The 11 people you meet on (nearly) every open-source project

Which kind are you? Choose wisely!

public hacking

A colorful cast of characters

Open-source projects are built collaboratively, across organizations, by professionals and hobbyists alike. This is a formula for a colorful cast of occasionally exasperating characters. In the spirit of this list of terrible IT archetypes I compiled last year, I asked people who had been involved in open-source development in the past what types — good or bad — they had encountered in their professional travels. While I heard some complaints, I also got a sense of the type of people open-source developers like encountering the most; let those be your models.

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focus multiscreen

The coding monomaniac

Josh Lindenmuth, CIO of payroll services company Payce, Inc., identifies this breed of open-source developer by their mantra: I just want to code. "These developers don't want to socialize, attend meetings, or discuss business requirements," he says — a degree of focus that's a double-edged sword, since extreme productivity is then coupled with a certain remove from the real-world environment that they're building the code for. "To be fair," he says, "this isn't specific to open source, but I've seen a greater percentage of these hard-core developers in the open source world than in corporate environments." Perhaps it's the ability to find projects and then just start writing code for them that attracts this type to open source in the first place.

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The bike-shedder

The inverse of the coding monomaniacs are the bike-shedders, named after a satirical British observation that a planning committee would spend more time arguing over the color of a bike shed attached to a nuclear reactor than discussing the reactor itself, in part because more people understand (and have opinions about) bike sheds than understand nuclear reactors. Vince W., an open-source developer with 20 years of experience, has definitely seen this phenomenon in action in open-source discussion lists. "For example," he says, "with the pending release of Linux 4.0, you have pages and pages of people debating whether the version number bump from 3.19 to 4.0 makes sense, rather than any actual useful bug fixing going on."

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The true believer

There's definitely a category of developer for whom open source isn't just a choice made for certain programming projects, but rather an ideology and a lifestyle. "These individuals will use open-source applications for everything possible, even if it means personal productivity suffers," says Lindenmuth. "This typically isn't a problem unless the open-source developer gets into a management position, when they may try to push their open-source philosophy before the company's return on investment."

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The apostolic team lead

If the true believer does rise to managerial status, he or she may metastasize into what one SQL developer in Missouri calls the apostolic team lead. This individual "not only tells you what to work on," says our anonymous correspondent, "but how to solve the problem, in detail, brooking no deviation. They review and critique every single line of code written by others on the team (understanding said code not guaranteed)." A zealot's energy can get a lot done, but also is hard to live up to: "Sends work emails around the clock. Never out for illness or vacation. If you're lucky, burns out in a year or so, then moves to a Luddite commune."


The caffeine freak

Developers often get into open-source projects because they genuinely love programming in their free time, and to power all that work, they need stimulation. "Open-source developers are some of the hardest-working employees with whom I've ever worked," says Lindenmuth. "They often code at night, as a second job, or as a hobby, and will often hit the caffeine hard to keep going."

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The change-o-phobe

With dozens or maybe even hundreds of people involved in an open-source project, people can be heavily invested in a project's structure as it currently exists. Thus, says Vince W., you can encounter "sad people who latch onto old things and can't handle new things. These type of people decide they don't like something new — for example, the new systemd tool for Linux — and they end up spending lots of time writing derogatory songs about the developers and sending them to the linux-kernel list. (I wish I were making that up)."

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The change-o-phile

Proving that moderation is best in all things, though, Vince W. has an equal bone to pick with people who go to the opposite extreme. "You have people that take existing working code and throw it out simply because it's tool old or not trendy," he says. Legendary developer Jamie Zawinski calls this the CADT model, which stands for "Cascade of Attention-Deficit Teenagers." This type of developer would rather rewrite a module from scratch rather than fix the bugs in it, naively assuming that those bugs won't also appear in the rewritten version.

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The hack

Our anonymous SQL dev identifies the person who's about the worst to encounter in an open-source context as the hack -- "not to be confused with the hacker," he takes pains to make clear. This person "uses obscure software tools, none of them any good. Utters utter techno-nonsense with great confidence, responds to disagreement with pitying scorn. Moves on to another job before anyone has a chance to review his code, which was mostly copied from the Internet and randomly twiddled to more-or-less work."

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The anti-Microsoft crusader

There was a period in the late '90s and early '00s when Microsoft seemed like open source's No. 1 enemy: Linux fought to displace Windows, Mozilla fought to displace Internet Explorer, and a Microsoft exec called Linux "un-American." But even though Redmond's hegemonic power has long ago declined, "not every open-source developer has put away their Microsoft pitchfork," Lindenmuth says. Be on the lookout for tell-tale signs like spelling the company name "Micro$oft." Microsoft's moves to release some of its own source code has defused this hostility for many, but not for everyone.


The open-source strawman

If people who know open source intimately come up with these visions, what about those who don't? James Dowd, currently of Flying Car, a Boston-based creative agency, conducted focus groups with enterprise technology buyers about open-source software for years. Their attitude toward open source code and the people who wrote it went something like this: "Open source? That sounds like something one of my guys would have dreamed up in his basement. You know the guy, he's got a ponytail and wears shorts and sandals. He's brilliant, but what am I supposed to do with this stuff? When it fails, am I going to tell the CEO it was something we dreamed up rather than point to a vendor?" The ironic kicker came later in those conversation: "Amusingly, they would then all go on to tell me how much they loved Linux. This is why I weep at night."


The worker bee

Maybe this exercise produced too negative a picture — after all, our correspondents all cheerfully do work in this realm ("open-source programming is actually pretty fun 95% of the time," Vince W. assured me.) Trevor Ewen, a New York City software engineer, instead provided a portrait of that unsung and perhaps underappreciated species of open-source developer: the worker bee, "an engineer who cares about progress and is quiet enough not to take a leadership role (or at least an obvious one). This is my favorite kind of engineer. They don't get hung up in the latest tools, code perfection, or small details that manage to derail a project. This person puts in good hours of hard work, and is above no task." May this be said about all of us!

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