What Can We Learn From NetBSD's Problems?

"The NetBSD Project has stagnated to the point of irrelevance." These words came from project co-founder Charles M. Hannum in an August email. It's sad to see such talk directed at one of the pioneering open source projects. I hope that the issues Hannum raises can be fixed and NetBSD returned to a healthier state.

At the same time, I wonder if other projects can learn from these observations and avoid running into similar problems. Hannum ends his note with a list of eight steps which he believes must be taken for NetBSD to regain its way. Some are fairly specific to their project, but others are not. In particular, I think the first three are worth highlighting:

  1. There must be a strong leadership, and it is not the current one. The leadership must honestly want NetBSD to be a premier, world class system with leading edge features. The leadership must set aggressive goals, and actively recruit people to make them happen.
  2. There must be no more "locking" of projects. Just because one person is supposedly working on a problem, that doesn't mean you shouldn't. If there ideas are dumb, or even just suboptimal, do it better! If there is no progress, hop on it. Don't wait for someone else.
  3. The project must become an \*actual\* meritocracy, not what I call a "volumetocracy". Right now, the people who exert the most influence are often the people who produce the least useful product. Indeed, they are often people who produce little more than fluff (e.g. changing line-ending whitespace!), and often break things.

There is clearly some NetBSD-specific background behind these observations, but I think the core ideas are applicable to other projects. There must be strong leadership (preferably down to an individual level, as noted elsewhere in his note). There must not be any detrimental "locking" of projects (which he believes can arise from having too much of a "corporate mentality"). And there must be promotion of a true meritocracy.

Those sound to me like important lessons for any open source effort. And given that Sun is establishing itself as the largest open source contributor in the world, I'd say they're also important lessons for us as a company.

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