Daily Archives: March 9, 2009

The Open Source Community, the Worldwide Academy of Programming, Does Not Discriminate

Several institutions have played a key role in my life:

  • Boy Scouts of America (BSA)
  • California Institute of Technology (CIT)
  • United States Air Force (USAF)
  • Nationial Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences (CIMS), New York University
  • IBM Research (RES)
  • the worldwide Academy of Programming (AOP), also known as the Open Source Community (OSS)

When I joined them they shared the following properties:

  • They were predominantly male, some entirely so: BSA, CIT and USAF
  • They were predominantly white

They were also, at least when I joined them, not widely perceived as being discriminatory, even though most members where white males. I think only one is now blatantly discriminatory. This has been sadly been the case for the BSA for at least a decade, as they have sought to make homophobia one of their core values. [1]

I joined CIT and USAF at the age of 19. I worked at the US Air Force Weapons Lab (AWFL) during all my summers in college. [2] It was at these two institutions that I learned first-hand the corrosive effect of all-male societies. Such a society relentlessly drives the level of language and of shared values to the lower possible level.

All these groups save BSA now have women members, albeit fewer than one would hope, so there has been progress on that front.

I attended a summer program sponsored by NASA in 1965. Though the engineers and astronauts were almost all males. I would consider it a personal favor if someone could assist me in preparing a list of all the women who have worked worked at one of the consoles in the Mission Control Room of the Johnson Space Center, to produce a page that can be found just by searching on “women who have worked in the mission control room / flight control center of the Johnson Space Center.”

Of only one group can I truly say that it does not have discriminate.

That would be the Open Source Community, the worldwide community of programmers and others who have created what I call the “Open Source Artifact,” an outstanding collection of software resulting from decades of open collaboration. All of it is available at no cost, and I can think of no other community, save science or medicine, that has made such a contribution.

Indeed, though we in the Open Source Community speak of ourselves as a “community,” to me it is an institution, the world’s Academy of Programming (AOP). Back in 1998 I gave a talk to the New York Linux Users Group (NYLUG) in which I described open-source as the application of the scientific method to programming, so that the leading programmers thus constituted an academy of science. Membership in the academy came only to those who demonstrated their skills, published all their work in the open, with the most recognition being given to those who first published a significant new contribution, and there was an expectation that the more experienced members would strive to pass their skills on to their younger colleagues.

Linus has written on open-source and the scientific method, and I’m sure he made this connection long before I did so.

AOP does not discriminate against age. The best programmers, as is the case for mathematicians and musicians, usually show their skills at a very young age. For example, Marcelo Tossatti became the maintainer of the 2.4, “stable,” Linux kernel when he was 18. I started work on Jikes when I was in my 50’s and that work achieved some recognition. No one who read the code knew my age.

AOP does not discriminate against race. Philippe Charles, the co-author of Jikes, is black. He was born in Haiti and his family moved to Brooklyn when he was about ten. He often said that the best thing about the internet, which itself is the major accomplishment of the AOP, was that it was anonymous. No one who came on your work via the internet could know you race unless you advertised it, so your work could be judged on its merit, not your race, age, sex, or religion.

AOP does not discriminate against religion, national origin, or location. Marcello did his work on 2.4 in Brazil.

AOP does not discriminate on education, or the lack thereof. Linus began Linux while an undergraduate. High school students have won the ACM wordwide programming contest.

This lack of discrimination has not come about by accident, but by design. AOP is a meritocracy — members are judged solely by their programming skills. Nothing else matters.


1. My son, Rabbi Michael Shields, was an Eagle Scout before the age of 15. Most of the few scouts who achieve this rank do so just before they turn 18, the limit for becoming an Eagle Scout. Michael thus spent three years active in the troop as a leader, and it was during this time that I came to appreciate his great leadership skills.

He thought of returning his Eagle Scout badge when he learned of the BSA’s homophobia, but he decided to keep it since the Westchester Council of BSA opposed the national BSA leadership.

My resentment of the BSA leadership was only increased on learning that I have the same surname as their chief spokesperson.

2. I was first exposed to computers when a member of an Explorer post that met at Kirtland Air Force Base (KAFB) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my home town. When I returned home after my freshman year at Caltech, I spent a week or two looking for a job, without success. I then called Mr. Frank Tomaszewski, the scoutmaster of the Explorer Post. He worked in the personel office at KAFB, and it was through his help that I got the job at AFWL.

The job paid well, and it was because of it that I became self-sufficient when I was 19. I had a full scholarship to Caltech. The money I saved from the summer work at AFWL, along with the income I earned as a waiter in Caltech’s faculty club, the Athaneum, as well as other part-time jobs.

I severed many famous people while a waiter at the Athaneum. I once served lunch to five Nobel Laureates in Physics. I served dinner many a weekend to Don Knuth, while was writing the first volume of the Art of Programming. I once served dinner to Edward Taylor, Robert Oppenheimer’s nemesis. Taylor ate alone. I took a history course at Caltech based on the Oppenheimer affair, and I understood why Taylor ate alone. The affair divided the physics community, especially in California. I was told that Robert Christy, Caltech physicist and provost, though once a close friend of Taylor, never spoke to him after Taylor testif against Oppenheimer.

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