Interesting article in the reg about cultural issues dividing open
source communities. Here's the article (in bold) and my comments spread
source 'leaving Asia behind'
By Bryan Betts
Novell veep warns of collaborative culture clash
The open source community risks leaving Asian users and developers
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
"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 ...