Understand my job, please!

Three days ago (28 Mar 1999) I posted Take My Job, Please!. Though I didn't intend that essay as an psychological probe of the Internet culture, the reaction to it has made an interesting study in how people refract and interpret communications in the light of their own agendas, preoccupations, and desires.

The most interesting revelation to me was the speed with which many people leapt to the assumption that I have already burnt out, given up, folded my tent, and stolen off into the night. While I certainly expressed a desire to have my own life back and stop taking arrows from the Slashdot kiddies and their spiritual kin, I also stated rather clearly that I cannot in good conscience retire without a replacement (or multiple replacements) ready to pick up my job.

So let me be very explicit about it. That essay was not intended to announce my retirement as a decision already made; it was intended as a wake-up call. As a culture, we have a nasty habit of eating our own — of demanding unattainable perfection, of assuming the worst, of flaming before thinking. This has to stop. We've got to grow up. Whether it's me or somebody else in this week's hot seat, we don't generate so many successful advocates and leaders that we can afford to waste them. Our habit of doing that was one of the things that kept us marginal and weak for so long. We need to grow new ones faster and be a little less savage at the ones we have.

And I'm not just speaking of myself by any means — I think I could name a dozen valuable people over the last ten years who burned out and left us because they tried to tough it out. They reached their limits without sending out a distress signal as I just did. I can name another four that have been pushed nearly over the edge more than once, and whose stressout levels we'd better be damn careful about if we want to keep them around. One of those people is Linus Torvalds.

Nor is burning out your front people the only bad effect of abusing them. It's easy for some people to talk glibly about replacing me with a gang of ten, but I doubt even one other person sufficiently in his right mind to qualify will ever volunteer if the job conditions don't improve. Why should he when by doing something else he can get paid and have a life and neither have to worry about satisfying forty thousand conflicted idealists nor have to listen to testosterone-poisoned twerps ranting “who elected you?” or “your ego is out of control”?

Earlier I used the word ‘leader’ — something I avoided in the previous essay, because I don't think of myself as a leader. Advocate, yes; philosopher/theoretician, yes; ambassador, yes; even a bit of a merry prankster, yes — I'm good at those things. But I've always resisted attempts to turn me into a ‘leader’. My job, the job I've been doing one way or another ever since picking up the Jargon File in 1990, is to describe and explain and reflect the values of the tribe of hackers. Not to lead it — that's an impossible job, and I wouldn't want it if it were possible.

Nevertheless, a fair number of people insisted in calling on me in public to stop trying to lead, and to argue about whether and what kind of leadership we need. I thought these arguments revealed much more about the preoccupation of the people making them with power issues than they did about anything I've ever said or done. As the old Zen Comix punchline goes, “I left that woman at the riverside; are you still carrying her?”

Ironically, the part of my job that most resembles ‘leadership’ (the presidency of OSI) is probably the part that makes the fewest demands on my endurance. Negotiating with Apple about APSL 1.1 changes (something I'm still involved in doing) is much easier than reading yet another screed about the inherent evil of APSL 1.0, or dealing with my sixth press call of the day, or spending two weeks a month on the road.

And let's talk about the APSL. A lot of people jumped to the conclusion that the public flap over it was a major cause of my distress. There is a connection, but it's not the obvious one. I wasn't much injured by learning that many people thought the license was broken and OSI had made a wrong call — I've got a bit more courage than to collapse over that, it just meant OSI had a duty to re-examine and maybe re-negotiate. What did rather dishearten me was two bad things about the way the flap developed. And those two things are behaviors our culture needs to learn not to repeat:

  1. People who should have known better (Perens/Akkerman/Jackson, RMS) threw bombs in public instead of approaching OSI and Apple privately with their concerns.

  2. A lot of other people immediately went flaming paranoid berserk, ignored OSI's response, and accused me of personally masterminding a plot to sell out the hacker tribe to greedy corporate exploiters.

What's the disturbing thing here? Nobody who went public took time out for ten deep breaths. Instead, our stalwart would-be defenders of cultural purity splintered the community, stirred up needless trouble, and made negotiations with Apple to fix the APSL's problems much more difficult — without accomplishing anything more for anybody than if they had asked a few quiet questions of OSI first.

In fact, none of those stalwarts developed any more constructive response than an electronic lynching bee directed at the handiest scapegoat. And that did hurt. If you don't trust the people who put their effort and their reputations on the line for you even long enough to politely ask ‘what's up with that?’ before going for the ideological knives, those people aren't going to work for you very long.

But the real reason I'm making an issue of this is not personal — it's because we need to learn not to pull this kind of immature crap in public any more. The stakes are too high now; when we squabble like children, the trade and even the mainstream press will pick up on it and nail us as a bunch of fractious flakes who can't even be trusted on the playground without a keeper, much less to define the computing infrastructure of the next century. And if we don't learn how to handle our internal conflicts with more grace and discretion, they'll be right to nail us and we will blow our chances.

So the things we need to do to avoid burning out our spokespeople and leaders are the same things we need to do to look like sane, credible, responsible adults to the non-hacker world. You know, that's not a coincidence....

So, what am I going to do next?

First, I want to thank all of the literally hundreds of people who sent me supportive email, including more than a few who apologized for making my job needlessly difficult or failing to speak up when other people did. Those apologies mattered to me. The flamers and twits had nearly managed to make me forget that they're a minority. Even the Slashdot thread about Take My Job, Please! was almost 50% supportive, which I found amazing.

Next, I'm going to take a vacation. And after that, cut back on my speaking and press schedule. Under the circumstances, I was just as happy to learn yesterday that Wired has canceled the full biography they were going to do on me next month. Their reason? I've been getting “too much national and international press” — I'm overexposed. I agree. Time to relax a little, recharge my batteries, write some code, hang with my wife, play with our cat, put a few hundred rounds of hardball through the .45, and finish my paper on open-source economics and business models.

I'm not resigning from OSI, though. We'll continue to work with Apple and anyone else in the corporate world who genuinely wants to join the hackers' game. Most of the time that work will be quiet negotiation behind the scenes (as it is right now). Occasionally it will be very public. I'll be working on training a successor, and I'll bow out in that person's favor when the time is right.

I will not give up on our tribe. For more than twenty years now I've dreamed of living in a whole world of software that doesn't suck — clean, powerful, reliable, well-built code that we techies can love and be proud of instead of cursing because it's all so flaky and broken and sad. An infrastructure that gives people choices rather than ulcers, freedom instead of monopoly lock-in. I think the open-source model is our best shot at getting there, and I believe in the capacity of the hacker culture, coupled with the free market, to make it work. We can win; we can make the world a profoundly better place. We have the brains and character to do it — if we insist on the best from ourselves not in our relationships with technology but in our relationships with each other as well.

Work on your kindness. Work on your trust. When you see twits going on a rampage, speak up against it without descending to their level. Try to be forbearing, not just towards me and your other advocates and leaders (though we sure need it, we're human beings too and responsibility is heavy) but towards each other as well. The energy we spend on fighting each other is energy we're not spending on our work. We owe the world better; we've got a big job to do together. Let's get on with it.

Related resources:

A Japanese translation of this article is available.