Herding the Meta-Cats


In the famous online argument between Linus and Minix creator Andrew Tanenbaum during the very early days of Linux, one of the more memorable statements from the latter was the following:

I think co-ordinating 1000 prima donnas living all over the world will be as easy as herding cats

The “prima donnas” that he was referring to were hackers, rather than opera singers, and his point was that it's hard to get technically very able people with strong opinions to agree to the point where they can move a software project forward. And that, indeed, is part of the amazing achievement of Linux and all the free software projects that have adopted its methodology: without formal lines of command or management structures being imposed on them, those same prima donnas often *do* manage to agree on enough to make projects successful well beyond what traditional development techniques can produce.

So, it turned out that Tanenbaum was wrong as far as herding those particular cats was concerned, but what about at the next level: how easy is it to herd *meta*-cats – that is, to get the various projects working together in a more coordinated fashion?

That was the central question that was explored at a meeting I attended yesterday. Since it was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, I can't go into details about who was there, but given that the focus was on helping the various players in the UK's free software ecosystem to work together more effectively, you can probably draw up your own list of participants. What follows is a brief summary of some of the many fascinating points that came up during the day-long discussion.

Interestingly, one theme that returned again and again was the difficulty of making any headway in getting open source into the public sector. This won't come as any surprise to readers of this blog, since it's something I've referred to many times. But even I was struck by the centrality of this question to the progress of open source in the UK. After all, a problem with central government typically means problems for schools, for the health service, for local government (because of knock-on effects) and so on. This also implies that changes wrought in this sector will have a disproportionately large effect around the country.

One approach that was recommended yesterday is writing to MPs and MEPs. As I've noted several times before, this can be surprisingly effective, not least because not many people do it. So the more those interested in promoting free software keep contacting their MPs and MEPs on the subject, so the proportion of their time spent dealing with issues of interest to the open source world increases. Thanks to online aids like WriteToThem, it's not even very onerous to write a letter to these people.

Another area where it was agreed more could be done was that of providing speakers for conferences and universities. Part of the problem facing free software in the UK is that not many people know about it, and even fewer understand it. This is a failure to communicate on the part of the free software community, albeit one that is hardly surprising. After all, coders tend not to be interested in the marketing side of things (to put it mildly), which means that there is a real dearth of people willing and able to speak on the subject.

One idea from yesterday's meeting that will be put into practice soon is the creation of a database of those who *are* willing to speak at conferences. Another area is that of universities: getting the message out about free software to young people is particularly important because they tend to have a natural predisposition to agree with its ideas – most of them are sharing intimate details of their lives on Facebook and Twitter as a matter of course, (to say nothing of mp3 files....) On way to to do this would be to speak at evening meetings organised by science, engineering and law socieites. Once this scheme is up and running, I'll be writing about it again, and encouraging readers to add their names to the database.

One other major problem was also identified: that even when there are opportunities for open source companies to bid for contracts (thanks, in part, to constant campaigning for a level playing field), the submissions are often rather amateurish. In part, that's down to the fact that such companies tend to be small, and lacking in experience in this area. It's also because the selection process is biased against such firms, requiring in some cases huge amounts of paperwork.

This is a big problem, because the open source business scene in the UK is largely made up of smaller companies of fairly recent date. But if their limited experience and resources militate against them winning contracts, their opportunities to grow into bigger open source companies are limited. Perhaps this issue will resolve itself over time as players become more experienced in the ways of bidding for contracts. But it is also yet another argument for trying to herd the meta-cats so that they can work together and share experiences for mutual benefit.

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