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First Monday: Essence of Distributed Work: The Case of the Linux Kernel

Nov 13, 2000, 21:51 (1 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Lee Sproull, Jae Yun Moon)

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"This paper provides a historical account of how the Linux operating system kernel was developed from three different perspectives. Each focuses on different critical factors in its success at the individual, group, and community levels. The technical and management decisions of Linus Torvalds the individual were critical in laying the groundwork for a collaborative software development project that has lasted almost a decade. The contributions of volunteer programmers distributed worldwide enabled the development of an operating system on the par with proprietary operating systems. The Linux electronic community was the organizing structure that coordinated the efforts of the individual programmers. The paper concludes by summarizing the factors important in the successful distributed development of the Linux kernel, and the implications for organizationally managed distributed work arrangements."

"Complex tasks plus a global economy have impelled the creation of many distributed engineering and development groups supported by information and communication technologies [1]. Distributed groups range in duration from weeks to years; they range in size from fewer than ten people to more than a thousand; and they may have members located in two locations or many locations. Distributed engineering and development depends upon careful planning, coordination, and supervision. "Careful" does not necessarily imply micromanagement. Contributors who are geographically distant from one another inevitably operate under some degree of autonomy. The management challenge is to insure that members of geographically distributed engineering and development teams stay focused on shared goals, schedules, and quality. This challenge grows as the number of employees and sites increases. There have been some notable successes in large-scale distributed engineering and development. For example, the Boeing 777 marshaled 4,500 engineers working on three continents (Committee on Advanced Engineering Environments, 1999). But successful large-scale distributed engineering and development projects are rare."

"That, in part, explains the business and media fascination with Linux. Linux is a PC-based operating system (OS) that has been produced through a software development effort consisting of more than 3,000 developers and countless other contributors distributed over 90 countries on five continents. It is difficult to provide a precise estimate of the number of programmers who have contributed to Linux. Published estimates range from several hundred to more than 40,000 (Shankland, 1998; Raymond, 1999). In its first three and a half years of development (November 1991 to July 1995) more than 15,000 people submitted code or comments to the three main Linux related newsgroups and mailing lists. In the next three and a half years, thousands continued to contribute code and hundreds of thousands of people joined electronic discussions about Linux philosophy, applications, competitors, business models, and so forth. In this paper we focus narrowly on people actually writing code for the operating system kernel."

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