Open Source’s Cult Of Personality Is Dying—Thankfully

Roy Rubin, co-founder of the popular Magento open-source project, announced this week he is bowing out of the project he helped launch back in 2008.

It’s not the first time the leader of an open-source project has stepped away from her project, but it’s remarkable by its response: Relative silence.

It’s not because Rubin wasn’t critical to Magento. He was. For six years, Rubin was the soul of Magento. But open source has grown up, and it’s increasingly shedding its cult of personality. While no one wishes Linux founder Linus Torvalds gets hit by a bus, we’re to the point that we, like Linus, “won’t care.”

But it wasn’t always this way.

Worshipping The Benevolent Dictator

Successful open-source projects have long been associated with strong leaders, and for good reason. Influencing a vibrant community of individually-minded developers can be the equivalent of herding cats. While differences of opinion on the direction a particular open-source project can turn into a parting of ways (and code, called a “fork”), more often than not a “benevolent dictator for life,” or project leader, will step in, exert leadership and keep the community together.

The term “benevolent dictator for life” (BDFL) may have started with Guido von Rossum, the founder of Python. It has since been applied to Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, as well as Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu’s lead, among others. Sometimes two leaders on a project share the title, as did Adrian Holovaty and Jacob Kaplan-Moss for Django.

At their peak, the departure of any one of these leads would have wreaked havoc on the fortunes of the project, given how closely identified the projects were with these strong leaders. Over time, however, this has changed. The Django BDFLs moved on to other projects, and Django kept chugging along. Ditto Python, Lucene (Doug Cutting), JBoss (Marc Fleury) and many other projects.

While open source communities still rally around strong leaders, we don’t seem to be as dependent on them as we once were. Open source’s “cult of personality” faded, and perhaps has died altogether. But what happened?

Apache And The Rise Of Community 

Well, community did, for starters. I realize I’m making a somewhat subjective assertion here, but over the roughly 15 years I’ve been involved in open source, I’ve seen a gradual shift away from tightly-controlled free software projects to more loosely joined open-source communities, often with significant corporate interest.

While it’s not clear whether the open, BSD/Apache-style licensing “chicken” came before the corporate open source interest “egg,” the two together have definitely changed how open source operates.

This includes the need for a BDFL. For example, and while it’s not a project, it’s hard to imagine Free GNU without Richard Stallman. By contrast, it’s pretty easy to imagine Apache Hadoop without… wait, who is in charge of Hadoop, anyway?

The answer? Everyone. Or many, rather. It started with Doug Cutting, but it has since grown to become a community of companies and individuals (but mostly companies that employ those individuals) working together.

The same is true of OpenStack, which has a host of companies involved. If any particular OpenStack developer were to leave, the OpenStack show would go on. And it has thus far. The same is true of an increasing number of open-source projects.

A BDFL-Free Future?

This isn’t to suggest that leaders aren’t needed in open source. They are. But as more open-source projects become communities of corporations, the risk of a BDFL leaving diminishes. Frankly, even if companies aren’t heavily involved, projects with an Apache license may not be as dependent on a BDFL, anyway.

Photo of Richard Stallman courtesy of Friprog on Flickr

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