What The Perl Community Needs Is a Good Enema

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Nat Torkington
Jun. 18, 2004 07:28 AM
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Life is change: it's natural for people to get a life, stop their work on a software project, and for new people to take their place. Not everyone realizes this, and in a lot of companies and open source projects I see people staying on in positions of responsibility past the time when they actually do stuff. I did this, some of my friends have done this, some of my friends continue to do this.

I decided to bring this problem into the open at YAPC 2004. Without naming names, I offered my take on the situation. I hope you like it.

--Nat

What The Perl Community Needs Is a Good Enema

YAPC::America 2004

I only have five minutes, so let me quickly say what this talk isn't:
  • Not "Perl 6 Sucks". I think it's premature to crap on something you can't download. It's like complaining about the loud noise that your faster than light drive makes. They don't exist! How can you complain about something that doesn't exist?! Sorry.
  • Not "You Suck" to some people out there. I name no names but my own. Well, and Uri's and Chip's, but I asked them first.
  • Not "Perl Sucks". I love Perl; I program in nothing else.
With that out of the way, let me show you what the problem is with a little story: It's May, and time to figure out who TPF should give White Camel awards to. This should be easy: Gather the past recipients, draw up a list of names, vote. But it's not that easy. Let me paraphrase:
  • "What's our charter?"
  • "You can't give it to famous people! "
  • "You can't give it for writing code!"
  • "That's not written down in the guidelines!"
  • "It must be nice to just make up the rules as you go along!"
  • Inevitably: "I quit!"
  • In the end, FEWER PEOPLE VOTED THAN ARGUED.
That's the problem I see: it's hard to do stuff because there are a lot of people in the way. Some would rather debate process and groundrules. Some find flaws in everything. Well, okay, fair enough: reality checks and structure are useful in small doses. But often the right thing to do is to just do something, even if it's not perfect. All the nay-saying does is prevent anything from happening.

Alternatively, you get people signing up for a job and then they don't do it. Or they slowly stop doing a job they could do before. To get anything done, you have to route around them. Hey, sometimes real life intervenes: kids, job, whatever. That was me, I've been guilty of that. Hi, my name is Nathan and I finally made someone else the director of The Perl Foundation. Some people just seem to want a job title, but they are incapable of doing the work that comes with the title. However it happens, people in "power" stand in the way of action.

I've been there, and in fact a lot of the constipators are people like me, people I've known for years. Basically, I think a lot of our cabal has passed their use-by date. Most don't actually do anything now but obstruct.

You know the Cabal: we wrote books, we built websites, we ran groups, we wrote modules. They were good, we became famous. (relatively speaking) We put each other on projects and committees, and you figured you should listen to what we said, because we're on projects and committees and we did write that great module in '98 ... Well, now you can't get rid of us. We are Nosferatu, das wampyr, the undead: we cannot be killed. I don't like that metaphor of crusty old life-suckers, even though it has a Buffy tie-in and I would sell Uri's left nut for a minute with Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Not all Oldbies are problems. Let me give you two counterexamples: A certain Journal publisher just went quietly into that good night--he's not chairing a committee or moderating a mailing list and squelching other people's ideas. A trainer I could name with a colourful criminal record, someone you might have heard of, has stayed interested and involved but he hasn't made himself the central point of failure for anything in the last five years. These are Good Oldbies. Good Oldbie, have a Scooby snack!

Sometimes our experience does matter. Please listen to Chip if you're thinking about writing anything in C++! Let his screams of pain guide you. The trick is to know when to ignore us.

We're like parents. Actually I am a parent. I tell my kids "no" all the time for life and death reasons: don't run into the road, don't run by the pool, don't lick the power outlets. But I also say "no" when it's not life or death: you can't drink coffee, don't say "goddamn" at playgroup, leave your friends' genitals alone. The time will come when my kids will outgrow blind respect for my advice; a time when they can judge for themselves and say "he's right about the traffic thing, but goddamn there's nothing like a cuppajoe after a good hard shag!" (hopefully this will come after they leave playgroup)

Just for the record, not all problems are caused by oldbies. It's anyone who says "you should ..." or "why don't you ..." without ever doing anything themselves. Perl 6 brought a league of brand new nutters out of the woodwork, arguing endlessly about bloody punctuation! You've probably heard of Larry's First Law of Language Redesign: Everyone wants the Colon. Nat's Corollary: That's because most of them are just arseholes. (cheap shot)

So what's the solution? Change is up to you. Just because a person did something in the past doesn't mean they can now hang around doing nothing, obstructing other people. Depose the ineffective if they won't go quietly. Listen to people who do the work, they're often not the people who say the most. Become the people who do the work. You can all code, you're all reasonable people (well, I see Uri's here: most of you are reasonable people).

You could redesign one of our crappy websites.

You could decide who gets grants from The Perl Foundation.

You could maintain perl.org.

You could be pumpking.

You all can be the community rewrite of the Perl community.

Well, that's what I say. You don't have to listen to me. I'm just an oldbie, standing between you and dinner.

Good night.

Nat Torkington is conference planner for the Open Source Convention, OSCON Europe, and other O'Reilly conferences. He was project manager for Perl 6, is on the board of The Perl Foundation, and is a frequent speaker on open source topics. He cowrote the bestselling Perl Cookbook.

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