Book Review: The Starfish and the Spider & Open source software organizations and money

February 21st, 2013 in Books, open source, Would you do it again for free?

The Starfish and the Spider compares two types of organizational structures. Spider organizations have a central command structure, like a CEO. If you detach one of the spider’s legs from the head, the leg can no longer function. It is not autonomous. Starfish organizations have very distributed command structures. Cut off a leg and it will continue to function and will even grow other legs and turn into its own starfish. Each type of organization has its benefits and drawbacks and each are useful at different times. One key to success is understanding what type of organization you are in, its strengths and weaknesses and when you might want to act more like the other type. Hybrids are also possible. For example, GE  under Jack Welsh transitioned from a spider to a spider/starfish. Traditional companies tend to be more like spider organizations and open source software projects tend to be more like starfish.

Some of the points in The Starfish and the Spider made me wonder whether money can change an open source project into a more traditionally organized and closed project. And if it has that potential, what we can do preserve the best of open source while introducing money.

As I discussed in “Would you do it again for free?“, I’m very curious about how open source organizations work and in particular how factors like motivations, companies and pay change them. I’ve theorized that pay can change an open source developer’s motivations. It’s not usually bad for the project (especially if the payment is in the form of salaries) unless the money goes away. If the money goes away, if for example the developer gets laid off, then I think the developer will quit working on the project but will switch projects, not quit working on open source software projects all together. (Assuming they were working on open source software before they got paid to do it.)

But what happens when money gets introduced suddenly into an open source project? I think it depends on how the money is used and how much its distribution changes how the project is run. In most cases, access to money has greatly helped open source software projects in a number of ways.

  1. Developers. There are a lot more developers working full time on projects like Linux and Firefox than there would be if no one was paid to work on them. And those developers contribute more than just work. They bring ideals and values to the project.
  2. Team building & communication. More resources means being able to bring more people together – and not to just hold the conference but to actually pay for people’s travel expenses if needed. GNOME, Apache and Mozilla all help pay for contributors travel to key events when needed.
  3. Infrastructure. Money can also provide for project infrastructure, hardware and hosting costs.
  4. Skills. Money can also be used to bring in resources that open source software projects have traditionally had a hard time recruiting or finding in their volunteer staff such as marketing and business development.

Given all the benefits that additional resources can bring a project, I think having access to money is definitely a good thing for open source software projects. (And I’ve spent a lot of time personally helping projects effectively raise and use money through efforts like fundraising for GNOME and serving on the Board of Directors for the Software Freedom Conservancy.)

I do think there are a few things to keep in mind though.

  1. Money often concentrates power. This is not so much an issue when the money is used for salaries, but more an issue of when resources for things are not accessible to all project members. Or the process for getting access is not communicated well. The Starfish and the Spider shares the example of how the Apache Indians were ultimately defeated. The Apaches were definitely a starfish organization. Tribes followed their leaders because they believed in them. If a leader was killed, people would continue to fight and a new leader would emerge. How were they defeated? By cows. The Americans gave the Apache leaders cows. Once they had cows, they controlled a valuable resource and became an authoritative leader and the power structure became hierarchical instead of flat. Once the organization was hierarchical, it was easier to control. So it’s important to make sure that control of resources reflects or supports the project structure.
  2. It’s hard to spend money. Many open source software projects, especially those with relatively small amounts of money, struggle with how to spend the money effectively and fairly. If you have $500 and a project with 10 people, how should you use it? You could reward everyone with a dinner at a conference, but most of them would probably rather you spent the money on the project. You could pay to fly someone to the next hackfest that would not ordinarily be able to afford to attend. With a little bit of money (I heard under $10,000), it is often hard to spend the money. It’s more work to figure out how to spend it and use it, than it’s typically worth. Especially if the project doesn’t have an organizational entity associated with it.
  3. Most financial transactions require an authorized person. In most countries, signing a deal with another organization requires someone to sign the deal. So to enter into any kind of business relationship whether as a client or a partner or a provider, an organization must have someone with authority to sign for the organization. And for tax and liability reasons, you need an organization to collect money and sign agreements. It’s possible to give that authority to someone in a way that’s consistent with the values of a starfish organization, but it requires some thought.

Money can do a lot of good for open source software projects but some thought needs to be given to using it in a way that will do long term good.

My crazy wish list

February 6th, 2013 in Uncategorized

Photo by danorbit

Photo by danorbit

Here’s my wish list:

  1. A food printer. That’s right, a printer that will create any food you want from a few basic ingredients. I don’t think it’s quite done yet. And I certainly don’t need it. Pasta on demand might just do me in. But I’d feel like I was living in a science fiction book, which would just be cool. Seriously, I can see how this would help out on long distance space travel or remote science stations.
  2. A smart thermometer. I have to be one of the pickiest people about the temperature of my surroundings. In my car, I play with the thermostat all the time and I keep a space heater in my office so I can turn it up and down at will. If the Nest thermometer could read my mind, I’d get it in a heartbeat. Maybe it just needs a sensor that I could wear …
  3. Smart clothes. Actually, what I really want is a suit of clothes that just keeps me the perfect temperature all the time. And protects me from skin cancer and frost bite and all that. Oh, and it should stay clean and be comfy – no space suit. And stylish. I’m happy to wear the same outfit every day if it can do all that.
  4. A wearable implanted computer. I want the computer totally out of the way. (They keep suggesting brain implants, but that makes me a bit queazy.) And the display should be either in my brain or in my contacts. No glasses or big eye contraption. This one comes close but still requires glasses.
  5. Better input methods. Speaking of wearable computers, typing is too slow. I’d like to be able to think my emails and communications. No more slow typing. No mistaken speech recognition.
  6. Something better than email. Speaking of email, there’s got to be a better way to communicate.
  7. A teleporter. I spend way too much time in airports, cars and planes. If I could teleport, working remotely and visting friends and colleagues would be much more enjoyable. My 6 year old thinks we should make a teleporter that could take the whole house. I told him parking might be a problem.
  8. If I can’t have a teleporter, maybe a Tesla. I’m not too into cars, and I don’t know really why I want one, but I think the Tesla is awesome. I got a chance to check out the sedan a few months ago in California and I’ve been wanting one ever since. Not quite badly enough to pay the price though. But a high performing electric car with lots of space that still gets 300 miles to the charge … wow.
  9. Or maybe a catamaran. Maybe I could find a nice warm location with awesome snorkeling, lots of sun and still decent wifi. Not this one though. The guy went down below (whether to use the head or to see is wife is still up for debate) and left it on autopilot. No more catamaran.
  10. A declutterer. Someone who makes all the stuff you accumulate disappear. Like my mom used to do. I never realized that she got rid of old clothes until a few years after I left home and I realized my closet was overflowing. Someone or something that could distinguish between my kids’ treasurers and all the random junk they accumulate and keep the first and lose the latter. Without asking them. Because everything is a potential treasure if you ask them.

What’s on your wish list?

When someone makes you something special

January 6th, 2013 in family, Food and Drink

I had an awesome chicken salad in an avocado during one of my business trips. It was midnight when I got to my hotel and the only option for food was take out from a nearby deli. And I was very happily surprised by the chicken salad in an avocado dish. I’ve raved about that dish for a while now.

Today my awesome guy surprised me with this for lunch.

20130106_114109

And yes, I know I need a lot of practice before I become a professional food photographer. Frank says I also need to write down what’s in the foods I enjoy. He seems to think it’s important to know if there were apples or jalapenos in the salad.

Not only was the thought awesome – it made me feel cared for – but the dish was delicious.

Should you only do business with those that share your values?

January 6th, 2013 in mozilla, open source, PlanetGNOME

Photo by Fadzly @ Shutterhack

Photo by Fadzly @ Shutterhack

Many of us working on free and open source software have strong values and we want to make the world a better place. I’m comfortable predicting that the rate of vegetarians, recyclers, hybrid vehicle owners and just general environmentally conscious people is higher than average in free and open source software projects.

We want to work with and support companies that support our values. We buy brands like Seventh Generation products, we try to support companies like System 76 and ZaReason. And we avoid “evil” companies. After hearing Dish Network was the Meanest Company in America, I’m researching other cable providers.

But how much can you restrict your partnerships to those that perfectly align with your values? Is a company evil if it doesn’t match your values in all areas? I personally buy products and have business relationships with companies that I may not be 100% aligned with. (Although some may be too far from alignment.) Sometimes it’s because I haven’t done any research – I buy gas where it’s most convenient not from the most environmentally conscious gas provider. Sometimes it’s because there’s not much of an alternative – if I want high speed network at home, Comcast is my option. Sometimes it’s because I think that while they are not perfect, they are providing a service that makes my world better.

If you partner with someone who doesn’t share all of your values, assuming the partnership goes well, you have a chance to influence them. My friends are much more likely to listen to my opinions than someone I’ve never had a coffee or a beer with.

Now, I realize that open source software projects are often less in the position of partnering and more in the position of accepting donations. But again, I think your chances are greater for being a positive influence if you are working with them than if you are not. You should examine the organization’s motives and make sure if you are part of a political play, that you are comfortable with that move. I still remember the wealthy individual trying to build a big chain store in the town I lived in who donated a house to a family in need. While it was a great donation, and I would thank him for it in person if I saw him, I also know it landed him on the front page of the paper in a positive light at a very controversial time. Should the family have turned down his donation? Probably not. Should those that were anti-big-chain-store have done something differently. Probably.

But the fear of being associated with a company that’s not perfect or of being used as part of political play should not hold us back from investigating options and starting partnerships.

I think open source software projects often hold themselves back. They don’t investigate partnerships that could be beneficial because the other organization is not perfect. Proprietary software is not evil – a lot of really great innovation has been led by proprietary software companies. And doing business with an organization that has proprietary software will not make an open source organization any less good. There will be no perfect organization just like there is no perfect person. You have to recognize the opportunity for good in people and organizations and work with them where it can make sense for both of you.

Make the world a better place through partnerships because if you insist on doing it all yourself, it’s going to be a long road. Personally, I want to visit the stars someday, so I hope those that share a vision of star travel work together even if they don’t always agree on how to do it. I want to live in a world where everyone has access to computing power and the internet and control over their experience and their data. I think in order to do that, we’re all going to have to work together. And we’re going to have to work with those that might agree on pieces of our plan but not the end vision, and that will be ok. The super helpful Comcast guy might not share my vision of the world, but he helped me make it possible for me to continue working on it.

I miss blogs

December 31st, 2012 in mozilla, PlanetGNOME, Weblogs

The number of long form blog post have been declining for years. Most speculate that it’s because most of us spend more time microblogging on Twitter and Facebook. Certainly, when I started blogging in 2004, I blogged a lot of things that I would only tweet now. In November 2010, Jeff Bercovici wrote on Forbes:

53 percent of hobbyist bloggers say they update their blogs either somewhat less or a lot less than they have in the past. [...]

Those who say they’re blogging less often were then asked to say why. While the most popular answer was “work/family commitments,” the next two most common choices were “I am devoting more time to microblogging (eg. Twitter)” and “I am devoting more time to social networks.”

I think it took a bit longer for that trend to happen in open source software and my technology blogs, but it has come. I found myself really missing good blog posts by independent individuals and decided to see if it was my imagination, or if I really was reading less blog posts than I used to and here’s what I found on my two favorite planets: (Numbers not 100% accurate.)

BlogPostFrequency

While I didn’t have a good way to measure microblogging numbers by the same authors as were in Planet, I do know that most of the people whose blog posts I miss are regularly posting on Facebook or Twitter.

The thing is, I miss reading all those blog posts. I’ve tried looking for more blogs to follow but not been really successful at finding new ones. I’ve tried reading more nonfiction books but books don’t provide the same type of thought food or blog ideas as blog posts do. Neither do tweets or Facebook posts.

At the same time, I have to admit my own blogging has gone down drastically from an average of 6 blog posts a month in early 2011 to an average of maybe 1 a month now.

It’s possible that microblogging is a better medium for the 5 blog posts a month that I now tweet instead of writing. And that the one post a month I write is the only one that should have been in long form to begin with. But I don’t think so. I think I am just sharing less well thought out ideas.

What do you think? Do you miss blogging? Have you noticed the decline of blog posts? Do you miss them?

Offsites, robots & trees

December 6th, 2012 in Uncategorized

During the past week I’ve had work, play, family, friends, interesting dialogue, …

  • I attended two Mozilla offsites last week. Offsites are are in person meetings that last between a day and a week. Different teams at Mozilla have been using them differently and I still think we’re working out the perfect format but meeting in person once in a while seems to be essential. (Many open source software projects have some sort of annual meeting as well as smaller get togethers.) In my experience in person meetings are really good for team building and at a decision points in the project. And because you don’t always know when you’ll be stuck on a decision, I think holding them regularly helps. Holding them too often can hurt productivity as most of the team has to travel, so there’s some balance to be found and it depends on where the project is.
  • At the Mozilla Engagement leads offsite we went over goals, budget and hiring for 2013. My group is publishing their goals and projects on the Mozilla wiki … for example, you can discuss the MDN 2013 goals and you can see the Firefox OS work that the evangelist team is working on.  We also established that the overall Mozilla Engagement team is very globally diverse. While we have quite a few people in California, our team is spread around the world. (We now have 4 that I know of in Colorado!)
  • At the Mozilla Apps Leads offsite we had discussions about apps, Android, Firefox OS, Marketplace, developers, … more about that coming out later.
  • I then got a scare … an email that said my flight would likely be over 4 hours late and might be cancelled due to the rains in the San Francisco area. I got home alright but I wish I could have transported the rain home as well.
  • We went on our annual Christmas tree pilgrimage. We found a terrific tree – aided by the fact that we didn’t have to wade through deep snow. For the first time in 10 years, there was no snow on the ground in December in our mountains. Things are not looking good for our forests next year. Not only was it extremely dry, there was a lot of beetle kill (i.e. dead trees) and there were active fires just a few miles south. So the tree was easy to find. Hauling it out without a sled proved to be a bit more difficult … (I also thought they should have asked everyone to bring out a couple of beetle kill trees while we were there, but I’m sure making changes like that to US forest policy would take a bit.)
  • We attended a fundraiser for Colorado nonprofits held at our local brewery – our youngest was delighted to get a root beer in a bottle. We got to visit with friends that work and volunteer at CASA and ELTC. As you buy your Christmas gifts this year, don’t forget your nonprofits – whether they are your local nonprofits or your favorite open source software supporting nonprofit!
  • Kids on Computers is planning our next set of schools. We’re working on getting computers to a new school in Oaxaca as well as expanding to two new schools in India! We had a meeting last night and it looks like the India schools will get set up in the spring. The computers for the India schools will be funded in large part by a grant we got from Yahoo!
  • Several interesting discussions about Firefox OS and how and when to get developers phones to try it out. I’m very excited about Mozilla moving into mobile. There was a really interesting article by Giga about mobile developers that Havi pointed us to. Most app developers seem to be men in their 30s working for small companies. I could have guessed the men part and the 30s part wasn’t surprising. The small companies part was interesting. There’s a lot of good info in there.
  • I read a bunch about Jawbone Up, Nike Fuelband and Fitday. I wish the Jawbone Up worked on Android so I could put it on my Christmas list.
  • Realized that robots are hitting the news a lot. From Disney robots that can play catch to MIT robots that can rebuild themselves for the job.
  • Watched my 6 year old wrap all of his presents for Christmas by himself. The excitement is contagious!
  • Learned that it’s unlikely I’ll ever get a computer screen built into my contact lenses as your eye can’t focus on anything that close. I’ll just have to push for that brain implant. One of my favorite book scenes is in one of Peter Hamilton’s books where the protagonist goes into a computer store to pick out a computer that fits into her brain. I wanted to go shopping with her!

Your competition helps explain who you are

November 27th, 2012 in Business, mozilla, PlanetGNOME

“Where there is no competition, there is no market. This is why start-ups who “have no competition” have trouble engaging partners and making sales.” – Geoffrey Moore, Escape Velocity

Open source projects often shy away from competition. They value collaboration and leveraging existing solutions. But competition is good for more than making you run faster. Competition helps define who you are.

This is why the Nike iPod sensor had such a hard time when it came out. There was nothing to compare it to except pedometers. In contrast, Fitbit and Jawbone’s Up have met with a lot more initial success. And just about every article about them compares them to each other. (Interestingly, Nike has a new, similar product called Fuel Band that is mentioned in very few of the articles.)

GNOME and KDE defined each other by competing in the Linux desktop space. Without an option between KDE and GNOME, very few Linux desktop users would know what a “desktop” was or what part of the Linux desktop was created by GNOME or KDE. By defining each other as competition, they helped explain who they were and what problem they were trying to solve. They also constrained themselves to the Linux desktop. That was good as it let them shine in a defined space, but if they want to move to new markets – like mobile, they’ll have to be careful to define new competition to explain to partners and users who they want to be.

Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Opera and Chrome have a long history of competing. They’ve helped define each other and the web.

So don’t be afraid of the competition. Choose your competitors wisely and let them help explain your story.

 

What I’ve been reading

November 21st, 2012 in Books

I haven’t written a book review in a long time so I thought I’d just share what I’ve been reading lately.

  • Mark Coggins leads the technical evangelist team at Mozilla and as he’s someone I work with on a daily basis, I was curious about his books. I have to admit, I started with The Adventure of the Black Bishop because it was short but it was good enough to lead me to VULTURE CAPITAL which I enjoyed very much.
  • Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere by Will Richardson. While I really like my kids’ schools and teachers, I feel more and more like school isn’t the best way for all kids to learn. The focus is still very much on teacher directed learning, everyone learning the same thing and being able to recite it back. When that’s your alphabet and numbers, it feels very appropriate. When it’s US capitals or Canadian provinces, it doesn’t feel like the best way to learn that info. Will Richardson does a good job of explaining why and how schools could evolve but he doesn’t have the answer.
  • Fatal Exchange by Russell Blake. I’m an Amazon Prime member and so I can check out a book a month but I never see many of the “free” books that I’m interested in. This one was pretty good. It was a bit far fetched but complex enough, action packed enough and well written enough to be a good read. Gruesomely violent though.
  • Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magic) series by Patricia Wrede. This is the wild west meets magic. It’s an alternate reality where magic animals (and magic wielding humans) exist and society is busy exploring the wild west of what we call the United States set in a technology age where trains and horses are used for transportation. The series was much more entertaining than I would have thought.
  • Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin. I listened to this book. It’s been in my queue for a long time as something I “should” read. I was pleasantly surprised that it felt really relevant. I had a conversation with David Ascher shortly afterwards about changing the way things are done by creating a new group and I was pretty excited to tell him that Seth Godin agreed with him! I may need to buy the print version so I can take some good notes.

And then I’m working on these:

  • The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. Since my team is working on the long tail of apps for the Firefox Marketplace, I thought I should listen to the book about what the long tail really is. If I’m going to make it through it, I think I may have to buy the print edition. So far it’s been very focused on the economics of the supplier offering a long tail and I’m much more interested in the long tail from the individual creator’s point of view.
  • Escape Velocity by Geoffrey Moore. We’ve been using Geoffrey More’s Horizon model to describe projects at Mozilla. I’m finding it full of very thought provoking ideas. For example, “participating in low-power category, such as desktop computers, wire-line phone services, or e-mail, is an exercise in playing on the margins”. If you are in a low power category, life is just going to be hard. You need to create a new category if you want to deliver innovation. There’s even insights on staffing such as “organizations tend to leave the same people in place for the life of a line of business, which is often not good either for the business or the people”. And he goes on to talk about how different types of leaders and manager are required depending on the stage a project is in. More to come …

What do you recommend I read next?

Help me name it: The Pass it On Dinner Club

August 26th, 2012 in Uncategorized

We like having people over for dinner … and we like meeting new people … and we like it when we make serendipitous introductions.

But most dinner clubs, wine parties and happy hours seem to grow until they implode, so I’ve been trying to figure out how to structure a social situation that introduces new people to each other without growing too big. I think I have a structure (albeit a bit like a pyramid scheme), it just needs a catchy, fun, non-imposing name.

My plan? Have a dinner party for six and ask them to return the favor.

My plan is to have a dinner party for six where the plan is to introduce people that don’t know each other but you think might have something in common. And then ask them to return the favor.

So Frank and I might have two other couples (or four other individuals) over for dinner. Hopefully they’d at least have a good evening having good food and wine with us. Then, in return, at some point in the future, they’d each invite us over for dinner with a couple of other people that we don’t know. (And if they couldn’t or didn’t want to pass it on, no worries, the dinner itself should be fun.)

And if they enjoyed the people we introduced them to, they could do something with them. But that would be a side effect of the pass it on dinner club, not the next step.

So what do you think? Think it would work? What would you call such a club?

The 7 reasons I didn’t post it

July 10th, 2012 in mozilla, PlanetGNOME, Weblogs

We all have blog posts we haven’t written. Boris Mann wrote about why he hasn’t posted some.

Here are the top 7 reasons I haven’t published some of the blog posts I’ve written.

  1. Half baked. My idea was half baked. A lot of times I find myself blogging about things I’m still trying to work out. Perhaps those half baked blog posts would spark interesting conversations but I often find myself saving them as drafts and starting a conversation in email or in person. These are the ones I think maybe I should publish.
  2. Twitter. I tweeted it instead. Many things are only worth a tweet these days. When I first started blogging in 2004, I used to blog interesting links. Now I tweet them instead.
  3. Too personal. Often I realize I need to talk directly to the person, not blog about them. Many times I want to blog when I’m frustrated about a person or a situation. In those cases, I usually just write the post, save it as a draft, and then call or email the person I’m frustrated with.
  4. Too rude. The person I was blogging about would know it was about them. I actually keep a list of the funny things I want to tweet or blog about but I need to wait a few months so that the subject doesn’t know it was them … these are usually the really funny ones. Although often they are tweets, not blog posts. And no, that tweet was not about you! :)
  5. Too private. I used to blog a lot more about my kids and my personal life. After some really negative comments on a post about my kids, I decided to make most of these private. I still tweet about the funny things they do and blog about some of the insights they give me, but most of my posts about my family are now private.
  6. Time. I have lots of really good topics I’d like to blog about. In many cases, I’ve started the post. I just haven’t taken the time to polish it and publish it.
  7. Not mine. I find this the most frustrating one. Often there’s a really good opinion, idea or a news item that I think should be shared but it’s not really mine to share. I’ve often offered to interview or guest post for someone but they rarely take me up on it.

Take a look at the draft posts you have. What are the top reasons you haven’t posted them?

Do you think I should post more of the above topics? How would you suggest I do that?