As I finish up my few remaining days at OpenAdvantage, a few people have mailed me with comments and thoughts about the recent update debacle with Ubuntu. Personally, I have not wanted to blog about it as I have not had a huge amount to bring to the discussion, but Mark’s post brings up some issues I do want to talk about. Now, I must stress here that I am not privy to any internal strategy at Canonical about this issue, I haven’t even started working there yet, and my blog is most certainly not a platform for me to advertise Canonical strategy, not that they would ever ask for it to be. Every word you read on this blog now and in the future are my words, so do read them as my words.
One of the reasons why I love free software is that process is transparent. When you immerse yourself in the free software ecosystem, you get used to such an ethos. You can easily read developer discussions, view bug reports, access source code, interact with the community and more. Software development is something that is performed in the open, and this transparency is essential – it is the lifeblood behind the concepts and philosophy that we call freedom and openness. As a community, these concepts are our binding agreement to be fair to each other, and transparency is the currency that is exchanged to be a part of such a functioning community.
Although transparency can be easily defined at the raw software engineering level, the waters can sometimes get a little murky when it comes to governance, structure, policy and direction. In some situations, transparency is swapped for convenience and a pressure to achieve something, preferably within the direction and roadmap agreed in the open community. With this compromise in openness, criticism and one-shot slogans often hit the newswires, with terms such as not invented here , design by committee, closed shop and cynicism spreads questioning how open and free a project really is. It is clear that there are indeed certain situations and circumstances when complete openness is either not an option or not a sane option, and such situations net dramatically different reactions. Evidently transparency, openness and freedom have no yardstick.
The Ubuntu project is an astonishing example of transparency at work. The project has defined a strong set of structures and policies to define open process, and the entire project was birthed in a culture that the development of Ubuntu within each of the many disciplines (art, docs, translations, coding, QA, a11y, packaging etc) should be community driven. I am convinced that part of the reason Ubuntu has been so successful so far is such a strong commitment to this transparency. Again, this is relatively straightforward to achieve when it comes to development, and has been for hundreds of other Open Source projects. One key example, particularly pertinent to Ubuntu is Debian. Debian have not only led free software in technology but also in defining open processes that scale. Where it does get interesting is when you mix in Canonical.
Now, again, I must be clear here – I haven’t actually started at Canonical yet, and I start on Monday, but I have been having some discussions about some projects and areas to focus on when I do start. These conversations have been with Canonical people such as Jane Silber, Mark Shuttleworth and Matt Zimmerman, and their intelligent commitment to community has been even stronger than I expected. The reason it is intelligent is a real understanding of what community actually means, and to not just deride it as something that is good for PR or cheap labour. These discussions have placed the community at the core, complete with supporting infrastructure to help things tick along. This is why Ubuntu is so popular – not only is there an open process and some solid, well developed technology, but Canonical have a real understanding of the community themselves. I don’t think I have seen any other company who hits the nail so perfectly on the head, and this is why I wanted to work there. I simply would not work for a company who did not have a clear understanding of what drives our community, and I am proud that in a few days I will be part of a company that really does “get it”.
Bringing the discussion back to the update mistake, the response was another demonstration of this open and transparent process, and how part of subscribing to such a process is to admit when you miss the target and screw something up. In the traditional IT world, a crack team of PR monkeys would have no doubt been instructed to paper over the cracks and help move the news cycle on, but the Ubuntu project instead identified the issue and worked to resolve it quickly, outlining the problem and the solution clearly on the website and elsewhere. Mark’s pleasantly candid blog post further secured the message that something went wrong, it is entirely unacceptable, and efforts are underway to stop this happening. In a traditional market, this message could be received with scepticism, but in the transparent market of Open Source and free software, you yourself can watch the open landscape for such efforts to prevent future mishaps. Mark’s hands-on approach and acceptance of the issue speaks legions about what transparency means to Canonical, and knowing him, it is not just paying lip service.
Sure, nothing is perfect, and there are many bugs to fix, problems to solve and ways to further improve this openness and transparency, and my big list has a collection of action points and areas in which I am determined to further improve the process. I don’t believe in resting on your laurels, and there is always scope to tweak and improve methods of working and refining your approach. Whenever you join a vendor and start working for them, there is always a prescribed assumption from onlookers that you will tow the party line, and always buy into the message of that vendor. I have always remained committed to only working with clueful people who have a message and ethos that agree with, and I will always be my own judge. I am looking forward to working with these clueful people in the open and transparent community we cherish so much.