On Management and the Maginot Line

The original Cathedral and Bazaar paper of 1997 ended with the vision above—that of happy networked hordes of programmer/anarchists outcompeting and overwhelming the hierarchical world of conventional closed software.

A good many skeptics weren't convinced, however; and the questions they raise deserve a fair engagement. Most of the objections to the bazaar argument come down to the claim that its proponents have underestimated the productivity-multiplying effect of conventional management.

Traditionally-minded software-development managers often object that the casualness with which project groups form and change and dissolve in the open-source world negates a significant part of the apparent advantage of numbers that the open-source community has over any single closed-source developer. They would observe that in software development it is really sustained effort over time and the degree to which customers can expect continuing investment in the product that matters, not just how many people have thrown a bone in the pot and left it to simmer.

There is something to this argument, to be sure; in fact, I have developed the idea that expected future service value is the key to the economics of software production in the essay The Magic Cauldron.

But this argument also has a major hidden problem; its implicit assumption that open-source development cannot deliver such sustained effort. In fact, there have been open-source projects that maintained a coherent direction and an effective maintainer community over quite long periods of time without the kinds of incentive structures or institutional controls that conventional management finds essential. The development of the GNU Emacs editor is an extreme and instructive example; it has absorbed the efforts of hundreds of contributors over 15 years into a unified architectural vision, despite high turnover and the fact that only one person (its author) has been continuously active during all that time. No closed-source editor has ever matched this longevity record.

This suggests a reason for questioning the advantages of conventionally-managed software development that is independent of the rest of the arguments over cathedral vs. bazaar mode. If it's possible for GNU Emacs to express a consistent architectural vision over 15 years, or for an operating system like Linux to do the same over 8 years of rapidly changing hardware and platform technology; and if (as is indeed the case) there have been many well-architected open-source projects of more than 5 years duration -- then we are entitled to wonder what, if anything, the tremendous overhead of conventionally-managed development is actually buying us.

Whatever it is certainly doesn't include reliable execution by deadline, or on budget, or to all features of the specification; it's a rare `managed' project that meets even one of these goals, let alone all three. It also does not appear to be ability to adapt to changes in technology and economic context during the project lifetime, either; the open-source community has proven far more effective on that score (as one can readily verify, for example, by comparing the 30-year history of the Internet with the short half-lives of proprietary networking technologies—or the cost of the 16-bit to 32-bit transition in Microsoft Windows with the nearly effortless upward migration of Linux during the same period, not only along the Intel line of development but to more than a dozen other hardware platforms, including the 64-bit Alpha as well).

One thing many people think the traditional mode buys you is somebody to hold legally liable and potentially recover compensation from if the project goes wrong. But this is an illusion; most software licenses are written to disclaim even warranty of merchantability, let alone performance—and cases of successful recovery for software nonperformance are vanishingly rare. Even if they were common, feeling comforted by having somebody to sue would be missing the point. You didn't want to be in a lawsuit; you wanted working software.

So what is all that management overhead buying?

In order to understand that, we need to understand what software development managers believe they do. A woman I know who seems to be very good at this job says software project management has five functions:

Apparently worthy goals, all of these; but under the open-source model, and in its surrounding social context, they can begin to seem strangely irrelevant. We'll take them in reverse order.

My friend reports that a lot of resource marshalling is basically defensive; once you have your people and machines and office space, you have to defend them from peer managers competing for the same resources, and from higher-ups trying to allocate the most efficient use of a limited pool.

But open-source developers are volunteers, self-selected for both interest and ability to contribute to the projects they work on (and this remains generally true even when they are being paid a salary to hack open source.) The volunteer ethos tends to take care of the `attack' side of resource-marshalling automatically; people bring their own resources to the table. And there is little or no need for a manager to `play defense' in the conventional sense.

Anyway, in a world of cheap PCs and fast Internet links, we find pretty consistently that the only really limiting resource is skilled attention. Open-source projects, when they founder, essentially never do so for want of machines or links or office space; they die only when the developers themselves lose interest.

That being the case, it's doubly important that open-source hackers organize themselves for maximum productivity by self-selection—and the social milieu selects ruthlessly for competence. My friend, familiar with both the open-source world and large closed projects, believes that open source has been successful partly because its culture only accepts the most talented 5% or so of the programming population. She spends most of her time organizing the deployment of the other 95%, and has thus observed first-hand the well-known variance of a factor of one hundred in productivity between the most able programmers and the merely competent.

The size of that variance has always raised an awkward question: would individual projects, and the field as a whole, be better off without more than 50% of the least able in it? Thoughtful managers have understood for a long time that if conventional software management's only function were to convert the least able from a net loss to a marginal win, the game might not be worth the candle.

The success of the open-source community sharpens this question considerably, by providing hard evidence that it is often cheaper and more effective to recruit self-selected volunteers from the Internet than it is to manage buildings full of people who would rather be doing something else.

Which brings us neatly to the question of motivation. An equivalent and often-heard way to state my friend's point is that traditional development management is a necessary compensation for poorly motivated programmers who would not otherwise turn out good work.

This answer usually travels with a claim that the open-source community can only be relied on only to do work that is `sexy' or technically sweet; anything else will be left undone (or done only poorly) unless it's churned out by money-motivated cubicle peons with managers cracking whips over them. I address the psychological and social reasons for being skeptical of this claim in Homesteading the Noosphere. For present purposes, however, I think it's more interesting to point out the implications of accepting it as true.

If the conventional, closed-source, heavily-managed style of software development is really defended only by a sort of Maginot Line of problems conducive to boredom, then it's going to remain viable in each individual application area for only so long as nobody finds those problems really interesting and nobody else finds any way to route around them. Because the moment there is open-source competition for a `boring' piece of software, customers are going to know that it was finally tackled by someone who chose that problem to solve because of a fascination with the problem itself—which, in software as in other kinds of creative work, is a far more effective motivator than money alone.

Having a conventional management structure solely in order to motivate, then, is probably good tactics but bad strategy; a short-term win, but in the longer term a surer loss.

So far, conventional development management looks like a bad bet now against open source on two points (resource marshalling, organization), and like it's living on borrowed time with respect to a third (motivation). And the poor beleaguered conventional manager is not going to get any succour from the monitoring issue; the strongest argument the open-source community has is that decentralized peer review trumps all the conventional methods for trying to ensure that details don't get slipped.

Can we save defining goals as a justification for the overhead of conventional software project management? Perhaps; but to do so, we'll need good reason to believe that management committees and corporate roadmaps are more successful at defining worthy and widely shared goals than the project leaders and tribal elders who fill the analogous role in the open-source world.

That is on the face of it a pretty hard case to make. And it's not so much the open-source side of the balance (the longevity of Emacs, or Linus Torvalds's ability to mobilize hordes of developers with talk of ``world domination'') that makes it tough. Rather, it's the demonstrated awfulness of conventional mechanisms for defining the goals of software projects.

One of the best-known folk theorems of software engineering is that 60% to 75% of conventional software projects either are never completed or are rejected by their intended users. If that range is anywhere near true (and I've never met a manager of any experience who disputes it) then more projects than not are being aimed at goals that are either (a) not realistically attainable, or (b) just plain wrong.

This, more than any other problem, is the reason that in today's software engineering world the very phrase ``management committee'' is likely to send chills down the hearer's spine—even (or perhaps especially) if the hearer is a manager. The days when only programmers griped about this pattern are long past; Dilbert cartoons hang over executives' desks now.

Our reply, then, to the traditional software development manager, is simple—if the open-source community has really underestimated the value of conventional management, why do so many of you display contempt for your own process?

Once again the example of the open-source community sharpens this question considerably—because we have fun doing what we do. Our creative play has been racking up technical, market-share, and mind-share successes at an astounding rate. We're proving not only that we can do better software, but that joy is an asset.

Two and a half years after the first version of this essay, the most radical thought I can offer to close with is no longer a vision of an open-source–dominated software world; that, after all, looks plausible to a lot of sober people in suits these days.

Rather, I want to suggest what may be a wider lesson about software, (and probably about every kind of creative or professional work). Human beings generally take pleasure in a task when it falls in a sort of optimal-challenge zone; not so easy as to be boring, not too hard to achieve. A happy programmer is one who is neither underutilized nor weighed down with ill-formulated goals and stressful process friction. Enjoyment predicts efficiency.

Relating to your own work process with fear and loathing (even in the displaced, ironic way suggested by hanging up Dilbert cartoons) should therefore be regarded in itself as a sign that the process has failed. Joy, humor, and playfulness are indeed assets; it was not mainly for the alliteration that I wrote of "happy hordes" above, and it is no mere joke that the Linux mascot is a cuddly, neotenous penguin.

It may well turn out that one of the most important effects of open source's success will be to teach us that play is the most economically efficient mode of creative work.