Open source folks often talk about transparency as a key part of the open source way. And if you ask most good open source folks when a project should start being open, they’ll say it should be open from the very beginning.
Let’s look at the example of one of the most famous and successful open source projects (and one that is close to my heart), Linux.
Back in January, I wrote a post that broke down the first message Linus Torvalds ever sent out to the world about Linux into some of the key concepts that would become central to the open source way. Linus created a blueprint for the open source culture in the tone of his first email, long before the term “open source” was even coined.
Here again are the first few lines of his initial Linux post from August 25, 1991:
“Hello everybody out there using minix. I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).”
Do you see what I see? Linux had been brewing since April and Linus sent this message out in August. So he actually didn’t open the project up to the world until he was five months into it. Why? Was Linus showing a disregard for transparency? Was he not releasing early and often?
My guess is that he didn’t want to send anything out until he had some basic ideas nailed and kinda knew what he was doing.
If Linus had sent his first message out in April, at the very beginning, it probably would have read something like this:
Hello everyone out there. I’m doing a coding project. I haven’t written any code yet, and I’m not sure exactly what it will do. Anyone in?
Without have a clear vision and goal, it probably would have be difficult to attract people who wanted to help.
So my question is, when should transparency start?
If you are too open too early, you may be accused of hyping vaporware. You may also set yourself up for heavy-handed critique at a point when your project is still too fragile to take it.
Yet if you open up too late, you risk cutting off potential lines of innovation and alienating potential contributors.
So when should transparency start? Honestly, I don’t know… I still struggle with this every day.
I’d love to hear what you think.