Decoding the professionalization of Linux


A report from the Linux Foundation says development of the open source operating system is done mostly by paid workers: "Despite the large number of individual developers, there is still a relatively small number who are doing the majority of the work...over 70% of all kernel development is demonstrably done by developers who are being paid for their work." Red Hat, Novell, and IBM are responsible for more than one-quarter of all changes to the kernel.

Nick Carr says:

There's nothing particularly surprising in the shift from the volunteer to the corporate model - it tends to be what happens when lots of money enters the picture - but it does reveal that while Net-based "social production" efforts may be unprecedented in their scale and unusual in their technology-mediated structure, they are no more immune, or even resistant, to being incorporated into established market systems than any other type of labor that produces commercially valuable goods. The shift in Linux kernel development from unpaid to paid labor, from volunteers to employees, suggests that the Net doesn't necessarily weaken the hand of central management or repeal old truths about business organization.

But Clay Shirky says the Linux shift, which has been underway for years, does challenge some management verities. I spoke with Shirky this morning about his new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, and Carr's remarks on Linux provided a good place to start.


What that kind of analysis is missing is that IBM is paying engineers to work on projects that IBM doesn't own, or solely direct. You pay these engineers -- but of all the relationships between senior management and line employees, the fact you are paying them is about the least important, institutionally. The idea that the minute you pay people to do something, you have the right to manage them and the right to completely take over that work for the benefit of the company -- that's not true.

IBM is not producing that code, IBM engineers are. IBM is paying those people because it's getting value out of them -- Linux creates value for the enterprise, it lowers our cost of managing software, it increases peoples' budgets for hardware and services -- but there's this crazy middle step where Linux is not now and cannot be owned or controlled by IBM. Linux is a brutal technical meritocracy, and there is no senior manager at IBM who can say, "I don't care what the kernel engineers think, I want this." They can't put it into the product without appealing to people who don't work for them. If they announced a strategic change in the kernel they would be laughed out of the room. They have given up the right to manage the projects they are paying for, and their competitors have immediate access to everything they do. It's not IBM's product.

There is a kind of perverse misreading of the change here to suggest that as long there are paid programmers working on the project, it's not developing in any way different from what's going on inside traditional organizations. It badly misunderstands how radical it is to have IBM and Novell effectively collaborating with no contractual agreement between them, and no right to expect that their programmers' work is going to be contributed to the kernel if people external to those organizations don't like it. And that's a huge change.

When people read those statistics, they think, If there's a salary, then all the other trappings of management must go along with it. Not only is that not true, it's actually blinds you to the fact that paying someone a salary without being able to direct their work is probably the biggest challenge to managerial culture within a business that one can imagine.

I'll have the rest of my conversation with Shirky online shortly.