Don Marti

Tue 07 Mar 2006 10:49:52 PM PST

Dinosaur-ware vs. social software

Are wild and wooly hackers roaming the planet's surface somehow managing their projects better than Professional Software Development organizations do? Andrew Stellman and Jennifer Greene write that the answer is probably yes. "Yet it is rare to find a corporate environment where the project team has anything approaching the level of planning, documentation, or review found in successful open source projects. For some reason, as soon as a budget and a deadline are involved, all of the lessons we've learned over the years and applied successfully to open source projects seem to fly out the window."

But corporate developers don't start off less productive than peer production developers. The actual development tools and software revision control systems are the same, or often the corporate side has an edge. The corporate side even has people working side by side, bigger travel budgets for when they aren't, bigger white boards, more storage, everything. Why does it have to play catchup? The problem is communication tools—on the corporate side, too many people are looking at too big of an information space through too small of a hole.

Corporate development organizations are taking the "presentation", which might work for sales pitches and conference talks (and is based on a method that worked for briefing bomber pilots), and, by emailing versions of the damn thing back and forth, turning it into a tool for interfering with management understanding of complicated things.

If anything, managers, such as the famous 30-inch-monitor-using Rands, need more information at once than most of today's desktop machines give you, not the punchcard-worth that "slide"-oriented software gives you. Edward Tufte famously writes, "Audiences consequently endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another. When information is stacked in time, it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships. Visual reasoning usually works more effectively when relevant information is shown side by side. Often, the more intense the detail, the greater the clarity and understanding."

Smart companies are learning fast how to gather information, but they're going all Sun Tzu on us by making what they're doing look instead like a radical step toward opening their own information to the outside. James Governor writes, "It's one thing to use open source componentry- its quite another to make it so easy to follow the story... Could it be that a transparent declaration of code quality, for that is in effect what Zimbra is providing, is one of the reasons the firm has already picked up an 100k seat enterprise customer?"

He's right—I read the bug databases and jobs pages of companies I'm interested in before I read their marketing folderol—but the longer-term success-boosting side of what's going on with open bug databases and other social software is their effect on inbound information. David Axmark of MySQL boasted of "fixing 10 years of criticism in one release". The company's engagement with that online criticism has been one reason MySQL has stubbornly stayed in the database business being flamed by RDBMS purists and signing up customers anyway. (Oh, by, the way:

I used to work in, then work for a magazine that covered, an industry that had three major, about equally hyped, about equally funded companies. The companies had comparable levels of total technical skill, handled highly overlapping upstream software, and targeted highly overlapping markets. All three even started with comparable levels of what you might call community connection.

The survivor's differentiating advantage was that it inflicted a merciless communications software "dogfood" policy on new executives. (I remember interviewing one big cheese who was struggling with his new desktop environment but managing to make it work because the others had.) The other companies had a corporate culture that encouraged new executives to bring slideware with them. If IS had ripped out the Cat 5 and put in Farallon PhoneNet, people would have complained. But management didn't see anything wrong with the same effect when the cause was dinosaur-ware.

As a magazine editor I got sent a bunch of presentations for "briefings" (there's bomber pilot talk again), and there's a rough inverse correlation between presentation software use and whether or not I saw the company's products in actual use later. Live web demos, browseable bug databases, and "community downloads" give everyone—not just reporters, management too—a better sense of how things are going than slides do. The new breed of entrepreneurs understands the information-gathering power of not just hot media such as blogs, but bug reports.

Normally when you compare companies, you don't know how much of the winner's success is from product and how much is from "other". But in the open-source software aggregation business, everyone starts with the same product, so hooray! Controlled experiment! I know, young industry, few data points, but nobody has ever beat an open-bug company with a slideware company. (No, slideware for management and a separate "community" site for comment spammers and people posting questions on how to uninstall Linux doesn't count.)

I know, in theory open vs. closed access and dinosaur-ware vs. social software are two separate questions. But in theory you could have built Wordprocessoropedia, too. Maybe the post-dinosaur versions of office suites will be social-friendly, and maybe companies will be able to open up collaboration using office suite technology. In the meantime, software choice and openness are correlated, and I'll be on the Wiki.

And some of you are going to write and say, "you're crazy, we can't all hire Brian Aker." So grow your own. Social software environments grow user-engaged developers just as mushroom management by slideware stifles them. The redhat-list archives only go back to 1998, or I'd point you at the trial by flame and growth into an unprecedented user relations asset of Donnie Barnes.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Zawodny contains his excitement.