7 Open Source lessons from your English Composition class

We often act as if coding, and especially open source coding, is a unique activity and that’s hubris.   Most human activities follow common social patterns that should inform how we organize open source projects.  For example, research papers are very social and community connected activities.  Especially when published, written compositions are highly interconnected activities.  Even the most basic writing builds off other people’s work with due credit and tries create something worth being used by later authors.

Here are seven principles to good writing that translate directly to good open source development:

  1. Research before writing – take some time to understand the background and goals of the project otherwise you re-invent or draw bad conclusions.
  2. Give credit where due – your work has more credibility when you acknowledge and cross-reference the work you are building on. It also shows readers that you are not re-inventing.
  3. Follow the top authors – many topics have widely known authors who act as “super nodes” in the relationship graph. Recognizing these people will help guide your work, leads to better research and builds community.
  4. Find proof readers – All writers need someone with perspective to review their work before it’s finished. Since we all need reviewers, we all also need to do reviews.
  5. Rework to get clarity – Simplicity and clarity take extra effort but they pay huge dividends for your audience.
  6. Don’t surprise your reader – Readers expect patterns and are distracted when you don’t follow them.
  7. Socialize your ideas – the purpose of writing/code is to make ideas durable. If it’s worth writing then it’s worth sharing.  Your artifact does not announce itself – you need to invest time in explaining it to people and making it accessible.

Thanks to Sean Roberts (a Hidden Influences collaborator) for his contributions to this post.  At OSCON, Sean Roberts said “companies should count open source as research [and development investment]” and I thought he’s said “…as research [papers].”  The misunderstanding was quickly resolved and we were happy to discover that both interpretations were useful.

Share the love & vote for OpenStack Paris Summit Sessions (closes Wed 8/6)


This is a friendly PSA that OpenStack Paris Summit session community voting ends on Wednesday 8/6.  There are HUNDREDS (I heard >1k) submissions so please set aside some time to review a handful.

Robot VoterMY PLEA TO YOU > There is a tendency for companies to “vote-up” sessions from their own employees.  I understand the need for the practice BUT encourage you to make time to review other sessions too.  Affiliation voting is fine, robot voting is not.

If you are interested topics that I discuss on this blog, here’s a list of sessions I’m involved in:



Creating Communities: the intersection between Twitter celebrities and open source

calvin_leeOne of the unexpected perks of my Chevy SXSW experience was access to some real social media celebrities such as Josh Estrin, Calvin LeeKristin Brandt, Doug MoraSamantha Needham and Jennie Chen.  They are all amazing, fun, wicked smart and NOT INTO CLOUD COMPUTING.

While I already knew Samantha (via Dell) and Jennie (via TechRanch), all of Chevy’s guests brought totally different perspectives to Chevy’s SXSW team ranging from pop culture  and mommies to hypermilers and gearheads.

The common thread is that we are all looking to engage our communities.

We each wanted to find something that would be interesting for our very different audiences to discuss.  That meant using our experiences at SXSW, Chevy and with each other to start a conversation within our communities.  We need good content as a seed but the goal is to drive the interaction.

Josh was the most articulate about this point saying that he measured his success when his followers talked to each other more than to him.   Being able to create content that engages people to do that is a true talent.

Calvin’s focus was more on helping people connect.  He felt successful when he was able to bring people together through his extended network. In those cases and others, the goals and challenges of a social media celebrity were remarkably similar to those helping lead open source projects.

In building communities, you must measure success in member communication and interaction.

If you are intent on being at the center of the universe then your project cannot grow; however, people also need celebrities to bring them together.  The amazing thing about the the people I met at SXSW through Chevy is that they managed to both attract the attention needed to build critical mass and get out of the way so communities could form around them. That’s a skill that we all should practice and foster.

PS: I also heard clearly that “I ate …” tweets are some of their most popular.  Putting on my collaboration hat: if you’re looking to engage a community then food is the most universal and accessible discussion topic.  Perhaps I’ll have to eat crow on that one.  

New Media = multiple audiences, simulateously

Danah Boyd‘s insights about the social impact of social media constantly astonish me.  Here recent social steganography post has interesting implications for all of us operating in the topsy-turvey mixed-up world of professional personal branding.

I was interested to think of how differently we process public information and easily ignore parts that don’t make sense to us.  Perhaps a blended word, “confuscation,”  would be an easier word to grok than steganography?

Factoring multiple reader’s perspectives into writing (or presenting) is a crucial part of my daily job.  As my team works to include cloud strategy within Dell, understanding the listener’s frame of reference is essential to communicating the message.  For me, this means framing cloud services & software into units & hardware concepts.

In many ways, I think we have a greater challenge overcoming unintended steganography then learning how to enhance it.  Perhaps as we get more deliberate at it, we’ll become better at limiting the unintended confuscation.

Please wake up, Identity trumps Privacy

Or when reputation matters, privacy can be poisonous

I think that privacy online is a lost cause, and should be a lost cause.  Face it, you’re privacy is completely and totally compromised by advertisers, search engines, social networks, cable providers and the government.  They have the tools and motivation to figure out who you are and what you are doing.  It’s not personal.  They need to do this because you refuse to pay for the services that they provide.  That’s the deal we’ve made with the devil and it seems to be working out pretty well for the service providers.

I see trouble on the horizon and it’s not about your online privacy – it’s about your online identity.

Trustable identity is what’s missing online.  It’s the confidence that I am the person using my credit card.  Confidence that I am the person making funny (not insulting) comments to my friend’s Facebook feed.   Confidence that emails to my child’s teacher is from me.

I know that I’m not anonymous when I walk into a book store, visit my children at school, or hang out at the pool and that’s OK with me.  Why should I expect my online experience to be any different?  In fact, I want my online identity to be even more locked in a solid.  I would be horrified if someone posing as me vandalized someone’s car but that damage could be repaired.  What if someone choose to attack my online identities?  How could I repair that damage?  It would be devastating.

For your whole life (and the last few years online), you’ve been working hard to build your reputation.

A few months ago, the Westlake Picayune, our local newspaper, called my wife to get her response to accusations that were made anonymously on the paper’s website.  The allegations were false and the paper admitted that to my wife; however, they still asked her to respond and left the posts online.  It infuriates me when someone unwilling to be identified can hurt someone’s reputation.  That same person would not stand up in a public meeting and dump vitriol on the crowd, but they hide behind the false cloak of online anonymity and rant.

So I suggest that we need better identity protection online.  Once we have real identity then we can handle privacy defensibly and pragmatically in the limited cases where it really matters.  For example, we’ll know who is accessing our private medical records not just that there was an anonymous breach.  Even better, we should be able to trust that that we can authorize specific people to look at them.  Without real identity, that type of authorization is a farce at best.

I expect that we’re only one major Facebook hacking scandal away from real identity legislation.  Think of the Sarah Palin email hack – it would not require too much more than that to set things in motion.

Getting identity right is not easy, but it won’t happen until we get the priorities right: identity trumps privacy.