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17 December 2008

Order from open source chaos

Filed under: chaos, Open Source, openness, partners — David Wood @ 11:57 am

Various videos and PDFs from the recent Symbian Partner Event are now available online.

One video that amply repays viewing is Jay Sullivan of Mozilla speaking on “Chaos and order: a Mozilla story”. You’ll find it on the presentations page of the SPE website.

Mozilla’s declared mission – “promote choice and innovation on the Internet” – has a lot in common with what Symbian is trying to do. One size does not fit all. Mozilla’s declared methods – involving open source, weak copyleft, and an independent foundation – also resonate with those of the Symbian Foundation. Even the sizes of the organisations are broadly comparable (Jay mentioned that Mozilla has around 175 employees).

Mozilla has been travelling along this particular road a lot longer than Symbian. This helps to explain why many Symbian people in the audience were hanging intently on every word in the presentation.

The questions that the presentation sought to answer included:

  • How can your organisation harness openness (where more and more things happen in public), rather than fight it?
  • How do you get your customers to support each other (peer-to-peer support), rather than always going to the centre for support?
  • How can a comparatively small company take advantage of wide public support to compete with huge existing players?
  • How can 75 developers inside the company leverage 100s of external daily contributors, 1000s of less frequent contributors, 10s of 1000s of overnight testers, and around one million beta testers?

In part, the answer to these questions is to use appropriate tools. For example, Mozilla relies heavily on the Bugzilla bug-tracking database.

In part, the answer comes down to attitude. Mozilla have adopted widespread openness of information sharing: they use wikis and newsgroups, which are almost all publicly accessible. (The exception is a small amount of personnel information.) Another example: Everyone in the world is able to dial into the company weekly status update meeting. (Jay commented: “We know our competition dials in”.)

What I personally found most interesting was Jay’s analysis of the potential chaos that ensues from this openness. For example, there can be a great deal of “noise” in the online comments from all sorts of people: it’s hard to filter postings that are based on reality, from those based on speculation or fantasy. There’s a constant trail of chat, with input from all over the world. Everyone can propose changes to the project. In such an environment, how can real work get done? How can you mediate among 50,000 people who all have ideas to improve a particular dialog box in the UI of an application? How to deal with strongly vocal minorities?

The answers were fascinating (and deeply practical):

  • Open doesn’t mean democracy
  • Decision-making is messy (but that doesn’t mean you should step back from openness)
  • Be prepared to tolerate some messiness
  • Treat disagreements as negotiations
  • Managers of the project need to drive towards definite outcomes – focusing on what is the right outcome rather than who has the right ideas
  • Organise a chorus (rather than a chaos), around local leaders
  • Although anyone can propose changes, you need to earn significant amounts of credibility before you are allowed to implement a change
  • Ensure quality through multiple reviews
  • Review for performance regressions as well as for functionality
  • Educate participants about the vision and the mission of the project, which in turn allows greater micro-level decisions
  • Guide participants towards using the appropriate communication channels for particular topics, and to back up their assertions with research and data
  • Create small focused teams with responsibility for specific areas of product interest
  • Create a common language, to allow discussions to be more productive
  • You still need to have clearly identified decision makers, even though you push as much of the discussion out “to the edge” as possible.

These are good thoughts to keep in mind in the midst of the inevitable turmoil as the Symbian Foundation places 40 million lines of code into open source (and makes corresponding changes in processes) over the next 18 months.

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