Does transparency really have to start on day 1?

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.

Linus_Torvalds.jpegBut what does that really mean?

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.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


3 thoughts on “Does transparency really have to start on day 1?

  1. Transparency just happens–> there is no start and no end. As long as the infrastructure in the project supports a crediting mechanism it will be built upon if it is worth it. Best to not think about pop culture and, as you say, execute.

    Posted by Mike Hideo | September 16, 2009, 10:25 pm
    • Hi Michael, thanks! Interesting way of looking at it. I guess if you think about it that way, it’s not really an issue whether the project is transparent or not until someone wants to look at it. But at the point when someone does, it had better be ready to be completely open. If it is ready when people come calling then, as you say, transparency happens…

      Posted by cdgrams | September 17, 2009, 6:45 am
  2. Chris, I think a key part that isn’t specifically mentioned is to default to open. Successful adventures that use open source values provide people interested in participating the ability to go back and see all the work/ideas/failures/successes that had been done before they arrived.

    One of the other things to consider is to frame it like an invitation to the party. You can be transparent to the people that are part of the inner circle, then that circle expands and ideas are formulated and flushed out. The circle of trust and transparency grows organically as the direction and goals become clearer and you have something for people to get behind.

    Posted by Shibby | September 17, 2009, 11:59 am

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