Benevolent dictator

We'll leave the values of Linus and his friends for a while and turn to learning something from the organization and hierarchies of the Open Source community. How do you control a programming project that involves tens - or, in the case of Linux, hundreds - of programmers working in different parts of the globe, particularly when the workers are volunteers who have no official status as employees on the project?

Linus is the benevolent dictator of the Linux project. He didn't coin the expression himself; it comes from Eric Raymond's essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar', in which the author studies the various organizational forms of Open Source projects. Although the dictatorship model is not the only way Open Source projects are run, it is by far the most common and the least formal. Guido van Rossum, the creator of the programming language Python, is known publicly in Python circles as BDFL - Benevolent Dictator for Life. Apparently Python programmers have no intention of ever letting poor Guido enjoy a well-earned retirement.

A benevolent dictator is the leader of a project and the person who alone has all the power to make decisions.1 Often this authority is a natural consequence of the leader being the instigator of the project, as Linus is in the case of Linux.

For those of us living in Western democracies, talk of dictatorship could sound suspicious. Although the directness of a dictatorship is sure to be cost-effective and helps to create a light organizational structure, history has taught us something about the problems inherent in such a system. Alas, few monarchs or dictators have ever been known for their benevolence. So, despite the cost, inefficiency and frustration caused by the negotiations, compromises and voting in a democracy, we have learnt the lessons of history and chosen to live under a democratic system of government. Linus Torvalds may score well above average for benevolence, but can we really trust that his successor - when that day comes - isn't a total disaster?

The answer is yes, because it isn't as if Linus is the leader of Linux by chance and it's just a lucky fluke that he is benevolent. Actually, it's quite the other way around: he's the leader only - and I repeat - only because he's as smart as he is.

The principles of Open Source generate a curious dynamic, which directly influences the hierarchy of the project organization and the relationships of its members. What would happen if for some reason Linus decided to screw things up and out of spite started making stupid decisions for Linux? Within twenty-four hours the other Linux developers would leave him to fool around on his own, make a copy of the Linux source code somewhere Linus couldn't get his hands on it and keep working without him. It's also extremely likely that the hackers involved would quickly elect - more or less consciously and more or less democratically - a new benevolent dictator.

All that is possible because the code itself is open and freely available for anyone to use. As dictator, Linus has all the authority while at the same time having no power whatsoever. The others see him as their leader only because he is so talented - or benevolent. There is a fascinating equilibrium of power and freedom. The dictator has the power and the others have the freedom to vote with their feet.

But in some other environments the dictator model doesn't work so well. If your boss isn't up to his job, it's a bad thing, but what can you do about it? The army must blindly obey its commander-in-chief, but if he proves to be a sick tyrant what choice do the soldiers have about what they do? Such situations lack the openness that is inseparable from the Open Source process. Without openness there can't be complete trust in other members of the organization; instead, we are stuck with having to use the unwieldy processes of democracy to protect ourselves against power struggles and a variety of other forms of mean-spiritedness. Openness is so integral to the system of an Open Source project that such precautionary measures aren't necessary.

As a dictator Linus Torvalds is living evidence of the benefits of the openness principle. Openness leads directly to Open Source projects being free of the usual excess of inhibiting project organization, and to them getting along in a way that is surprisingly lightweight, nimble and cost-effective. Could that mean the dictatorship model might work in a more traditional organization? There is at least one example of it being so.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is a standardizing organ that has created nearly all the technologies that constitute the World Wide Web. Standards published by the W3C are, among others, HTML, CSS Style Sheets, XML, DOM (part of JavaScript), the PNG and SVG image formats and lots of other technologies of which we make daily use by surfing the Web. Some 450 IT businesses and organizations are members of the W3C, beginning with Microsoft and IBM.

Interestingly, the decision-making process of the W3C as it prepares standards resembles that of the Open Source dictatorship model. Preparation of a standard is done in a working group specialized in the field, and it works very openly. Trial versions of the standards are released so that anybody can comment on them. When the working group is ready, the proposal is brought to a vote. All member organizations are eligible to vote and each of them has one vote.

After the vote the W3C leader alone either approves or discards the proposal, no matter what the result of the vote. In practice, the W3C strives to get everybody in agreement, but the decision-making system itself clearly resembles the benevolent dictator model.
Since the W3C was founded, Tim Berners-Lee has been its leader. He is the same guy who developed HTML and other Web technologies while working at CERN in the early nineties. He is the Linus Torvalds of the Web - creator and dictator.

As at the W3C, decisions regarding the development of Linux are usually made after thorough discussion. Linus in particular takes the advice of his closest and longer-term colleagues, who within the community are known as his lieutenants. These lieutenants are like mini-dictators, and each one has their own area of responsibility within the project. Just as for Linus, their authority is based on talent proven over a period of years and the trust that it has generated. The dictatorship is therefore a meritocracy.

There have also been instances where, despite Linus being against a particular solution, he has grudgingly had to accept what is wanted by the majority. If he didn't, one day he might not be the dictator anymore. The open system works lightly, but is nonetheless democratic.

  • 1At this point, I'm sure, all the project managers reading this woke up and started to pay serious attention!
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