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

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.
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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