Leaving Asia Behind?

Interesting article in the reg about cultural issues dividing open source communities. Here's the article (in bold) and my comments spread throughout:

Open source 'leaving Asia behind'
By Bryan Betts
Novell veep warns of collaborative culture clash

The open source community risks leaving Asian users and developers behind,

I think that's probably a bit of an over statement, don't you? It's clear that Asia in general is behind the West in this area, but who the heck is racing? Now that open source has gone mainstream in many Western markets, some of the leaders in some of the communities are starting to sound like this all happened over night (and by implication others are "behind"). It didn't. It took decades even in the supposedly more enlightened West. Also, I bet some Asian communities come up to speed on open source faster than some in the West realize, and I bet these new Asian communities will start to express open source development methodologies in different and interesting ways. So much of the rhetoric from the U.S. and Europe is like this, though. It's patronizing. Many times it's not intended as such, but it is nonetheless.

thanks to cultural differences

This is true. And these differences are nothing short of gigantic -- especially comparing East Asia with the West. And then when you add language to that mix, it only magnifies the challenge. It's huge. However, with some focused effort, these differences can be mitigated to a certain degree. It takes time, though, and you have to want to overcome the problem and find the middle ground. I find a lot of people on both sides generally pretty ignorant about the issue, though. In other words, a lot of people see communication issues as relatively minor, when in reality I think it's so much bigger than anyone realizes. Also, many people on both sides can appear totally genuine, but it's clear that they are oftentimes locked behind cultural and/or language walls -- East or West -- and can't really see the other guy's perspective.

and western business's tendency to treat programmers there as code monkeys rather than software designers, a senior Novell staffer has warned.

Kurt Garloff, the company's global product opportunities veep, said that while open source communities regard criticism as constructive, others see it as insulting. Speaking at the start of the company's Hackweek in Germany, he argued that software companies need to find ways to mitigate the sometimes confrontational nature of open source development, if Asian developers are not to be excluded.

I have many examples of people from Korea, Japan, and China who view the OpenSolaris community as too hostile to engage with. Others here have said the same about some parts of the Linux community in the U.S. Some of this is true, of course, but some of it is an over-reaction as well. So, I'd generally agree with this point. Though I must admit, I've never heard the term "code monkey" before. It doesn't surprise me, though.

But even when you remove obviously bad behavior, the larger -- and much more important -- issue is that some of these cultures simply communicate differently. And very differently at that. It really is that simple. And hard. The West can't expect the East to adopt the open source culture from San Francisco or Portland or somewhere, and the East has to open up to new ways of communicating online as well. There is more than enough room for both sides to move to the center.

"If you look at the open source mailing lists to see where the posts come from, it is almost exclusively white males, from Europe, including Eastern Europe and Russia now, and North America, plus some from South America," he said.

Sure. I agree. But there are other lists here in Asia where various Asian communities communicate quite well. We have to stop thinking about "the open source mailing lists" as one set of lists. There are many sets of lists for many communities and they are spread out all over the world. Also, the implication here is that there is one open source community. There isn't. The open source "community" is actually a community of communities. And although open source types recognize that obvious fact, they don't then factor in open source communities of communities across cultural and language barriers. Also, the very terms "open source" and "free" and "community" may mean something in Boston but I'm not sure it means quite the same thing in Tokyo or Beijing. In fact, I rarely talk about "community" here like I used to talk about it in San Francisco. Concepts change when expressed in different languages. Sometimes dramatically.

"The absence of countries such as Japan is striking.

Why is this striking? It's easily explained, actually, but the statement itself demonstrates a clear lack of knowledge about the Japanese market and culture. Look, some aspects of Japanese business are so utterly closed they make Microsoft look open. No question about it. There is a lot of old and traditional companies here. But guess what: there are a lot of traditionalists in London, New York, Los Angeles and even in the oh-so-too-cool San Francisco Bay Area. Also, I'm starting to get to know some of the guys in the Mozilla, Linux, Ruby, and PostgreSQL communities here in Tokyo, and they are remarkably open even by the artificially imposed Western standards. I still think they can be better connected to the West, but at least some of these communities demonstrate that Japan is not as monolithic as it may appear from the outside. In fact, the Ruby conference here recently literally blew me away and surely ranks right up there with the very best open source conferences I've ever seen. It was clearly a community event. But I've seen the other extreme as well. If you show up in Tokyo or Seoul or Beijing and do some sort of controlled corporate event, then sure, all the cool guys go away or get quiet. This is a predictable as the sun rising, by the way.

"Open feedback is OK culturally in Western Europe but a big problem in Japan - for example, open criticism can be seen there as a big shame on you. I do hope it doesn't keep them on the margins of open source - we are trying to create awareness of these issues."

Yah, that "shame" bit is so overblown. Someone is reading too many old sociality textbooks from the 1950s. Just like the myth of "the Japanese (and Chinese and Koreans) don't ask questions at conferences. These are all generalizations that get in the way of understanding.

Sure, many of the gigantic Japanese companies are conservative and pretty traditional places. But the radicals and innovators are out there, and they are happy to engage. Finding them takes a little effort, though. At Sun, some of the guys here put on a monthly event called Developers' Lounge. At first glance it's just a party, but when you hang out longer you find that it's an amazing communications mechanism. Lots of communities from Tokyo all gather in this little club and drink and eat and swap stories and basically do as series of rapid-fire lightening talks about projects they are working on. Very simple. But every time I go there I have the impression I'm at OSCON or something. No difference. Other than it's in Japanese. And it ends on time, too. :) Ruby gave me this exact same impression.

So, there are clear examples to contradict some of the thoughts in this article, but I think that the scale of the communities in the West are so much larger that we can't even see the guys in the East. In terms of scale, I bet India and China change that. Not in the short term, but over the longer term. Also, the last time I was in China some reporters were asking me how China can contribute to open source. I said I have no clue. Who am I, I thought. You tell me. You know best. The only thing I can say is to learn what the West has done and then express that in a Chinese way and take the concepts to new levels. But don't just follow the Americans or the Europeans because they were first. Do something different with what's already been done and let the West learn from that. And around we go. Seems to me that would be a great contribution. Same goes for Japan. Same for Korea. India. Etc.

He suggested that while Asian cultures are evolving and opening up to constructive criticism, one option for now might be for open source companies to create less free-wheeling and more protected environments for would-be developers to collaborate in.

"The second angle is that the open source community needs to adapt and become less confrontational," he said, adding that the language of on-line discussion can discourage western newcomers as well.

I agree with this. Although I live in Tokyo, I was born in New York and the rhetoric I see in many Western open source communities is a total turn off. This "open constructive criticism" bit is not a license to be obnoxious or rude or to attack people online. Yet I see it every day and people keep saying its ok. It's not.

The previous point, however, I don't agree with at all. The bit about creating "less free-wheeling and more protected environments" and all that. That's so overtly patronizing I can't believe it was even suggested. The West should be less confrontational not to better engage with the East but because it's simply the right thing to do to engage with everyone. And I hope Asian communities reject the idea of being protected. It's silly. Instead, why not try understanding the Asian communities. Why not even try to facilitate the creation of new Asia-specific communities (whatever technology, whatever country) where people interact in their own way, not in some manufactured and protected American or European way. And then why not create connections to those communities, so entire communities can interact via specific people who are bilingual and who understand the cultural differences? This already happens today, by the way.

"In countries such as India and China there's an additional problem," he continued. "Their education system trains them to do software manufacturing - the straightforward but tedious work of implementing specifications - rather than software engineering, and that's how western outsourcers use them.

I'm not sure about India in this case. I've heard otherwise, actually, but I'm not really that aware of the India market. I hope to change that this year, though. However, I think this is probably more true of Japan and China. And it's tough to even compare Japan, Korea, and China due to the differences in scale, language, and culture. I just don't know very much about the universities in these areas, but these points are critical so I'm looking forward to getting involved.

"Software engineering is an art, it's a fundamentally different mindset to software manufacturing."

Ah, yes the "art" bit. Therefore, the implication is, it's better. Perhaps. I'm not convinced. I have heard this from time to time from Japanese and American/European developers and administrators here, but I really have no direct knowledge about it yet.

He added, "I can certainly see people being afraid of the low-cost economies, but the bigger loss is for the whole world, if it doesn't use developers from all cultures to develop code."

I'm not sure what the "afraid of low-cost economies" is all about, but all this makes my life quite interesting right about now.  Fascinating issues. And issues that will not go away any time soon. In fact, as open source engineering and community development methodologies grows into new areas, it will be really interesting to see how new people implement the concepts. It will be just as interesting to see all the new leaders emerge, too ...

Liked your post. I was a Sun employee in a previous life but I dont think we've crossed paths before. I used to work in Juan Soto's organization. I am Indian by the way and do not agree with the author's generalization at all.

If the author is only referring to programming work that is offshored then it may be correct to some degree. That kind of work is meant to be performed efficiently and to exacting specifications - thats the whole point. However, just look around the valley and you will see more than a few products of India's education system who can hold their own against the best programmers. Some of them contribute to Solaris I might add. Also there are more than a few indigenous start-ups mushrooming silicon valley style in India and I think its just a matter of time before a visible number of them start to move up the value chain into creating innovative products. Whether the code they produce is open source or not is really orthogonal - its a matter of which business model works.

Posted by smathew on June 28, 2007 at 06:07 AM JST #

I think the major reason of the absence of the east in open source communities is the language -- Although most software engineers can read English specifications and technical books, it is not easy for them to use English to argue extensively or articulate their thoughts via emails or forums. In fact, there are a lots of active local open source communities in China.

Posted by Harry Fu on June 28, 2007 at 11:29 AM JST #


I was most interested by your take on the cultural issue. When I was in Fukuoka last year I spoke to a Japanese guy in a bar (my wife and her sister were getting sloshed). His english was very good, and we talked about apache reverse proxies and such nonsense. But it was easier to switch to "simple english -- simple explanations" because I was in Japan and was very sensitized to the need to make myself understood in a different culture. By simple english, by the way, I mean very non-confrontational, free of funky expressions, and avoiding negative voice. We were disrupted by some drunk women, but in general had a good time.

Now, regarding the way the mailing lists operate: true, it's a free-for-all with innuendos, attacks of all sorts, and cryptic references to both source and cultural jargon (obscure movie references, etc), so I can understand completely that a non-english native might feel unable to keep up. Do remember that French is my native tongue and that I learned English like all French school children, so I have experienced that first-hand.

What I suggest would be to put together a guide such as "Technical and Common English Guide for mailing lists with an international audience." I think that having people from many different countries participating in crafting such a guide would go a long way both in helping people understand the difficulties of cultural and linguistic differences but also to feel enfranchised to take part in the communication on such mailing lists.

Hope all is well, and I am still waiting for the "Jim Grisanzio Gaffes and Faux-pas in the streets of Tokyo" post :)

Posted by Christopher Mahan on June 30, 2007 at 03:56 AM JST #

Hello Jim and great post!

You have a unique perspective on the problems and challenges in this area, so it was very interesting and educational to read your take on the issues.

Who ever wrote the "white male Europe" paragraph most definitely hit the nail on the head, and it's perhaps a shame it turns out that way. For the historically interested, it dates back all the way to the C= 64 and C= Amiga days, software piracy, modem trading, PAL/NTSC fixing and importing and disk swapping via postal service (!) It's the "European coder" mentality, and greatly influenced by a very rigorous and natural sciences-heavy education system in most European countries.

Also, the part about Indians in Silicon Valley somehow fits the bill, because I've observed the same tendency. But then again, Indians which end up in the Sillicon Valley are cream of the crop, the best of the best, and that's a trait pretty much anybody in the Sillicon Valley will have, so perhaps we're going into stereotyping there.

Finally, also from personal experience, and knowing / having worked with / working with Indians, the thing about them doing software manufacturing rather than software engineering is every bit as true and living up to the stereotype. Those guys are used to taking orders and doing exactly what one tells them, no more, no less. Not particularly creative, and that inevitably leads to their undoing at some point down the road. I've observed them very carefully, and from "picking their brains" a lot, I've concluded early on that it's a byproduct of their culture. We all are, after all, greatly affected and formed by our respective cultures, experiences, and environments.

Posted by UX-admin on July 01, 2007 at 05:25 PM JST #

I'm going to echo what UX-admin said about Indians:

Those guys are used to taking orders and doing exactly what one tells them, no more, no less. Not particularly creative, and that inevitably leads to their undoing at some point down the road. I've observed them very carefully, and from "picking their brains" a lot, I've concluded early on that it's a byproduct of their culture.

I also work with several, including my team lead, who while very talented in general and some quite americanized (one had been living in the US for 14 years) have difficulty doing design-from-scratch. What do I mean by design from scratch? There's an issue, maybe one that only come up once in a while, and it's impacting the whole project, but it's arcane enough that the customer can't be bothered (Oracle threading issues come to mind) and a workaround that works all the time has to be designed: they have a hard time thinking outside the constraints of the current system. If someone comes along and says: Oh, just do this, they'll be able to, but when systems get very complex, that someone does not exist anymore unless he's on the team. And if the team is Indians only, then that system will just never get the problem fixed right, and the system will limp along with a kludge fix like restarting the server nightly or some such.

I'm not Indian-phobic: I like the food, the music, and the people (especially Aishwarya, but I digress...). I also think it's a byproduct of population pressure. I was told by one of them: "In India, you learn to do exactly as you're told, because there's a hundred people ready and willing to take your job tomorrow morning." I think that is the main reason why they work hard to do exactly as told, and are dis-incentivized (is that a word) from trying anything different.

Hope this makes sense.

Posted by Chris Mahan on July 02, 2007 at 04:36 PM JST #

smathew ... I know Juan well. Great guy! And I agree that Indian engineers have participated and contributed to Opensolaris. I also think that the things you've said are very consistent with what I've head about India. It will be great fun discovering all this for myself in due time.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on July 03, 2007 at 03:07 PM JST #

Harry ... you make a critical point. It's true that many in China (and Japan and Korea) know a good bit of English (reading and writing mostly but far fewer are skilled in speaking), but actually interacting at pace with native speakers/writers is \*extremely\* difficult. I find that the majority of English-only speakers miss this point entirely when it comes to this subject.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on July 03, 2007 at 03:11 PM JST #

hey, Christopher ... very cool bar story. :) And you'll have to wait a while longer -- like forever -- for my gaffe posts. :) I've actually backed away from blogging about some of my experiences here. It just sounds so ... silly coming in my voice. But I like your suggestion about the list manual -- especially since the document would be written by multiple people from multiple cultures. That could be quite interesting. I hadn't thougth of that. The construction of the doc itself would be most educational. Humm .... thinking.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on July 03, 2007 at 03:16 PM JST #

UX-admin and Chris ... sure, I think you guys have good points about things being much more mechanized here in Asia (in terms of software development), and I do think the West is way ahead generally. No question. However, both the China and Indian markets are emerging, so you can expect them to be very different and somewhat behind, and although Japan is a mature market, Japan is just so very different from top to bottom. :) I don't like using the word "behind" here but I can't think of another one at the moment. I really don't see the need for the race, too, since I actually believe that the East may end up teaching the West a thing or two along the way. I don't argue with these points generally, but what I'd like to remain open to is that things \*can\* be done differently in different areas based on the experiences of different cultures. To me the opportunity is enabling these various Asian cultures to express their own strengths rather than simply trying to adopt a system from Silicon Valley because the people in Silicon Valley say it's better. It could very well be. But perhaps not in all cases. Perhaps just grabbing the development methodology from the West is appropriate for some, but perhaps not for all. I don't know. What I'm finding living here is that the mis-understandings go both ways and the divide is gigantic. It's an amazing issue, isn't it?

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on July 03, 2007 at 03:29 PM JST #

I think we all use stereotypes subconsciously, including myself. But some of the repeated generalizations expressed above have me realizing how pervasive this thinking must be. To be fair, I dont know either of the respondents but I hope they dont mean to be typecasting a person based on something as artificial as a country of origin. Especially when there is so much cross pollination of ideas and cultures and more importantly when they are tasked with the responsibility of leading multi-cultural teams. If as a leader one has preconceived notions of what one's team members are good at (or not good at) based on country of origin please stop to consider what that does to the person's opportunities and to team morale. To extrapolate a tendency to a whole population based on interactions with a few is unfortunate, to put it politely. Every country (including India) has had its share of creative types - brilliant writers, slick politicians, gifted musicians, entrepreneurs, scamsters, mathematicians, quacks, scientists and yes programmers all of whom have used their abilities but to meet different ends. Yes, scarcity, cultural values and the education system play a role in suppressing the development of certain traits in some people for some time, but for how long? People express their creativity differently - sometimes in unexpected ways. I would humbly contend that to discount that possibility is to shortchange your own team.

I am not trying to change anyone's mind but some of the comments just did not make sense to me.

Posted by smathew on July 04, 2007 at 09:29 AM JST #

hi, smathew ... all I can say (at least from my current low level of knowledge, anyway :)) is that generalizations are both correct and incorrect to a variety of degrees. And I think stereotypes live for so long because there is an element (probably a small element in most cases) of truth to them, and we all internalize them and they becomes subconscious. And as you suggest, I think it's more common than anyone realizes. It's the subtle stuff that is difficult to get at and articulate, and I think that's what this issue brings out. I can already see my perspective changing since I'm living in Japan, but it's changing in different ways. I can both recognize that some of the generalizations about Japan are true and some are totally wrong. It's very enlightening. But you said something that I think is probably the most important point in this conversation: "People express their creativity differently - sometimes in unexpected ways." I so totally agree with that.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on July 05, 2007 at 06:55 AM JST #

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