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The kernel of open source: community

Bill Wear

on 23 January 2024

It’s easy to see commits as the be-all and end-all of open source. They aren’t.

This isn’t your run-of-the-mill post. I’ll come right to the point. It’s time to chmod some perspectives about life, the universe, and everything, at least in the realm of open source. The thesis? Viewing your fellow devs as comrades isn’t just a plus, it’s a must, when you’re developing free software. Sure, you may not always click with everyone; there might be stylistic clashes or differing approaches. Yet, it’s vital to recognize that the absence of a spirit of friendship and mutual respect can sudo rm -rf some very fine projects. Examples abound. Nobody’s perfect. Canonical has fostered rare and valuable camaraderie that permeates the organization — sometimes by reminding ourselves why we’re here.


Open source is not just forks and stars; it needs collaboration, transparency, meritocracy, community, friendship, and trust. These are the superuser permissions to innovation, but their power hinges on interpersonal relationships. Open source thrives on community bandwidth. Take the Linux kernel; it’s not just Linus’ brainchild, but a constellation of contributions from devs who treat each other more like peers in a hackathon than cogs in a corporate wheel. Conversely, look at the early days of some of the bigger open-source office suites. They struggled, not due to lack of skill, but from a deficit in community engagement, ultimately leading to forks with more open and friendly collaboration channels.

Viewing fellow contributors as friends isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have. It’s the human equivalent of a working CI. There are good examples: one famous IDE flourishes not only on code quality, but also on the strength of its tight-knit developer network. On the flip side, a popular graphics program historically struggles with community perception, serving as a cautionary tale of what happens when the project executes cat empathy > /dev/null. The value of friendships in open source is clear: more open communication, increased creativity, and better problem-solving. When these human elements are missing, projects languish and die, or make headlines by missing critical bugs. “Last updated 7 years ago” is one of the saddest things you’ll ever see.

Hard and difficult

Blending friendship with professionalism in the open-source world is akin to configuring intricate firewall rules – it demands precision and foresight. Striking the right balance is crucial: too open, and you risk descending into chaos; too closed, and you inadvertently stifle the very innovation you seek to foster. The history of open-source version control systems offers a poignant lesson here, replete with examples of projects that faltered under overly restrictive controls. Great ideas have died because the devs “didn’t want to clutter up IRC with touchy-feely stuff.” Such scenarios serve as a reminder of the delicate act of balancing openness with professional boundaries.

Choosing to intertwine camaraderie with professional duties is no easy path. It’s hard to be friends with a co-worker when it means genuinely engaging with their personal life – inquiring about their new baby, or lending an ear to their frustrations about a recent plumbing disaster. It’s difficult when you find yourself covering for a colleague who needs to step away, or taking extra time to guide someone through unfamiliar technology. These moments, though challenging, are the very essence of a collaborative and empathetic work culture, especially in the open-source community where personal bonds can significantly enhance collective output.

Yet, it’s precisely this challenging path that leads to rare and valuable outcomes. In the world of open source, where standing on the shoulders of giants is a common pursuit, the bonds forged through shared struggles and triumphs are what make the journey memorable. When we choose the harder route of building friendships alongside professional relationships, we not only contribute code but also cultivate a rich, supportive environment. It’s here, in this fertile ground of mutual respect and understanding, that the most innovative and impactful creations in open source are nurtured and brought to life. This is the space where the world changes.

find /workplace -type f -name “*.colleagues” -exec grep -H “friendship” {} \; | tee /dev/tty | wc -l

Wherever you are — at Canonical or elsewhere — take time to explore your professional environment, looking for instances where you can integrate friendship. Find friends and foster them, encourage them, mentor them, help them. Pass it down the pipeline, sharing and demonstrating the value of professional friendships openly, and savoring the memories, while making the line between fun and work irrelevant.

In the end, the soul of open source isn’t confined to lines of code, technical prowess, or the next great startup; it thrives in the human connections we forge along the way. Where collaboration and innovation intersect, the blending of friendship with professionalism isn’t just beneficial – it’s essential. It’s what transforms a group of individual contributors into a dynamic, cohesive force. Remember that the most enduring code we write isn’t on our laptops — that code will eventually be refactored — but in the relationships we build and nurture. In fostering these connections, we don’t just develop software; we cultivate an environment where the extraordinary becomes possible, and where, together, we build a legacy.

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