Political correctness is one of the most virulent and pervasive social diseases of the modern era, one for which I have no time whatsoever. Take, for example, the self-evident phenomenon that programming is a male-dominated industry with one study finding in 2002 that:
Currently, [Computer Science] is a major that has a very low percentage of women. At top research universities, about 15 to 20 percent of majors are female,
Yet some zealots write off anything other than a 50-50 split as the product of sexism or oppression.
Of Listening and Maps
To me, it is blindingly obvious that men and women are wired differently. That’s not to say that there aren’t female programmers or that women should in any way be discouraged or steered away from programming. Quite the contrary: I’m a stalwart believer in meritocracy. Nor does such an observation predict the outcome of any one individual (alone or compared to another). But the fact remains that if you take 1000 men and women in otherwise equal circumstances, those who end up programmers will be disproportionately male.
The problem begins when one group should be given preferential treatment over another to cure the alleged imbalance. Let’s say that the faculties of Stanford, U. Washington and MIT got together and decided they would make it easier for female applicants to computer science courses to be accepted. This, to me, does two things:
- It reduces the overall quality of computer science graduates since, by definition, you’re not getting the pool of those with the most merit; and
- Female programmers could end up being viewed as somehow less qualified than their male counterparts by virtue of the perception that they had an easier ride.
But the point isn't whether this is true or not or what the reasons for it are if it is true. The point is can you even discuss it without being accused of committing some serious social transgression?
I hear you asking: what the heck does this have to do with open source software? Well, I’m glad you asked. In some ways, the situation is exactly the same.
As one of the authors of Spring Batch I also find this article a bit harsh, especially coming from someone who has has not been active on the forum and not raised any issues as far as I can tell in the Batch JIRA. Spring projects are community projects and we do care a lot about what people think. All of the issues above would benefit from discussion and clarification, but this is not the right forum, so I warmly invite interested parties to follow up on the Batch forum (http://forum.springsource.org?forumdisplay.php?f=41) or in JIRA (http://jira.springframework.org/browse/BATCH).
That comment got me thinking: what ethical responsibilities do we, as programmers, have with respect to open source software?
For the sake of completeness, I will point out that I have raised a few issues against Spring proper (not Spring Batch) 2.0.x and Spring Webflow, all raised on 18 April 2007. They are:
|SPR-3390||Better error handling from the <form:errors> tag||n/a||Unresolved|
|SPR-3389||Nicer handling of Java 5 enums by the Spring MVC form taglib.||1 week||Fixed in 2.0.x|
|SPR-3388||<form:*> tag library assumes the value of a Java 5 enum property is the value of toString()||1 week||Fixed in 2.0.x|
|SPR-3387||DataBinding error with Java 5 enums||21 months||Fixed in 3.0.x|
Are We There Yet?
These were all issues affecting what I was doing at the time (using Spring MVC and Webflow). The second and third issue were fixed in a useful time period. In fact, I was surprised how quickly they were resolved but I attribute that to the quality of the Spring and Spring Webflow projects in terms of the libraries themselves, the teams developing them and the technical leadership driving them.
Sadly, my experience has been that this is the exception rather than the norm.
Anyway, the key point from the above is that when you encounter issues such as these they need to be fixed in a usefully short time period or they are for all intents and purposes not fixed. Interestingly, the concept of usefully short time frames was one of the motivating factors behind Stackoverflow.
When you encounter a problem you can’t solve the immediate response is usually to go to google and look for an answer. You could ask a question on a forum but forums, well, suck. Even if they have a critical mass of an audience it may take a day or more to get a response.
This is not a usefully short time period.
It’s a Question of Hats
When you’re designing a technical solution or selecting a library or framework to solve a particular programming problem and you’re unfamiliar with some or all of the choices you go looking for reviews, tutorials and blog posts to get feedback while you try and ascertain the suitability of library or framework and identify any risks or shortcomings it has.
There is nothing worse than selecting a tool only to find out halfway through the process it has a massive problem. It’s too late to change, it’ll take too long for the development team to fix and you’re faced with a messy workaround.
This motivated me to write my previous post because that was exactly my situation.
What Dave implies is that I, as a user of Spring Batch and a blogger, have a responsibility to pursue these issues through “official” channels before—or instead of—posting any kind of public criticism. Or perhaps' it’s that I haven’t earned the right to be critical by virtue of being insufficiently community-minded?
So what do I, as a programmer and a blogger, owe any open source tool I use?
As I see it:
- as a professional programmer I have a responsibility to my employer or client to get the job done first and foremost;
- as a blogger—or any kind of writer really—I have an ethical responsibility to write with integrity. Particularly as a review, this means giving credit where credit is due but also being critical where justified; and
- as an open source citizen I have a moral imperative to support such community-driven efforts.
So which hat should I wear?
Of these the first is arguably the most important. You have a duty of care to your employer and/or client that has legal standing and failure to act in the best interests of that party can be grounds for professional misconduct, breach of contract or worse.
Of Apples and Oranges
In one respect I can understand Dave’s displeasure. After all, he’s not getting paid for his involvement in Spring Batch (as far as I know). Having your work criticized at the best of times is usually hard but it sticks in the throat even more when you’re volunteering.
This brings us to the next interesting question: is open source software held to a different standard than commercial software?
Clearly I think it is as everyone’s favourite whipping boy, Microsoft, can surely attest. Is that fair? Should it be held to a different standard?
Some will argue that commercial software by virtue of funding that could amount to billions of dollars in some cases has such a huge advantage that open source software should be given a free pass or at least held to a lower standard. After all, it needs every advantage it can get right?
My opinion is that the opposite is true: the cost structure of most open source software is, well, zero. Put up a Website, register a domain name, host some forums and host a source control repository and, unless you’re wildly successful, you’re spending maybe $300 a year. Users debug your software for you. Programmers volunteer their time.
How can a commercial software vendor possibly compete with that after they pay for programmers, office space, hardware, internet connections, office staff, sales, marketing, accounting, compliance and so on? In some cases—most notably Windows—the vendor is so entrenched that it constitutes a virtual if not actual monopoly.
But in many other cases, such as databases, commercial vendors continue to exist because they produce a better product (than say MySQL). Oracle is expensive and that cost is certainly not justifiable in many business models. Nor is it’s feature set or performance benefit applicable in all circumstances. But whatever the case, Oracle is clearly better than MySQL and to argue otherwise is naive, ignorant or both.
So with so many advantages shouldn’t we hold open source to the same standard (if not a higher standard)?
Of Female Programmers and Open Source
And at last I return to the original point.
The danger of holding open source projects to a lower standard is that you will end up with a bunch of mediocre (if not outright terrible) projects. And to be perfectly blunt, this is exactly what has happened to a large number of Apache projects.
The documentation of many Apache projects is beyond woeful, even for (allegedly) mature and popular frameworks like log4j. I can understand this because it’s hard enough to get people to write documentation when it’s their job let alone when they’re volunteering. But it’s just not good enough.
Taken to extremes, a different standard has crossed the line from advocacy to pandering.
Let products—irrespective of their source—stand on their merits and let the chips fall where they may.
If you hold something to a higher standard you will get a better product.
Ultimately, after having given it some thought, I am unrepentantly unapologetic about my criticisms of Spring Batch. If I’d made some factual error, that’s one thing. That’s my opinion and you can do with that what you wish whether you agree with my opinion or not.
I post what I believe other developers would want to know and should know about Spring Batch before plunging in.
I say this all due respect to Dave and the other team members of Spring Batch. I really do appreciate their efforts but the problems I’ve raised are in some cases fundamental to the overall design. These are things that are not going to be fixed or changed in any kind of useful time frame if they are even fixed or changed at all.
Whether or not anyone has the right to criticize open source is an irrelevant distraction. The legitimacy and accuracy of those complaints is paramount.