andrew Tridgell (Samba leader and Bitmover reverse engineer) . Added to this august trio is Bruce Perens (open source maven and former HP exec) who threw a few barbs in Linus’ direction over his recent “Tridge-trashing” comments.

So what’s up with these folks. Well, I won’t spend a lot of time, but here are the highlights:

  • Linus was having trouble coordinating all the changes that were going into the Linux kernel. So he worked a deal with Larry McVoy to move the kernel development from a cvs-based system to BitKeeper (a proprietary system). This decision was not met with unanimous consent. Indeed, it resulted in quite a furor within the community. But Larry worked a deal so that the Linux developers could have a limited license through the use of gateway technologies.
  • Tridge decided to start a pet project to reverse-engineer the Bitmover / BitKeeper “on the wire” protocols. BTW, this is exactly how Samba started – and exactly what Samba accomplished regarding Microsoft’s SMB implementation.
  • Larry took offense at the reverse engineering and decide to pull the license under which kernel development was proceeding.
  • Linus began to raise the issue of how best to conduct kernel development given the BitKeeper license changes prompted by these problems. That question is not yet resolved. But in the meantime, Linus has made some highly inappropriate comments concerning Tridge and his character.

Once Linus began his very public commentary, things got quite heated. Tridge is being conspicuously quiet (probably because of legal concerns over Bitmover). Since Tridge won’t speak, others are stepping up to his defense. As noted earlier, luminaries like Bruce Perens are even starting to speak up.

I will not comment upon the people (or their conduct and comments) in this unfortunate mess. But I will note that this proves that all people can make mistakes – regardless of how luminary these people are.

All of this reminds me of a few scenes from Star Trek: First Contact. In that movie, the Enterprise is thrown back in time. While in the past, they meet the “inventor” of the warp engine. As the crew from Enterprise are working to prepare the very first human warp craft (that will be flown by Zefram Cochrane), many crewmembers start to talk about Cochrane and his accomplishments. There is even the off-hand discussion about “first-year Academny” warp mechanics classes that were inspired by the events that were about to occur. During all of this reminiscence (and downright idol worship), we hear Cochrane utter the following: “You think I want to go to the stars? I don’t even like to fly–I take trains.” And at one point, Cochrane is trying to hide from all the intense adulation. But he is found by Geordi while he is taking a “leak.”

Sometimes, I think we treat the open source leadership like the Enterprise crew treated Zefram Cochrane. We forget that these folks are normal people who sometimes do human things (like take a “leak”). Hopefully, this will all turn out well. But I have always found that the best way to overcome such human frailties is to offer something extraordianry and altogether super-human: forgiveness. A number of community leaders probably need to step back and humbly ask for (as well as offer) forgiveness. Not to the community, but to each other. Too bad that the open source community does everything in public view. This “openness” may make such displays of contition quite difficult. So let’s give these men the time and ability to be real leaders.



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