In Praise of Gives-a-Damn

Thank God I came up in the Austin startup scene. In Austin, one of the time-tested nuggets of folk wisdom in my set was:

“Nobody gives a damn about your stupid fucking idea.”

The point of this delightfully profane little quip wasn’t that anybody’s idea was actually stupid. Sure, many assuredly were. Doomed, flawed, broken, bunk. And that was surprisingly okay. Rather, the point was that precious-idea thinking — that you should keep what you have close to your chest, withhold details, and play for secrets — was pig-ignorant. If you really cared about a problem, cared about it more than dim prospects for veneration as an “ideas guy”, then precious-ideas instincts had to die. Killing them took shock and repetition. A mantra. So we had one.

Partly, it was about finding what was available in the community, and evading the strains of insanity and inanity that fester in isolation. But on a broader and more personal level, it was about accepting that the mere fact that you cared, the fact that you were willing to do more than muse, and actually work on a problem with slim prospects, fundamentally set you apart on it. Ideas are cheap. People come up with them, accidentally, all the time. You can accrue all kinds of shallow plaudits merely associating yourself with them in conversation. But ideas run only when motivated hunters give chase. Interest and motivation to pursue, over flat field and towering setbacks, rank desperately precious. Each one of us has only so much to give.

Even if you convince some other, more capable, better funded, longer experienced person that your idea is gold, they probably won’t give a damn. If they do give a damn, the best, most obvious thing for them to do is team with you, or buy in with what you need, or try again when you’ve failed, and bring you on in turn. Because gives-a-damn is the most potent stuff on Earth against hard problems. You can’t buy, salary, option, or bribe gives-a-damn in anything like pure form. Even if you can inspire it — a rare and crucial talent — it tends to effervescence.

Surviving an idea through to any definition of success, even an inherently good idea, is difficult, by odds a pretty sure losing proposition. You need all the puissant, lasting gives-a-damn you can get. Gives-a-damn that’s damn hard to find. So hard, in fact, that you will die of thirst for it before you find anyone dumb enough to “steal” an idea that they clearly don’t care about as much as you do.

I give a damn about Open Source software and freewheeling, independent Open Source people. I can’t help it. Life would be easier if I could.

Easier, but not better. By definition, indie Open Source instigators hold give-a-damn in spades. With freakish, tragically rare exception, there’s no motivation in early, independent Open Source software but intrinsic motivation. You care about the problem. You feel the pain. You see the beauty. You labor under some compelling conviction about how to tackle the problem. You tackle it. The struggle goes to the ground, and you stay in the ruckus. To anyone who can get past the technical details, to the gives-a-damn, all this makes for intoxicating company.

You scavenge, you build, you speculate, and somehow, what you come up with — often one of a number of less well fated, speculative experiments— weathers the storm. Other than in-kind, no spontaneous shower of support is forthcoming. You’re “bootstrapping”, if that lingo matters to you. And miraculously, others come to take refuge in the ramshackle box you’ve managed to half-build for yourself. A few see it as you do, for what it could be, not for the preliminary hack that it is. It becomes essential to their point of view, a high water mark from which they can’t recede indifferently when tackling the problems about which they give a damn. Your shed becomes a rampart, a home, a castle, a port of embarkation. You’re no longer alone.

There’s a narrative of Open Source that says burnout, and maintainer turnover, are natural, even optimal, at this stage. That the political science of maintainer succession is where the real work in Open Source remains to be done, as the first-generation BDFLs come to the end of their time. That the spark that starts a project, and finds a new way through a fundamental inadequacy, bright and incendiary, belongs at the beginning, and should give way to smoldering, maintenance-mode subs when the first bright flash has given its light. In other words, that like a meteoric, early-stage CEO, a maintainer should give way to a seasoned, conservative surrogate once their handiwork has taken, become “sustainable”. Make an occasional appearance, sure, to rally a hint of the gives-a-damn in followers-on who mostly don’t. Cast an aura and provide existence proof of an elevator to acclaim. But under no circumstance destabilize a project that can make way under its own power. Even if the project itself becomes font of new, visceral, fundamental inadequacies that you’d risk bravely, again, knowing what that costs, to redress.

In the startup frame, from the investor — pardon, fiduciary — point of view, this is all very natural and just. Business is the metaphor for everything. So replace the startup CEO with a public-company exec, a specialist. The atmospherics are ethically neutral: sustainability and success mark the point at which founders become paper-rich, whether they’re kept around to tend or not. Ouster causes immediate separation pain, but in time, withdrawal and betrayal yield to science and the ample, numbing entertainments that material fortune and status readily provide. CEO 0.0.1 will have the means, the stable base, to run off and “disrupt” someone else’s orderly commercial process, if their fire still burns to do so. Maybe they’ll just chill out for the first time in a long time.

But that’s not Open Source. Built work in Open Source costs and earns nothing, directly. If you’re not involved in ongoing work and service, you’re not directly involved in whatever benefits flow from it. Materially, it doesn’t compare to private-business structure optimized for cash flow, but it can be something. Immaterially, there’s traction on the problem. Which is potentially priceless to the weirdo who gave enough damn to start from zero in the first place. Which would explain why you “invested” so much building in what was wilderness at the time.

Open Source, as a community and as a system, ought to encourage, preserve, and reward gives-a-damn. It ought to respect the special position from which inspired instigators can stand and declare that a project is done, or a mistake in clear hindsight, or yes, even worth maintaining, guiding, and expanding long-term. To protest when tools, expectations, and culture threaten to stifle sparks like their own, and reduce Open Source to a procedurally refined form of enterprise engineering, building four-stories where there are two-stories, instead of pushing the frontier. To cry foul when beauty, correctness, and efficiency give way to a transactional, expedient ethic of useful-today-for-tomorrow, and everyone on the conference call seems to nod in unison toward their phones, as if to confirm that’s okay.

Giving a damn about software is weird. Open Source is the closest thing to a homeland that kind of weird has got. So keep Open Source weird. If we still can.