20 September, 2011

Deathstar User Group at CLS

A pretty cool session at the Community Leadership Summit was the Death Star Usergroup session, led by Simon Phillips. My notes on this one are below...

You Gotta Find Your Deathstar

The Deathstar User Group

Imagine you're part of an User Group. The UG of an Deathstar, no less. Despite the obviously evil intentions of your organization, you are not evil. Still, you and your fellow UG members stay there. Either because Darth Vader gets you if you refuse. Or because you want to 'change the system from the inside'. Or you simply like big explosions and blowing up planets. In any case, you have to deal with things. How do you explain to your family what you do every day? To your friends? "Yeah, I work on a Deathstar. We blow up rebel planets, killing anyone we see!" And how do you deal with the choices you have to make? Do you tell your friends that the planet you just destroyed was really only inhabited by evil wrong-doers who attack law and order? Or do you admit the planet was full of innocent woman and children and was only destroyed because Darth Vader had a bad day? When do you refuse an order? Can you face the consequences?

Hard choices. Simon Phillips, ex-community manager at Sun, organized a session about this subject. The question: how do you handle the suggestion (or reality!) that your employer is not 100% well intended?

Companies are reptiles

Simon shared an interesting story. He once visited an alligator farm. A trainer there fed the alligator, entertaining the public. At some point he was standing close to an alligator who was just lying in the sun. Somebody asked: "does the alligator know you so he doesn't attack?" The trainer explained that he wasn't afraid, but not because the animal knew him or respected him. He said: "A reptile acts on instinct, and instinct alone. They fights when they are afraid, attack when hungry. If they're neither, they will just lay in the sun. Right now, for example, he's been fed and is not afraid of me. So I am safe. But I should never expect him to delay even one second to attack me, just because I happen to be the guy who feeds him every day." According to Simon, companies are like reptiles. They don't have moral standards. They are not evil, nor good. They just need to make money. If something threatens that, they attack. If they are safe and not hungry, they just lie there - and let their employees do whatever doesn't threaten their income.

Of course, we should also realize that IN those companies, persons of flesh, blood and emotions run the show. They have obligations to their company but they also have their own goals. Even on a Deathstar, many people want to do the right thing... With a few other people from companies like Adobe, Microsoft and Oracle there, it was interesting to hear stories about what was going on at these companies.

Evil Merlin

Evil actions or just accidents

A funny observation is that often, people perceive evil intentions behind actions which are entirely or almost entirely random. Big companies do weird stuff. One part of the company wants to go left, the other part wants to go right. Sometimes timing is strange. This leads to all kinds of conspiracy theories. I always think: "Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity". It's as true about companies as it is about people, if not more. The big, evil plans people see are often just a random coincidence combined with (good or bad) luck and a healthy dose of incompetence.

Of course, these things can be just as damaging. Oracle has been miss-handling their Free Software projects to the point where they simply killed them off entirely. Is that evil? Does Oracle hate Free Software? It's far more likely that they just don't understand it. They lost incredible business value and probably still don't realize it... Obviously, we (as in Free Software contributors) should be careful in dealing with them. Giving them a hard time doesn't help them learn but might convince them how hard it is to work with Free Software. But we shouldn't trust them too much either until they've shown that they (finally) get it. Which will take a while...

The Prophet Jeremiah

Self-fulfilling prophecies

The bad thing about having people focus so much on "this and this company is evil" is that it results in less positive relationships with companies than we could have. Take Microsoft. Sure, their business relies on proprietary software. And parts of what they do is threatened by Free Software so not the whole company is a big fan of 'us'. But not so much that they try to kill any FLOSS they can. There are plenty of people in Microsoft who believe in the model of Free Software and in collaboration with the community. Microsoft is churning out Free Software, contributing to FOSS projects and doing all kinds of interoperability stuff. In part because their customers simply demand it from them. In part because some people in the company simply believe there are opportunities there and nobody stops them. But we shouldn't expect the company to trow away their current cash cows like Windows and Office - they're a company and make money on proprietary software. Realize that companies are even legally obliged to act like that: if CEO would do something 'because it is the right thing', and not pursue income, the shareholders can sue him!

A company can only ever do good as long as it makes business sense. That's why it is so awesome to work for a company which does indeed make money on doing the right thing. Developing and distributing Free Software, a FOSS consultancy company, a hardware company sharing it's source code with others... Even then, you might occasionally bump into 'Deathstar issues'. But usually you can convince management to do the right thing. And if not, contain the damage as much as you can.

Fun With Droids

Take a stand, or?

That's not to say there are no people who just close their eyes and keep happily hacking (operating the Deathstar) while their work actually is damaging. Just looking at the interesting technology and the work you do is no excuse if the end result means you're collaborating on something bad.

Yes, in some cases - you might have to take a stand. I know people who quit because they couldn't reconcile their role in what their company was doing. And I respect that greatly. But I don't look down on people who keep trying to change things for the good. It's a hard and often not exactly thankful job which deserves equally much respect! It is a though call and I think we all have to realize that we don't know the full picture. We can't see what happens internally in a company, we can't judge how much chance there is to turn things around.

It was an interesting session ;-)