Death of the Benevolent Dictator

Recently Linus Torvalds stepped down (temporarily it seems) from leading the Linux Kernel project. It seems to be that feedback that he has not behaved well over the years has finally gotten through to him. There is a good article about it in The New Yorker (of all places):

I would hope that this might be the beginning of the end of the cultural trope “Benevolent Dictator”, or ‘BD’ for short…. the BD is a known cultural symbol in the open source world and its chief architect was Linus Torvalds… The theory goes that because technical open source projects are so complex, you need the equivalent of the ‘single author genius’ to sit atop the pyramid and call the shots. This notion is so heavily embedded in the culture that the BD is either aspired to by developers, or at least seen by most as being necessary.

However, this model has, in my opinion, been chiefly responsible for the terrible toxic nature of Open Source. – a culture that is often abusive, toxic, and not welcoming of diversity of opinion, let alone identity. It is the reason that women programmers, making about 33% of the world’s total programmers, make up less than 10% of open source contributors… yes, thats right – as if 33% wasn’t horrific enough out there in the wild, it seems open source repels women to below 10% engagement.

The open source world has not critiqued this situation very well.. In fact, it has eschewed criticism by and large. It is not, IMHO, a terribly reflective culture. Linus Torvalds and others like them, mostly white middle class western men, have dominated the leadership roles and carved out an unhealthy archetype that others aspire to. Linus Torvalds is literally famous for not only being the leader of the Linux Kernel project, but for being abusive in emails and communications with contributors. There are plenty of places where this is documented, no need to go into it here.

It is appalling that open source has had this blind eye for this behaviour and given Linus Torvalds a free pass. It has set a rotten, intolerant, culture well beyond the kernel project and into open source in general.

However, perhaps its the beginning of the end… I hope this will start a more in depth process of introspection which may lead to, in time, new models of leadership within open source… I have been saying for a long time that we need facilitation in open source projects… but largely this has been shot down… while advocating this, I have been told that it is a joke that someone with facilitation skills that is not a programmer would have any chance of starting an open source project (or playing an important role)…. this is because the BD is seen as the goto model and you can only be a BD if you are the biggest, baddest, developer in the room… so if you are not a programmer you don’t feature in this value metric…

However, I have started many successful open source projects and I am not a programmer. I am, first and foremost, a community builder and facilitator. It seems there might be some chance for me (hoho) now, given that Linus, in a rather naive groping around to understand the mess he has created, has said in further comments to an open  letter from him to the open source community

that the open source world might need more “people who are good at mediating,” as opposed to asking developers to behave themselves.

Surprise! who would have thought ‘mediating’ would be a skill needed in open source! If Torvalds had the language, he might be able to conceptualise the problem and understand that what is actually required is facilitation, of which mediation is a specialist tool sometimes used but not always required (if the facilitation is done well)…but the open source world in general does not have the language for such things yet but who knows…maybe this is the start of a more sophisticated deconstruction of how healthy communities are made and what skills are required to do so…