Code Without Community is Dead

With the turmoil in the Drupal community this spring and summer I have seen a wave of calls for open source projects to judge their community members, and other contributors, by the code contributions alone. It’s an idea that sounds great and has been popular among developers for at least forty years. Eric Raymond, while writing about Drupal, described it this spring as a right developers deserve. In some circles it gets treated almost as religious doctrine: “Thou shalt judge by code alone.”

The problem is that it’s not actually true nor just.

There may have been a time it was an ethic that held communities together but now it’s a line we pull out when we want to justify someone’s otherwise unacceptable behavior. Too often it’s a thinly veiled attempt to protect someone from consequences of their own choices and actions. And too often its used at the expense of other community members and other would be contributors.

For obvious reasons open source communities are dominated by developers. And as developers we have faith in our code. We like to believe our code doesn’t care who we are or what we believe. It will do exactly as asked every time. It forgives us all our sins as long as we faithfully fix any bugs and update to new versions of our platforms.

We like to claim that by focusing only on the code, and not the person behind it, we are creating a meritocracy and therefore better results. I don’t need to convince you I’m smart if I can show you my wonderful and plentiful code. We will be faithful to the best code and nothing more.

But none of this is proven to be true.

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  James 2:14-17 NKJV

Any project worth doing could be done many different ways. One solution might solve the problem more quickly, another might be easier to maintain in the future, and yet another might be easier to extend to solve even more complex problems later. Which of the solutions is right will depend on the problem, the users, the developers, the timeline, and everyone’s guesses about future needs. There isn’t some objective measure of best. We figure out which solution we’re going to use by working together to sort through the competing ideas. Sometimes the best solution wins, sometimes the loudest voice wins, sometimes the most famous person wins.

When you say that code is the only valid way to judge a developer it tells people how you expect developers to work together. If I see that out of a project lead it tells me expect they me to put up with jerks and bullies as long as those people write good code. It says that women contributing code should expect to be belittled and degraded by colleagues, friends, and strangers as long as those people can solve a problem as well or better than she can (and often even if they can’t do that).

It says these things because for decades that’s been the behavior of large numbers of developers who are still welcomed on projects and praised for their amazing code.

It’s a simplistic way to view people that encourages the bad behavior developers, particularly many famous developers, are known for. Instead of creating a true meritocracy it drives away smart and talented people who don’t want to deal with being called names, threatened, and abused in their work place or while volunteering their time and talents.

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People who damage a community because they mistreat others in it hold everyone back. If you join a project and write a module that brilliantly solves a new problem, but drive three people off the project because you are unbearable to work with, your work now has to offset all of their potential contributions. You also have to offset the loss of productively when people get distracted dealing with you. And you have to offset the reputation loss caused by your bad behavior. That better be an amazing block of code you wrote to do all those things, and you better be ready to do it again, and again, and again just to keep from slowing the project down.

Terrible developers can move a project forward. If someone comes into a project and writes a terrible module that stimulates someone else to solve that same problem better, they are making the project better even if none of their code is ever accepted. Or if someone takes time to make new participants feel welcome and excited to contribute, they may cause more code to be written than anyone else, even if they never write a line of code themselves.

And just because I can solve a problem faster and better than someone else doesn’t prove anything. If I start a project, or contribute for several years, I’m going to have more code credited to me than a new person. I’m going to know the project’s strengths and weaknesses better, and I’ll be able to solve problems more easily. Which means I should produce better code than another equally talented developer, or even someone a smarter than me. I just have a head start on them – anyone can beat Usain Bolt in the 100 meter dash if you give them a big enough head start. If we judge just by code contributions, I can use my head start to make sure no one catches me. That’s not merit, that’s just gaming a system.

Developers are people. People are flawed, complicated, biased, and wonderful creatures. Our value to a project is the sum of all those parts we choose to pour into a community. It matters how we handle discussions in issue queues; debates with community members on Twitter, Slack, or IRC; the content of our blogs; how we act at conferences; and anything else that is going to affect how others experience our contributions.

If you don’t care for how your community functions and if you don’t make sure people are treated well, even when their code is terrible, your project will suffer, and eventually may die. Sure there are examples (big examples like the Linux kernel and OpenBSD) of projects that are doing just fine with communities that allow developers treat each other terribly. The men leading those projects (if anyone has an example of a female lead projects where vile behavior is tolerated let me know and I’ll edit this sentence) are happy with the communities they have built. But can you imagine what those project could have achieved if they hadn’t driven highly talented developers away? Can you show any compelling evidence that those projects succeed because of the bad behavior not despite it?

Communities will be flawed, complicated, biased, and wonderful, just like the people that make them up. But if you only focus on part of someone’s contributions to the community you may miss their value and the damage one person can cause.

Faith in your code, if it isn’t matched with works in your community, is dead.

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