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Tom Adelstein -- How Techies and Business People Both Win

Jul 04, 1999, 18:53 (7 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Tom Adelstein)

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By Tom Adelstein

At the Open Source Forum in Austin, many of the participants witnessed a classical confrontation.

In an interactive session to start day two, we watched an irate young man verbally malign Matthew Szulik, the President of Red Hat, Inc. Though polite, we watched a serious confrontation between a man in business attire and another in a tee shirt and blue jeans. As GNU-Linux moves forward in the product adoption cycle, this type of conflict will probably increase in frequency unless we take a lesson from history. A saying exists to warn us all about the dangers of thoughtless behavior: Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.

The subject of a confrontation in Austin makes little difference to any of us. The significance of the event signals the reality of GNU-Linux and the Open Source paradigm shift. Matthew Szulik represents the pinnacle of Linux success as his company prepares for it's public stock offering. The young man represents the success of technology as Linux adoption in the population grows at exponential rates.

Is a standoff between technicians and business rainmakers unique to Linux? It's no more unique than a war between Athens and Troy or the British and Zulus. What can become unique is if on a broad scale we keep it from happening.

This writer has observed this kind of war of the worlds for two decades in much different business settings. In a mammoth firm like Arthur Andersen it finally culminated in a nasty divorce for the once largest CPA firm on the planet. We can easily call the "clash" something like the revenge of the nerds.

The typical analysis of the "clash" exemplifies itself when technicians say that the rainmakers couldn't exist without the technician. The rainmakers say that they can always find technicians. When a rainmaker discovers something technically revolutionary the techie says they must have stolen it. When a techie has success in business, the suit says he really wasn't a "techie".

The Myth Exposed

Long ago, perhaps the reasoning behind the "clash" had merit. Since the Middle Ages, that merit ceased to exist. But myths die hard and hundreds of millions of people have died or suffered from this myth taken to its extreme. The ethnic cleansing of native Americans by immigrants and descendants of those immigrants from Europe underline the ignorance and brutality of this myth.

At the civil end of the myth, companies like Digital Equipment Corporation die when the technologists refuse to let business people perform their roles. Somehow, Texas Instruments has continued to live on technical merit alone once because of the employment of former military leaders and now because of the shift in the telecommunication industry. TI seems to stay one step ahead of trends.

As many companies that failed because they lacked marketing and financial know-how, have died because of technical ineptness. The once mighty car companies of the world have come and gone because they could sell ice to Eskimos but couldn't deliver a refrigerator.

The myth that a technician's success depends on business types and vice versa will kill the momentum of GNU-Linux. Organizations can not prosper without both. You can make the best product in the world but if you don't have anyone to sell it, you'll fail. You can sell a great product and if you haven't the people to deliver and support it, you'll wind-up like Netscape with Sun Micro Systems taking over Kiva and AOL taking over the rest.

The How-to

Organizations flourish when three functions work simultaneously. First, people have to create the future. That's the job of sales and marketing. They must go out and become known and close sales.

Second, someone has to create the present. That's the job of delivery and quality control. If the people in sales and marketing get orders, someone has to fulfill the orders or sales people move on to the next company. Sales people become known as "spin doctors" when no one delivers the goods.

Finally, if sales people and delivery do their jobs, then the administrators must administer. Legal, accounting and finance live in the past recording, complying and reporting the events of the organization's activities. Sell and deliver a million dollars worth of software but don't pay your employment taxes and watch the hatchet fall.

The GNU-Linux Dilemma

At the Open Source Forum in Austin, the young man confronting Matthew began his comments with the phrase "on behalf of all of us techies". Frankly, I can't see how one person can say anything on behalf of anyone except himself. I don't recall signing a petition or voting for a representative. People who use generalizations such as the one above show a lack of personal responsibility.

The GNU-Linux world did not evolve from an industrialized organization. GNU-Linux has leaders but only leaders like tribes had chiefs. At one point, the tribes killed enough of each other that they formed the counsel of elders. Then they had peace. The success of a civilization such as GNU-Linux depends on everyone taking personal responsibility for the success of the whole.

GNU-Linux compares favorably to a hologram or a holographic paradigm. When you break a hologram and pick up the pieces you will find each piece contains the whole image. The quantum physics people say that the hologram underlies a greater reality: The parts exist in the whole and the whole exists in the parts.

If anything, GNU-Linux deserves the designation of a holographic paradigm - the whole exists in the parts and the parts exist in the whole. If we don't start respecting each other's roles in promulgating GNU-Linux then we will all wind up in a big hole called failure.

How We Win

Aside from civilization, I can't think of another example to fit GNU-Linux and its adopters. So, we walk in a world without much precedent and with Linus Torvalds as our stable datum. I don't see such a world enduring over time. This statement does not suggest anything about Linus. In the interim and possibly forever, he stands tall among us and certainly has represented thousands of people dutifully and well. Still, he represents Linux as an icon, he isn't a general in a well formed line of command.

First, each one of us must take personal responsibility for GNU-Linux. We must become good stewards and trustees of the lineage. We need a code of conduct. That code doesn't officially exist. It is unwritten and therefore unarticulated. Until one emerges, I'm using a netiquette to guide my way and Jon "mad dog" Hall's Canons of Conduct . Follow it.

Make history don't repeat it unwittingly. "Honor the least among you," someone once said. Just show civility; don't disparage yourself or others.

Don't be a wimp. Sometimes it works to let others demonstrate to the world their own foolishness. Sometimes, you must stand up and confront those with evil intentions. Know when to act. If someone behaves with devious intent, covertly attempting to subvert GNU-Linux - do the right thing.

I received an email from someone when I announced a project. The email said, " You know, it's VERY unvise to use SPAM to promote Linux .... but, you're lucky this time, I won't bust your arse since I found your site quite good one - to rip off! "

This is not an example of strength but an example of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). The announcement went to a select group on a public list of people claiming to be Linux consultants. You want this guy advocating GNU-Linux on your behalf?

Now you know what I don't mean when I say do the right thing and do not be wimps.

In Summary

If you have used and contributed to GNU-Linux for a while, you see a different breed of people using your product. Recognize that newbies coming in to the fold do not look, talk or perhaps act like you. They may lack the skills of a UNIX systems administrator. Attempt to include them. Be willing to share yourself because if we want to change the world, we have to start at the individual level.

If you just walked in to the GNU-Linux fold let your hair down except when you talk to the guys from Wall Street. You may not understand the Open Source model. But, from every angle, you have immersed yourself in a paradigm shift as significant as when Columbus discovered the earth was round and when Einstein discovered the man at rest was sitting on a platform that was moving.

Fate has thrust us all together. We can work together, live together and succeed together in suits and tee shirts.

Tom Adelstein, CPA, is the CIO/CFO of Bynari, Inc. He's the author of several books and articles on business and technology and has management, consulting and hands-on experience in the Information Technology field.