Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Geek Wednesday: Lessons From A (Really) Free Press

I really like reading the geek news, mostly because geeks don't have time or patience for the customary journalistic lap dance that goes on in the MSM. So let's lead off Geek Wednesday with a report on the Foley scandal from a C-Net reporter, Declan McCullagh:

Foley, a Republican who represented the area near Palm Beach, Fla., had spearheaded a legislative crackdown on Internet sites that post provocative photographs of teenage and preteen youth. He had pushed to open FBI databases to track sex offenders. He tried to force sexually explicit Web sites to label themselves accordingly.
Those public stances, coupled with Foley's strident denunciations of adults who prey on America's youth, further fueled the political hurricane surrounding his resignation just five weeks before the November elections. They also pose the troubling question of how a self-proclaimed Internet decency defender--if the leaked e-mail and chat transcripts are accurate--could be the very sort of person he claimed to despise.

Be sure to read the rest of McCullagh's report, because this is a journalist who obviously doesn't care whether he'll lose his front row seat on Air Force One just because he chooses to tell the truth and tell it straight up. The article also includes a link to the email transcripts that reveal what a massive, swollen asshole this guy Foley really is.

The geeks news sites have been pretty busy lately with some very serious stories—I mean more serious than the latest patch for IE or newly released gear and gadgets. For instance, there has been the HP press-snooping "pretexting" scandal. C-Net's got video of the Congressional grilling of CEO Hurd, here. And since it was one of their own reporters who got tapped, they've come through with what may be the most thorough coverage of the entire scandal, probably anywhere in the media.

Another reason I follow the geek media and write this Geek Wednesday column is because, although I am decidedly not a geek, I do work in IT. Every day, I see first hand the range and severity of things-that-can-go-wrong with technology, as well as the extraordinary effort and resources required to keep it all humming.

In a big enterprise setting like the one where I work, geeks labor continually to keep servers alive and awake; application code free of corruption; websites up; and complaints down. It is a constant process of developing, testing, debugging, and maintenance. We're supposed to follow all sorts of deeply articulated technical processes like IBM's RUP and ISO-9000, but when there's a fire under your tail and the big bosses are jumping and screaming and pounding tables like underfed apes, you tend to toss some shortcuts into those processes and procedures.

That's one reason why the office was filled with laughter when I sent this story around: "IT industry has 'cleverer' managers." Their metric for "cleverer" consists of "higher level qualifications, such as a degree."

Believe me, folks: I sit in meeting rooms with IT managers every day, and I wouldn't follow most of them out of a burning building.

That's why it's interesting to note how really good software is usually developed and supported. It's less about good management than it is about community; more about real teamwork than good direction.

Case in point: Apple's OS X Tiger operating system, which just received its latest update (consisting mostly of security updates and bug fixes, but also a few performance enhancements). I installed 10.4.8 over the weekend without a hitch; and as always, it required only one restart to settle in (I hear the Intel Mac crowd needed two, but that's what you get when you have a machine that can run Windows). The point here, though, is that Apple's OS updates are tested and debugged by a community of developers. I'm sure there's managers in the background, keeping project plans, watching release dates, and monitoring resources and reports; but the bulk of the work is done amid that community, just as development on the open source model for products like Mozilla's Firefox and the Linux OS is done. It's a model that our pitiful government in Washington (and elsewhere) might benefit from studying.

And it doesn't hurt that the IT world is itself monitored by a geek press that is truly free. Our mainstream media would have a few lessons to learn from these guys. Check out The Inquirer sometime. Here's one of their lead stories this week: it's straight out of the Denny Hastert playbook. Sony knew about the exploding laptop batts a year ago.

Note that there is no accompanying Rush Limbaugh style exoneration ("those batteries were having a good time—it was all consensual"; "they were just letting off some steam, like batteries in a free nation will..."). It's just the facts, ma'am, with no dressing.

Don't get me wrong: IT can be a real pain in the ass sometime. In addition to those apish managers, there's the blue screen of death and compatibility headaches; servers and routers straight off the set of The Glass Menagerie; Internet Explorer and zero-day security flaws; hot batteries and broken fans (note to the youth of America: if you're looking for two booming areas in which to hone your IT skills and build your fortune, remember my words: security and temperature control).

But IT is a community-driven, heady, active, spirited, and often intriguing world; where Apple hardware and operating systems provide stability and ease of use, while Google offers reliability to those stuck in Windows purgatory. It should only get better for these two, with the completion of the Intel transition in Cupertino and the Google purchase of more great software and an old garage in Menlo Park.


Miss Bitty said...

Your point about the open source model being applicable in more areas than just technology is so dead on. (Side note: I'm involved in voting reform and one of the big pushes in that movement is for open source software in voting and tabulation machines.)

It reminds me of a conversation I had wiht my boss (president of the company) last year when I proposed switching our office entirely to open source applications. I spent a huge amount of time compiling the info, working up estimated learning curves, potential savings both primary and secondary...the works. Put this all together with a summary in layman's terms he could understand.

He loved it. Totally on board and especially enticed by the possibility of seeing one of our biggest expenses (software purchase & compliance) eliminated. Then he asked me, " do they make their money?"

I explained the whole open source philosophy and even brought in a friend who's deeply involved in the open source movement here in Portland to help me explain it. It was honestly like we were talking Greek to him. He simply could not get past the idea that open source doesn't work on the mentality that everyone's out for themselves and/or that the whole purpose for doing _anything_ is to make money. And he's actually a very ethical guy, he just could not fathom that people there would be any bigger motivator than massive profit.

One of the most clarifying moments I've ever had of the divide between what I believe and what "they" believe.

Brian Donohue said...

Hey Miss B., that proposal of yours could find a second life as an article or blog post (hell, I'd publish it!). There's lots of folks out there who have the same level of mystification over Open Source as your boss did. So consider recycling that proposal and the explanation you gave your boss--it may well deserve a larger audience.