Replacing ESR is the Wrong Goal

29 March 1999
Eric W. Sink
Software Craftsman

In Eric Raymond's recent memo, "Take My Job, Please!", he employs his usual level of eloquence to reveal that he is near burnout, begging for someone of similar stature to replace him as a leader in the Open Source movement. Although his words are thought-provoking, they will not yield the replacement he seeks. This response explains why.

First, let me applaud Eric's service to the community. I believe ESR has filled an invaluable role over the last year or so. His estimation of the condition of the Open Source movement has been accurate and he communicates it extremely well. The world needed ESR, and he filled that need. If he were not available to do so, no one else would have stepped up to fill that void. Rather, the community would have taken a different course. Perhaps this course would have been only slightly different, but there is no question that ESR has affected Open Source.

And, there is no question that Open Source has affected ESR. Life is short, and Eric should be given the grace to choose his priorities. If Eric wants his life back, I strongly believe we should respect that.

Qualifications of an ESR Clone

So, Eric wants to step down, and he's seeking a replacement. His memo offers a list of qualifications which any would-be leader should read carefully. In fact, I agree with his list -- to be a leader in Open Source, you'll need most or all of the attributes he mentions. However, the list actually looks like a list of his qualifications, presumably predicated on the notion that the best replacement for ESR would actually involve human cloning.

Insofar as this is true, and sprinkled with a little humor, I'd like to offer a few qualifications that I think he missed.

  • You'll need rabid anti-Microsoft opinions, or at least, the ability to pretend like you have them. Eric's message would not be nearly as cool if he weren't always speaking out against Microsoft. At times, he's gotten out of hand, but that's part of what makes him a leader.
  • You need some level of opposition to Richard Stallman. :-) There's no denying it -- the community is divided, and Eric's efforts have helped keep it that way. This is not to say that the division is gratuitous -- there are real issues here. However, if you want to be a replacement for ESR, you need to keep that aspect of his positioning.
  • You need outstanding skills in written communication. Go read CatB again. He's a darn good writer. Make sure that you have similar talents.
  • You need three initials that sound good together. Did you ever notice that the letters 'ESR' just roll off the tongue? Same goes for 'RMS'. I'm pretty sure that this is an important part of what's needed to become an icon in this movement. Unless you have exactly three initials where each initial has a mono-syllabic name, don't even think of trying to replace Eric.

I assert that the union of Eric's stated qualifications and my additions above would yield a nearly bug-compatible replacement for the role ESR plays.

I further assert that this is not what we want.

Qualifications of an Open Source Leader

Just because ESR has done a great job does not mean that we want someone just like him. Are the needs of the Open Source community over the next year the same as they were over the previous year? Eric's contributions are strong because he is a voice, not an echo. Any so-called replacement for him needs the same attribute, even if his/her voice is carrying a somewhat different message. If that message is what the community needs, then people will listen to it, and that person will be a "leader". The key issue deals with leadership, not travel schedule.

As a replacement for Eric's list of qualifications, I offer a single qualification, which is really all that matters:

  • Look behind you. If someone is following you, then you are a leader.

Leadership is always earned, never conferred. To borrow and modify an old aphorism, flying all over the country and doing what ESR does will not make you a leader any more than sitting in a garage will make you a car.

A corollary: Anyone who responds to Eric's memo by applying for "the job" is automatically disqualified.

A second corollary: Eric will not cease to be a leader just because he gets his life back. He's a leader because people are "following" him, and they are doing so out of their own free will. Eric did not force anyone to follow him, and attempts to force them to stop doing so will be futile.

BTW, I suspect that Eric already understands all of the above quite well. :-)

So What do we Need?

With all of that said, I agree that the Open Source community could benefit from some additional leadership. There are lots of challenges worth tackling. Here's one:

Are Open Source and Free Software really that far apart? Who will step up and bring a sense of unity to those two camps? As I said above, there are real issues in play here, and I realize that the players in this battle are acting in a manner which is true to their convictions. However, the whole argument reeks of an inability to identify who the real enemy is. We use religious metaphors, calling ourselves the Open Source "movement", and just like in religious circles, we spend our time focused on our differences rather than emphasizing the issues on which we all agree.

Proprietary or not, good software motivates people to use it. The resulting user base becomes a community. The essence of Open Source and Free Software, in my opinion, is in the proactive choice to serve and to lead that community, rather than to control it.

If you can bring a message worth hearing, and lead the community to solve tough problems like this one, then you can be a leader.

But that doesn't mean you'll replace ESR. No one ever will.

Eric W. Sink is Founder and President of AbiSource, Inc.