Thursday Jun 28, 2007

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 ...


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