Friday, May 28, 2010

Is a Pure Meritocracy Possible in Open Source?

I've been asking myself this question a lot lately.  Before we continue this discussion, let's look at how Meritocracy is defined (as by Wikipedia):
Meritocracy is a system of a government or other organization wherein appointments are made and responsibilities assigned to individuals based upon demonstrated talent and ability (merit). In a meritocracy, society rewards those who show talent and competence as demonstrated by past actions or by competition. Evaluation systems, such as formal education, are closely linked to notions of meritocracy.
Some open source projects like the Apache claim to be a meritocracy where contributors gain "status" by their merits usually through contributions (code, documentation, mailing lists, tutorials, etc.).  Some people say that the Apache Project is more egalitarian than meritocracy however I'm not writing this to lobby either case.

In the terms of the projects I'm involved with, the biggest for me is the Mach-II Project.  A lot of people on Team Mach-II were asked to be on the team because of pure merit.  Flashback to 2005 when I started with Mach-II and apply merit to me, I would never be selected -- I was too green.  I would say we try to run Mach-II as a meritocracy as much as possible, but I definitely believe there is a bit of benevolent dictatorship in the mix as well.

In the end, not every decision can be made by committee. At least a "good" decision made.  Some of the problems with committees are while they take account of a bunch of different view points they are terribly slow to move and sometimes produce less than desirable results.  Then introduce politics (especially when financial implications of multiple parties are involved) and things typically grind to a halt.  Committees only work when all parties involved want the same result.  I have little patience to be part of committees / processes that are jaded that progress can be made despite have multiple parties with different financial interests.

This is one of the reasons why committees by company / association appointment in open source just don't work.  Money will nearly always triumph over pure idealistic concerns even when "doing the right thing" would be better.  Does this mean that humans are just greedy by nature? I'm glad I don't have to answer that question (it's been a funny premise on the Simpsons before as well).

People appointed by merit (and not company / employer association) typically share a common goal.  However, who is to break a stalemate?  This why most "meritocracies" still have some person in the "dictatorship" role.  In regards to Mach-II, I definitely play this role.  In the Rails project, DHH still plays the role of the dictator when needed.

So yes, I believe meritocracies can exists, but in certain situations somebody has to play the role of "dictator" / "president" / etc.  However meritocracies need transparency to function properly.  Transparency will be a subject for a future blog post.

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