% fortune -ae paul murphy

Does listening signal commitment?

A comment by occassional contributor Michael Kelly in last Monday's discussions of the reasons people cite for what they perceive as "the Linux desktop failure" caught my eye as precisely expressing two phenonmena I've seen but never put together.

Here's the key bit, responding to a comment about Linux community techno-arrogance:

There are people in the community who do listen, however they spend more time listening than talking while others spend more time talking than listening. And obviously the ones who spend more time talking make more noise.

What I've personally noticed is that with F/OSS, the closer you get to the source of the code, the less arguments and the more listening you'll see. That does not mean they are lambs, but they do look at things constructively. Whereas with proprietary the closer you get to the source, the more excuses you'll see when things go wrong, it's only when you get farther away from the source that you get some constructive help. The exception to that rule is when you have a small proprietary outfit that does rely on each and every customer to stay alive.

He's right. Talk to an Oracle sales rep or (non wintel) on-site support engineer and he really will try to understand your issues and get them resolved - but escalate to the product manager for 13i's Canadian payroll and anything you care about will get drowned out in a flood of defensive non commitalism. Conversely, talk to the guy who downloaded and installed limesurvey for you and nothing's his problem - but email the developers and you're likely to get an instant, helpful, response.

What struck me when I read Kelly's comment was that this could be seen as a variation on a broader phenonmenon: that owners manage to the product while professionals manage to the bottom line. As I've said earlier a professionally run business exists to make a profit on the owner's investment, while an owner managed business very often exists because the owner wants to make a better product.

That's what this is part of: the guy at Adobe who told me in slightly nicer words to go and perform an anatomically improbable act on myself in response to my complaints about a piece of PC garbage they sold me for $795 didn't care about his company, his product, or his customer. He cared about his bottom line, and he already had my cash. Conversely the guy working on who pushed a minor change into the product to make one of my clients happy cared about making a great product -and saw this customer's problem as an opportunity to make his product better.

This difference, that open source products are made by people who care about making better products while big commercial software companies are run by business professionals, has some interesting implications for IT decision makers. On the surface, for example, it means that the less routine an application is for you, the more attractive F/OSS should be for you.

More subtly, however, this difference suggests that companies selling me-too products developed and debugged by others should hire management professionals - but that companies needing to commercialize innovation should look for "cowboys": customer focused technology evangelists professional managers would never trust to complete their paperwork.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.