Monday, November 7, 2005

Paul Graham - Business and OpenSource

This talk given by Paul Graham at this years OSCON (podcast of speech here) is one of the most profound talks I have heard in a while. Not profound because it says something new, but profound because it pulls together what appears to be disparate pieces of common sense and puts them together in a cohesive whole.

The underlying theme of his talk "What Business Can Learn from Open Source" is that the lesson "is not about Linux or Firefox, but the about the forces that produced them. Ultimately these will affect a lot more than what software you use.."

Two things he said (amongst many others) has particular resonance with me. First is that the Opern Source community and blogging are market economies. You can go ahead and build something or write an article about whatever you like, but it won't get noticed or popular unless it's good. The audience itself evaluates the idea and passes judgement. In a corporation, things are done in a much more top-down way. You are told to do something, and do it in a particular way. In market economies (and in nature as well) the best ideas or products rise to the top based on their merit / survivability. Corporations that work in a supposed market economy are most certainly NOT market economies themselves.

The other idea Graham put forward is that of workplaces. He makes so many brilliant points that I'm tempted to quote that whole section verbatim. Anyways, I'll settle for a few points he makes. The first is that offices themselves are very poor places for people to work. "The atmosphere of the average workplace is to productivity what flames painted on the side of a car are to speed." So very true.

Why do I have to work in a big office with all these people I never talk to. In my work day, 95% of the communication I do is with the three other members of my team. And one of them (Hi Ben!) is located 800Kms away in Melbourne. The idea that we need to be in an office to see our peers face-to-face is just not true.

"To me the most demoralizing aspect of the traditional office is that you're supposed to be there at certain times. There are usually a few people in a company who really have to, but the reason most employees work fixed hours is that the company can't measure their productivity. The basic idea behind office hours is that if you can't make people work, you can at least prevent them from having fun."

Graham goes on to explore these themes in more detail, and I can only encourage people to go read/listen to his presentation.

The only problem is that I can't actually work like the way he suggests. Very few companies are that flexible. Oh well, there is hope yet.

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