Journal: News & Comment

Monday, August 08, 2005
# 1:15:00 AM:

What business shouldn't learn from open source

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UPDATE: Darren Barefoot and I had a short discussion in his blog's comments about Graham's essay.

The biggest difficulty I have with Paul Graham's buzz-of-the-moment essay "What Business Can Learn From Open Source" is this:

So am I claiming that no one is going to be an employee anymore—that everyone should go and start a startup? Of course not. But more people could do it than do it now. [...] Someone with kids and a mortgage should think twice before doing it. But most young hackers have neither.

I think this is taking ideas backwards, not forwards. Graham suggests that breaking out of an employer-employee relationship is liberating, equalizing, de-paternalizing. He praises Google for getting big while still acting small. But I agree with Dori:

It's not healthy, it's not workable long-term, and it's not attractive to most people outside of the small chunk of the demographic that's currently working there.


So I raised my hand and said, "If you want more women, try describing the company in a way that doesn't make it sound like it's hell on earth." [...] what appeals to guys right out of school drives people like me in the opposite direction.

I took a week-long vacation with my family this week, for example. When I was a full-time, self-employed musician in the early '90s, or a full-time freelance writer and editor in the early 2000s, I didn't take many vacations. Yes, I had time when I wasn't working, but that also meant I wasn't making money, and that meant I was worrying about where the money was going to come from, and that meant that even if I took a trip, I felt guilty about it.

Because when you're working for yourself, and working on something you love, as Graham suggests many of us should, you might enjoy it, but it's not conducive to having much of a life. "Someone with kids and a mortgage should think twice before doing it. But most young hackers have neither." Period. He writes off everyone with kids and a mortgage and (by extension) a desire for life outside work in a single sentence. And that's most people.

And you know what? People who aren't young hackers can be pretty smart. And wise. And productive. They learn things in their lives that don't come from hackerly pursuits. Yes, there are problems with the traditional office environment, and flexible schedules that respect real work achievement (rather than just showing up) are a way to improve it. But it has its good sides too. If you're working on your own, for instance, what happens when you get sick? Or your child does? Of course you take time off—and lose your income, and maybe your customers too.

There is something of a paternalistic relationship in being an employee, but I don't mind it. Why? Because, paradoxically, an office environment acts like a family, so you can have a family life of your own. Ideally, your colleagues pick up your slack if you're away. Ideally, and in the best work environments, the company takes care of you, with benefits, and sick days, and a nice chair, and a coffee machine.

Plus, I've worked from home, and having done it, I now like going to the office, because I get stuff done there.

Which is the point, right?

P.S. If you want a really good essay, read "When We Are Needed" instead.


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