Leaders, Rock Stars and Ninjas

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jan 18, 2017 GMT
Bruce Byfield

In recent weeks, I find myself thinking about Ian Murdock, the founder of Debian and my former employee. Ian, you may remember, died a year ago after being beaten by the police. At the time, I described him as demonstrating "the modesty of a man who has nothing to prove." It's a description that applies to most of the best-known developers in free software.

Not that as a non-programmer I haven't had my share of grief. Worse, I entered free software as a technical writer, so over the years I got used to being in a gunslinger scenario for the first few weeks of any contract.

Part of the problem is that most developers have seen their share of incompetent technical writers. Far too many technical writers act as though the ability to write is all that they require. They fail to learn the hardware or the software, pleading with the developers to give them notes, and usually doing incoherent work. As a result, new writers have to prove their technical skills and their willingness to learn before they are accepted as part of the development team -- although being able to talk about free software, I found, usually led to immediate acceptance.

But however justified the treatment of technical writers may be, the developers who expressed their scorn were almost always young or in junior positions. Occasionally, someone with the mild autism of Asperger's Syndrome might join in, but mostly, it was the young or junior.

Not much has changed today, so far as I can tell. There are still those developers who feel insecure themselves. They need to prove they belong on the development team, and one of the easiest ways to do so is to ostracize someone else -- especially someone whose profession or inexperience could superficially justify their treatment.

In extreme cases, the abusers are the often self-described rock stars and ninjas. These are the people who focus on establishing their own stardom, never missing a chance to demonstrate their superiority -- or,conversely, someone else's inferiority. They act as if they are recruited to save a project, and as if, without them, all development would instantly collapse. Even junior members of the team are often sacrificed to these egos. Some rock stars and ninjas are even sexual predators, abusing and intimidating mostly women, but also vulnerable men. Their behavior is part of the dark side of free software, although in the last couple of years, it has been increasingly condemned, as the rumors about Jacob Appelbaum or Liz Ryan's article "New Rule: No More Job Ads Seeking 'Rockstars And Ninjas'" demonstrate.

Nothing to Prove
Yet strangely, I have almost never encountered such behavior among those truly famous in free software circles. True, I did have one developer-turned CEO curtly decline to answer my questions because he claimed to have answered them elsewhere, and one developer turned activist who used people shamelessly. Also, one or two tense moments with executives from business administration backgrounds -- but never from developers turned managers.

I think I summarized the reason in describing Ian Murdock. It's pure logic, really. If someone is responsible for one of the earliest and most influential Linux distributions, how could they possibly feel threatened by anyone else? They don't need to always be mentioning their accomplishments, because everyone already knows them, and they speak for themselves. They don't have to tear down or abuse those around them, because although one or two might come close to their accomplishments, none are likely to exceed them. They no longer have to struggle for status, so they can relax and get down to the business at hand.

The generality is so overwhelming that I have lost count of all the people who fit this description. Aaron Seigo, definitely. Jeremy Allison of Samba, too. Also Deb Nicholson, Michael Meeks, Jos Poortvliet, Robin Miller, Carla Schroder, Amber Graner, Larry Augustin, Amaya Rodrigo, Meredith L Patterson -- but at this point I am simply cribbing from my lists of friends and followers on social media.

Despite the accusations of rudeness against him, I would even include Linus Torvalds. Although we have exchanged a few sharp words via email, I always remember that, the first time I talked to him, I took twenty minutes to notice who he was. He was just another pudgy geek in a white t-shirt wandering around the conference, talkative but otherwise completely unassuming.

Not all these people are leaders. However, all are people who have proved themselves in their fields, and are recognized for their skills and contributions.

These are the kinds of people that companies should be seeking. They are not rock stars and ninjas, exploiting their fifteen minutes. All are people with nothing to prove, and people whose results, over a long period of time, have been demonstrated to be reliable.

The only trouble is, of course, that such people rarely need to look for work. They are either already established, or else unemployed for only a few days at a time.

Remembering Ian Murdock, I remember all he taught me and the opportunities he opened for me. Mostly, though, I remember him as the epitome of the graciousness of the truly successful.

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