Daily Archives: October 18, 2006

Which side of the firewall are you on? If you are on the inside then you are on the wrong side.

This post is for folks who work for companies and large corporations that have a firewall, a wall that separates work within the firewall from work outside the firewall.

Just under a year ago some folks from IBM’s Corporate Community Relations (CCR) team came to the IBM group that manages IBM’s open-source activities, a group of which I am a part, with a simple idea:

How can we enlist IBMers with open-source skills to use those skills to help projects such as Sahana, an open-source project created in response to the 2004 Asian Tsunami to support disaster relief? This is a project where IBM’s Crisis Management Team helped on initial design, but can we do better?

I was absolutely blown away by this idea — it was that compelling –: using open-source technology to make the world better. Indeed, looking back, it set me on the course that will guide my voluntary open-source activities for the rest of my life, and also on a course where so long as I work for IBM I will try to encourage IBM to support such activities.

The single most striking fact of this suggestion is that it came not from IBM’s technical or business folks, but from the folks responsible for honoring IBM’s commitment to be a responsible corporation, a commitment first expressed by T.J. Watson almost a century ago.

I won’t go into all the history now, though if time permits I will provide more context in the future, but suffice it to say that a small group formed and that group worked entirely inside the IBM firewall until a month ago. Our great concern was that the idea was so compelling that if we asked IBMer’s to volunteer without adequate backing, then we would have squandered the opportunity, mainly because we knew IBM had hundreds (thousands?) of employeer with open-source skills, and that even a hint that IBM would encourage their volunteer efforts would result in a flood of volunteers we couldn’t properly handle.

By August I realized we weren’t making much progress, so I used IBM’s internal “Open Source Bazaar” (IIOSB) to create a mail list, and I also started a wiki to provide content.

This wasn’t very successful, and so just over a month ago I decided to venture outside the firewall, start blogging, and see what I could accomplish.

The results have been striking, if only to me. I have come to realize that to work on open-source you must work outside the firewall, as part of the open-source community. The experience has been invigorating, and most instructive. To work within the firewall is to work under corporate rules, and no matter how well-intentioned those rules are, you will miss the feedback from the world at large.

This is true in the context of blogging, even if you know you have almost no readers and thus are “laboring in obscurity.”For example, my wife Karin, noticing my intense blogging activity, asked why I was doing it. I said I found it useful even though at most ten or twenty folks were reading each new post. She suggested I wrote only for myself, saving my posts on the disk of my laptop.

However, to write in anonymity is not the same as writing on the internet. I have come to learn that even if you know only a handful of folks are reading your work, the knowledge that you don’t yet know these folks gives your an incentive, an edge that makes you want to offer your best, in a way that simply wouldn’t happen if you write in the knowledge that only you, and the folks you chose to invte into your circle, are aware of the writing.

I have also come to appreciate that blogging outside the firewall can be a very valuable experience. Even if no one reads your posts, you will learn something about yourself by your writing. To blog outside the firewall, if you take it seriously, is to take first steps in finding your own voice.

Finding your own voice is especially important if you are, as I am, someone who has a deep commitment to open-source while having a job inside a corporate firewall. The nature of my job is such that some may think I am speaking on behalf of IBM, but I have found that if you enage in intense writing, the kind of writing that reflects what you really think, then you can speak on your own, and in doing so can express opinions you think important.

It also helps if in your blogging you try to push the envelope, to write in a way so far-out that no one can think your writing reflects the views of your employer. You want to push the envelope so you can learn more about yourself; to be effective you must take risks in your writing, as only by doing so can you find your voice.

On child’s play on the Internet: Tag, you’re it! Don’t hide, so others can seek.

I am a novice to this world of blogging and social networking. But I have learned a few things, most of them from observing the blogging behavior of Steve O’Grady of Redmonk.

I have followed only a handful of blogs for some time: Steve’s blog: tecosystems, James Governor’s MonkChips, Bob Sutor’s Open Blog, and Glynn Moody’s blog. Let me explain why:

  • I follow Steve’s blog not because I agree with it, but because his writings make me think. Also, he is an open-source developer because he runs Gentoo, and anyone who does that qualifies as an open-source developer.[1]
  • I follow James’s blog (James is a colleague of Steve’s) because anyone who has a special interest in mainframes has a special place in my heart.
  • I follow Bob’s blog because as he is the senior exec on IBM’s Open Source Steering Committee, of which I am a part. But more importantly, because he clearly has put a great effort into learning how to blog effectively.
  • I follow Glynn’s blog in part because he is the author of “Rebel Code,” a book about the origins open-source and as it happens he interviewed me when he wrote that book, and his report on the Jikes experience can be found on page 209 of so. He is also a professional journalist, as shown by the quality of his writing.

I must confess that when I first started reading Steve’s blog I was put off by the constant name-dropping, text of the form “as so-and-so said” with a link to so-and-so’s blog post. This reminded me of those days we all went through in high school when one’s identify was defined by one’s friends. However, I have come to realize this is just the behavior one should expect from someone who follows the open-source rules: give credit where credit is due.

I also guessed — and my recent blogging experience has confirmed — that serious blogging is a serious activity. You can’t get away with a few short posts every day. You have to commit to it, and be willing to expose your soul so you can develop your own voice. Blogging is not child’s play.

However, two of the games we all played as children provide useful lessons for effective blogging.

First, “Tag, you’re it.” I didn’t grok del.icio.us other than to think it was a website with a very cute name; indeed, a name that was the kind of pun I so love.

However, “delicious” is delicious indeed. It is a key technology, one you should understand and start to use as soon as possible.

Simply put, “delicious” lets you record in a very public way the internet posts and articles that you find interesting. Now I’ve been doing this for several years. When I first started my current job as part of the group that manages IBM’s open-source activities I began to keep a single HTML page that recorded articles I found of interest. I recorded the URL, the title, and usually selected excerpts from the text. From time to time I added editorial comments in italics to record my personal view of the text. I started a new page with each new year, so I have pages for 2003, 2004, and 2005.

About a year or so ago I learned of an IBM-internal tool called “dogear.” It provides a Firefox extension that lets you capture the URL, add a comment, and also record some “tags.” I then stopped keeping a single HTML page and just used dogear, though I focused more on the comments than on the tags.

I have come to realize the tags, not the comments, are the important part. And that is because “delicious” captures than notion so deliciously. To be an effective user of “delicious” you must be a good tagger. Your skills at tagging help define your internet identity. If you are good at it, others will become part of your “social network”. Indeed, “delicious” has a notion of “network” that captures this concept very effectively, and in a way that makes it easy to assign tags.

However, tags do have their problems. My primary interest is “open source” so I first started tagging entries with “open source.” However, that is just the juxtaposition of two words; it is not unique. So then I realized “open-source” was a better tag. You want tags to be identifiable, to be unique, so there is no doubt what you mean.

I blog using Word Press (WP), which uses the notion of “category,” not tag. WP is interesting to use it you are but one of about 400,000 bloggers, and so you should use the tags defined by that community. But if you try to be too specific then you wind up defining lots of categories, which tends to clog up your home page.

The approach I currently use is to use a small number of categories. However, I am more expansive when I tag on “delicious,” where I try to use tags of the form of a list of words separated by dashes. For example, “open-source,” “open-education,” “open-source-volunteers,” and so forth.

The great advantage of “dashed tags” is that can be searched for by using search engines such as Google.

And this leads to what I think is a very useful approach, namely how to “brand” your posts.

As I have mentioned elsewhere (link TBSL), a key benefit of using the name “jikes” for the java-source-to-bytecode compiler than Philippe Charles and I wrote is that to search for “jikes” was to learn what the world thought of us. No one else was using “jikes,” except for a very small population that saw “jikes” as a variant of “yikes.”

Branding is key. You don’t want to use a name already in use, as to do so is to hide your use of that name on the internet. To use a name for your product that has another meaning may be cute, but is also ineffective; to do so is to hide your name so that whose seek its use will get false hits. For example, when I first engaged in the world of “java” I subscribed to an internal IBM tool that searched for documents of interest to me by my specifying key words. So I specified “java” and soon found myself receving as many articles about Sun’s Java language as I did about the island in Indonesia!

So to be effective you need a name or tag that not hidden, something that is unique and so has no other purpose. If you do this you can create your own brand.

This is why you will find almost all my blog posts are tagged with “open-source-twit.” I’m not trying to be cute — I could care less. What I wanted was a string with the property that when I first searched for it using Google there were no hits, and “open-source-twit” filled the bill. Calling it “The Wayward Internet Techologists” is just a pun, having fun while preserving my brand. But fun is important when doing open-source — if you aren’t having fun then something is wrong.

A corollary of this is that acronyms should be avoided. For example, I have written hundreds of e-mails within the IBM firewall assuming the reader knew that “OSS” stands for “Open Source Software,” of else started an email with wording of the form “Open Source Software (OSS)” and then using OSS in the rest of the e-mail. This works inside the firewall, but is ineffective outside the firewall. That is why I have gone back over all the earlier posts on this blog and systematically replaced “OSS” with “open-source-software.”

This also explains why I now write “open-source” instead of “open source” or “OSS.” You need to use those dashes, to rise from ambiguity.

Postscript (10-18-2006): Steve O’Grady noticed an interesting story, School bans tag, other chase games, about the banning by a school in Massachusetts because tag was deemed to dangerous. But playing these games on the internet is certainly safer, and much more education. Why note teach the kids about del.icio.us so they can learn about the internet? Indeed, why not get some open-source into some schools in Massachusetts so the kids can learn to use open document formats?


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