Fetchmail - Governance

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The following article challenges the view of Peer Governance as self-organizing.

Originally published at http://www.lotus.com/developers/devbase.nsf/articles/doc2000091200#top, but no longer available at that URL.

Cited here at http://www.softpanorama.org/OSS/webliography.shtml


"There is one problem with the statement, open source projects manage themselves. It is not true. This article shows open source projects are about as far as you can get from self-organizing. In fact, these projects use strong central control, which is crucial to their success. As evidence, I examine Raymond's fetchmail project (which is the basis of The Cathedral and the Bazaar ) and Linus Torvalds's work with Linux. This article describes a clearer way to understand what happens on successful open source projects and suggests limits on the growth of the open source method.

(\Note: This article addresses issues raised in the essay titled The Cathedral and the Bazaar . The essay also is included in a book with the same title, which contains other essays as well.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar revolves around Raymond's experience in creating a program called fetchmail by the open source method. As he describes the software development process, he annotates the story with lessons about open source programming and how well it worked for him. One of Raymond's key points is that the normal functions of management are not needed with open source development.

Raymond lists the responsibilities of traditional software managers as: define goals and keep everybody pointed in the same direction, monitor the project and make sure details don't get skipped, motivate people to do boring but necessary work, organize the deployment of people for best productivity, and marshal resources needed to sustain the project over a long period of time. Raymond then states that none of these tasks are needed for open source projects. Unfortunately, the majority of The Cathedral and the Bazaar describes, in detail, how important these management functions are and how Raymond performed them.

Eric Raymond decided what piece of software he would use as a test for open source programming. He decided what features fetchmail would have and would not. He generalized and simplified its design, defining the software project. Mr. Raymond guided the project over a considerable period of time, remaining a constant as volunteers came and went. In other words, he marshaled resources. He surely was careful about source code control and build procedures (or his releases would have been poor quality) so he monitored the project. And, most significantly, Raymond heaped praise on volunteers who helped him, which motivated those people to help some more. (In his essay, Raymond devotes considerable space to describing how he and Torvalds motivate their helpers.) In short, fetchmail made full use of traditional and effective management operations, except Eric Raymond did all of them.

Another compelling (and often-quoted) section of The Cathedral and the Bazaar is the discussion about debugging. Raymond says: "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" and "Debugging is parallelizable." These assertions simply are not true and are distortions of how the development of fetchmail proceeded. It is true that many people, in parallel, looked for bugs and proposed fixes. But only one person (Raymond) actually made fixes, by incorporating the proposed changes into the official code base. Debugging (the process of fixing the program) was performed by one person, from suggestions made by many people. If Raymond had blindly applied all proposed code changes, without reading them and thinking about them, the result would have been chaos. A rare bug can be fixed completely in isolation, with no effect on the rest of the program." (http://www.softpanorama.org/OSS/webliography.shtml)

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Linux - Governance