Nice shoes, but I still think you’re stupid

Posted by chetan on December 16, 2007

My boss asked me a question recently, which really got me thinking: would it make any difference if I [my boss] wore slacks and a shirt every day? That is, do outward appearances at the office really matter that much? Could dressing a little better mean being taken more seriously?

It took me a really long time to answer the question, because to me it doesn’t affect how I judge a person’s performance, and it was difficult for me to look at the question objectively and realize that not everyone thinks the way I do. Everyone has their own criteria for judging performance or value. Which got me thinking about meritocracies and why they don’t work in business.

Many large, successful Open Source projects are, or appear to be (I’ll get to this later), meritocracies. The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) is a popular example. So what’s so different about open source software projects that a meritocracy not only works but seems to come so naturally?

Clearly much of it has to do with the voluntary nature of open source; when faced with an adverse situation in the management of a project you have two clear options when all else fails: stop contributing or fork. Both options carry an equally low risk, from an individual standpoint. The same two options are available in the business world, however the risks are much greater when one’s career and livelihood lie in the balance but the rewards are potentially much greater for forking — e.g., quit and start a competing product or service.

Even in the latter case, can a meritocracy really work in the long run? The incubation phase of almost any startup is entirely merit-based — from acquiring funding to competing in the marketplace, both will be judged on the merits of the ideas and the products or services the business is able to produce. But how long can this be sustained? Once a company grows out of it’s core group of people into a full-fledged business, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the same level of excellence and far more costly to replace people at the upper levels. The stakes are also much higher for everyone involved, as noted by the ASF:

“What is interesting to note is that the process scaled very well without creating friction, because unlike in other situations where power is a scarce and conservative resource, in the apache group newcomers were seen as volunteers that wanted to help, rather than people that wanted to steal a position.”

So it becomes an issue of power and the ability to wield it. Bill Gates commented on a recent survey, saying: “Communication skills and the ability to work well with different types of people are very important too,” he said. “Software innovation, like almost every other kind of innovation, requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people, and to sit down and talk with customers and get their feedback and understand their needs.” In other words, to innovate you need more than just technical ability and great ideas. You need the ability to communicate those ideas and work with people who may not always be as strong technically.

And that’s where strong leadership comes in. The problem with any large organization is that it’s almost impossible for everyone to be in complete agreement all the time. Even in a merit based organization like the ASF, consensus is not a given and people have found ways to game the system. Without strong leadership at the top you’ll have a constant power struggle to fill that void at every level in the organization, as different groups vie for control. (See also: IRAQ)

The best ideas can win out, but sometimes it takes a dictator.

Fire on Austin st.

Posted by chetan on March 20, 2007

Fun day. A gas main broke on Austin st., just a block away from the office. I noticed when the lights started flickering and the UPS showed power fluctuations. It took more than an hour for ConEd to get on the scene and repair the damage so we took down the servers and sent everyone home early (6pm!). I’m hoping tomorrow will be uneventful..

Rolling out open source

Posted by chetan on February 23, 2007

Putting in some time at Dad’s office this week, now that I’m Stateside again. Among the many software related issues I’m dealing with, I’m finally upgrading to Firefox 2 (thanks to FrontMotion) and rolling out Thunderbird (thanks to ZettaServe) for the first time. Still not giving out IMAP access, but switching from Outlook or Outlook Express to Thunderbird is a huge step towards easily moving a user to a new machine and brining all their mail along for the ride. Now if I could just get some freaking ADMs so I could automagically configure their email accounts without going over to their machine…

You call that content management?

Posted by chetan on February 07, 2007

A large part of my job here at ICAR has been wrestling with various so-called content management systems (CMS). In an effort to build various applications I’ve been evaluating many popular opensource CMS projects and I’ve run into the same basic problem with just about all of them: I don’t want a blog, I want content management. They all claim to be flexible systems with all the latest doodads but in the end, they’re just glorified blogs. Case in point, almost every system sets itself up as a blog out of the box, and, in general, that’s the most complete part of the system. Other areas are sorely lacking.

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Warmer places

Posted by chetan on December 22, 2006

I’m going to Rome tomorrow for Christmas break. Why Rome? Winter is underway and it’s pretty cold here now, averaging in the low 30s most days. Europe has fairly cold winters and traveling can be less than pleasant so heading south is the best option. From what I ready, my best choices were either Spain or Italy so I opted for Italy. As much as I’d like to put what’s left of my Spanish to a test, it’ll have to wait for another day.

Speaking of Christmas, our holiday party was this past Wednesday. It was held in a restaurant of sorts, but with a twist. It was actually an old factory which had been converted into an event hall. On this particular evening it was a “dinner spectacle” and with good reason — it was actually a carnival complete with juggling, gymnastics and “high wire” acts, fire breathing, knife throwing, and silly animal tricks!

It was lots of fun and I got to meet a lot of people from BIG whom I hadn’t had the occasion to meet yet.

Anyways, I’ll be gone until the new year, so there most likely won’t be any updates until then. I just hope I don’t run out of storage for my cameras!

I’ve given thought to leaving, f-f-f-for some time

Posted by chetan on December 18, 2006

So I’ve been here in Basel for a little over a month now. Five weeks and a day to be exact. Pretty crazy, actually. This project has been in the works for something like a year and a half and now here I am sitting in my apartment in Switzerland! Wild.

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