Do whatever you like

Now that we've got off to such a good start with that inspiring analysis of Linux we've practically dealt with the subject matter of this section in the previous one. But that's fine, there's nothing wrong with being on the go.

An integral part of the ideology of the Open Source movement, which Pekka Himanen, for instance, has called the hacker ethic, is the rule: Do whatever you like.

So far, much of the Open Source programs has been written by volunteers. It works a bit like barn-raising or, to use the Finnish term, a talkoot. Despite the changing situation - with more and more companies and therefore paid employees getting involved - the volunteer tradition is still strong. It is usually as a direct consequence of using volunteers that the people involved are so, well, involved. Nobody is obliged to take part. Indeed, who would volunteer to do it if they were not interested? Their enthusiasm generates an atmosphere of huge excitement and inspiration. The high quality of Open Source programs is often attributed to this genuinely committed atmosphere. When you do something because you have to, from nine to five every day, the result is very different to how it is when a person does something they're truly excited by and really enjoy doing, and perhaps even feel is their life's work.

But the do-whatever-you-like principle is about more than the consequence of a barn-raising or volunteer attitude. At least, Linus Torvalds himself has gone deeper than that and found a way to express it. In addition to the growing media interest in Linux in the late nineties, there was also a growing interest among programmers. Along with working hackers, many computer science students wanted to get to know Linux and to get involved in its development. For some, this offered an interesting challenge, while others probably only got involved because it was considered cool.

One consequence of this fashion fad was that people started contacting Linus because they wanted to get involved in developing Linux. When they sought his advice about what they should start doing, he came up with another curt answer: Figure out what you're interested in, then join in by doing that.

Linus knew why he gave such non-specific answers. If he arbitrarily suggested that people get involved with this or that project, possibly something currently fascinating to himself, his advice was bound to prove inappropriate for the other person. For one thing, the person seeking advice would probably not be interested in the same things as Linus, and would have a different range of abilities. So, anyone who was given specific advice would probably soon get frustrated with the whole project and end up being angry with both Linus and Linux. Also, no project can benefit greatly from a volunteer who isn't really keen on their part of the work.

Once again, such an attitude presents a real challenge for the corporate world. It's a challenge for Linux, too, now that the corporate world itself is getting involved in the development of the operating system (OS). How many employees can choose to do exactly what they want to do at work? And how many employees must do what the boss tells them to do? Is it even possible to implement such a do-whatever-you-like principle in the corporate world?

If we accept that the do-whatever-you-like principle is a cornerstone of the Open Source community, it follows that we might expect that the same principle applied in the corporate world would generate the kind of success it has for Linux.

Usually, the vision and business strategies which guide a company are created in the upper echelons of management, after which it's up to the employees to do whatever the boss requires of them. How strictly this tradition is imposed varies from company to company but most employees accept that it is the way things are and, indeed, the way they should be. But the principle of do whatever you like would suggest that management - in accordance with the principle of don't plan anything - should quit producing the whole vision and business strategies, and focus instead on making it possible for employees to realize their own vision as best they can. For many managers such a concept would seem totally alien.

Those of us who are not corporate big-shots are always faced with the question, "Am I doing what I really want right now?' When you chose your present place of work, did you go for the job offering the highest salary or the one you were most interested in? This question is not only relevant for the sake of your own mental health, but should also be of interest to your employer. When enthusiasm for the work is so much better in the Linux universe, why should the corporate world settle for employees who merely put in their hours from nine to five?

So, do Linus Torvalds and the other hackers follow their own advice? Yes, they do. Today, all the foremost Linux programmers work for companies where their main job is Linux programming. Their hobby and their life's work has become their day job as well. Could you imagine a better existence? Never settle for less!

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