Thursday, 31 August, 2006

Lack of Leadership Kills Project

Serendipity is an odd thing, isn't it?  Monday I wrote a little rant about how a project needs a strong leader in order to be successful.  I've received some negative feedback on that assertion, but nobody yet has shown me a successful project that doesn't have a strong leader.

Back to the serendipity.  Today I ran across Charles Hannum's letter, The future of NetBSD.  Charles is a founder of the NetBSD project, and has been with the project throughout its life.  He was a pioneer in the development of collaborative--what later became known as "open source"--projects.  He has a lot of things to say about the NetBSD project, most of it not very flattering.  In fact, the first sentence tells you it's not going to be pretty:  "The NetBSD Project has stagnated to the point of irrelevance."

After explaining how the project was structured and how that evolved into a very common structure for open source projects, he says:

Unfortunately, we made some mistakes here.  As we've seen over the years, one of the great successes of Linux was that it had a strong leader, who set goals and directions, and was able to get people to do what he wanted -- or find someone else to do it.  This latter part is also a key element; there was no sense that anyone else "owned" a piece of Linux (although de facto "ownership" has happened in some parts); if you didn't produce, Linus would use someone else's code.  If you wanted people to use your stuff, you had to keep moving.

NetBSD did not have this.  Partly due to lack of people, and partly due to a more corporate mentality, projects were often "locked".  One person would say they were working on a project, and everyone else would be told to refer to them.  Often these projects stagnated, or never progressed at all.  If they did, the motivators were often very slow. As a result, many important projects have moved at a glacial pace, or never materialized at all.

He mentions other problems, but they're all due to lack of leadership.  And his outline for moving the project foreward (a nice idea, in my opinion, but not likely to succeed) involves replacing the current "leadership" of the project with people who are commited to turning it around and making it work.

The letter serves as a good warning to those who would try to start a project in the absence of strong leadership, or decide at some time that the project is stable enough that the strong leader can be dispensed with.  That's almost always a bad idea.