Working Wider

What Open Source Can Teach Obama About Working Wider

Today, Washington D.C. stands as the antithesis of working wider.  Critical issues including the financial crisis, global warming and health care are batted back and forth like a baseline rally on the championship court at Wimbledon.  After being elected on a platform aspiring to rise above partisanship, President Obama has had little success bridging boundaries in Washington.

What can we learn from his struggles and how do they compare to approach used by the Open Source software movement? (Please note that my comments regarding Obama and Open Source strategies do not attempt to cover the nuances that are surely present in both.)

1. Vision must include an attractive description of the future and how to get there.

A compelling and overarching vision of the future brings people together but few will move forward without knowing the critical next steps.  Obama laid out the boundary conditions for health care reform, tossed it to the House to develop a bill and then he went virtually silent for two months.    The result was a thousand page bill that smothered his vision for which he showed little ownership.

When bridging boundaries, the distinction between leadership and management is much less compelling.   Different constituencies have different work expectations and practices. Leaders have to establish simple objectives and tasks that start people on the new path.  Take a look at the simple yet elegant email that Linus Torvalds wrote when launching what eventually became Linux:

From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Newsgroups: comp.os.minix
Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
Summary: small poll for my new operating system
Message-ID: <1991Aug25.205708.9541@klaava.Helsinki.FI>
Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
Organization: University of Helsinki

Hello everybody out there using minix –
I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and
professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing
since april, and is starting to get ready.I’d like any feedback on
things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat
(same physical layout of the file-system(due to practical reasons)
among other things). I’ve currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40),and
things seem to work.This implies that I’ll get something practical within a
few months, andI’d like to know what features most people would want. Any
suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them 🙂
Linus (
PS. Yes – it’s free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs.
It is NOT protable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never
will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that’s
all I have :-(.

2. Expressing a strong point-of-view (POV) insinuates action

Many suggest Obama delegated the health care plan details to the House to avoid the criticism the Clinton administration received for pushing their plan too forcefully.  Obama’s approach was an overreaction.  Leaders have to assert their POV to establish the referent point for further conversation:  positive and negative.  By not providing his own plan, Obama ceded control of the conversation to others.

Four months after Torvalds’ initial memo, Linux evolved into a minimalistic operating system with many limitations.  As momentum grew, it attracted attention from foes as well as fans. Below is an email that Andrew Tanenbaum, the well-known teacher who wrote MINIX, an operating system that greatly influenced Torvalds’ work.

“I still maintain the point that designing a monolithic kernel in 1991 is a fundamental error. Be thankful you are not my student. You would not get a high grade for such a design :-)”
(Andrew Tanenbaum to Linus Torvalds)

Backed by the Linux community, Torvalds’ reply reflects his strong point of view:

“Your job is being a professor and researcher: That’s one hell of a good excuse for some of the brain-damages of minix.”
(Linus Torvalds to Andrew Tanenbaum)

3. Translating action into results depends on operational capabilities

With the exception of Rahm Emanuel, Obama staff is more skilled at policy than political operations.  Both skills are essential to make change.  Martin Luther King’s compelling oratory was constantly underscored by Southern Christian Leadership Council’s well-planned civil rights campaigns across the South.  Many have contrasted Obama’s strategy of rational discourse with Lyndon Johnson’s strong arm tactics developed when he was Senate majority leader.

Open source programmers have notoriously little patience for rhetoric and politics.  A primary principle of Open Source is peer production facilitating by barter and collaboration.  Your place in the Linux world is determined by the code you contribute, not the positions you advocate.  In some respects, Open Source represents the inverse of Obama:  strong operating skills with weak policy.

  1. 4. Creatively embrace the highly emotional though less rational elements of resistance

The call by Republicans for tort reform in health care reminds me of John McCain’s campaign rhetoric regarding ear mark spending.  The emotional component behind each is far greater than their financial impact.  But rather than creatively harness this emotion, Obama has rationally pushed back by explaining where the real costs lie.  In retrospect, boldly embracing tort reform might have sent a signal that would have acknowledged the Republican’s emotions as well as signaling feuding Democrats that he was in charge.

To find a similar situation in the Open Source movement, we have to go back to its earliest days.  Many trace the ideological foundation of Open Source to Richard Stallman’s advocacy for free software.  Stallman’s initiative captured the emotion behind the frustration of programmers’ who kept running into proprietary copyright problems while trying to write new software.  For the purposes of this piece, by creating the GNU Public Licensing process, Stallman enlisted programmer emotions into what became the Open Source movement.

5. Wait for the next big wave

Obama chose to take on health care as his first major quest even though the economic crisis was still consuming Congress and the public’s attention.  When working across boundaries, good leadership requires superior contextual sensing and timing.  Like a surfer, it’s often better to wait for the next big wave than take the first one you see.

The parallel with Open Source has more to do with coincidental than deliberate timing.  Had the PC revolution not occurred, software development would still be in the exclusive hands of university and corporations.  Few would have been available to respond to Torvalds’ request.  Had MINIX and UNIX not preceded Torvalds’ effort, there wouldn’t be a common knowledge base to create Linux.  And had Microsoft, Apple and others shared source code, then there wouldn’t have been the pent up passion to create a free and open operating system.  This is one of the main differences and limitations of using Open Source as an alternative framework as it operates without mandate or schedule.

Obama’s struggle and the success of Open Source elegantly capture the challenge and potential working wider offers.  While corporate politics are normally less visible than Washington’s, they are no less impactful.

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