Apache: 'No jerks allowed'

Open source is becoming an increasingly mainstream way to develop software, but the Apache Software Foundation may have cornered the market on doing it jerk-free.

Justin Erenkrantz, President, Apache Software Foundation Matt Asay/CNET

There's something different about the Apache Software Foundation. While Apache hosts some of the world's most important software development, its members seem more concerned with good code than good politics.

It's no secret that I've become enamored lately with the Apache License, but it's less well-known what first attracted me to the license: the wonderfully nice people affiliated with Apache. From Greg Stein to Geir Magnusson to Brian Behlendorf, it's hard to find a jerk at Apache. I'm sure they exist, but they hide pretty well.

In fact, in a presentation today I attended at SAP in Walldorf, Germany, Apache Software Foundation President Justin Erenkrantz called out the importance of good manners to good governance at Apache:

There are going to be people on an open mailing list who are idiots, or maybe they're just having a bad day. Don't feed the trolls. Don't become a poisonous person.

It seems like reasonable advice, but it's discouraging to see this basic rule of polite society regularly broken within the wider open-source community. Some feel that a license to code is a license to shout others down. It's not. At least, not at Apache.

Perhaps this is particularly important to Apache because of the way it manages project development. It's one thing to be open source but, as I've written recently and as Erenkrantz highlighted in his presentation, open source doesn't necessarily equate to real openness:

You see a lot of people doing open source, but not a lot of people doing open development...At some open-source projects [Erenkrantz mentioned Mozilla], all of the technical decisions, even if the license is open source, are not subject to public comment. At Apache, everything is done in the open over public forums.

Or, as Day Software's Roy Fielding says, "If it doesn't happen on-list, it didn't happen."

Such transparent development creates great software, given that it fosters a true meritocracy. You know exactly who's doing what at Apache: it's all on the mailing lists.

Erenkrantz also noted a few other interesting aspects of Apache:

  • Each Apache project is independent, which means that status on one Apache project is not fungible to another Apache project. I can be a core committer on the Apache HTTP project and it won't get me any brownie points with the Apache Cocoon project.
  • Microsoft was a sponsor before it was a contributor. Its sponsorship was meant to send a message to Microsoft internally that it was OK to contribute to Apache projects.
  • Erenkrantz stressed that Apache developers tend to believe that code, not licensing, should motivate contributions. Apache doesn't believe in forcing contributions through licensing or other mechanisms.

It's a great way to do development and, as Day Software and other companies have discovered, it's also a great way to do business. Open-source development, done openly.

And no jerks allowed.

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