WTH? OSS knows how to WFH IRL

If distributed teams could build something as great as Linux, then perhaps working from home could work for you

WTH? OSS knows how to WFH IRL
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For years “that guy” would tell you how much more productive you’d be if you just tried Working From Home™. With many companies now requiring their employees to do so, trying to stem the tide of COVID-19, it’s finally your chance to WFH. However, based on a quick perusal of Twitter… you hate it.

After just a few days at home you’re stir crazy, you’re kid crazy, and you’re making us crazy with your tweets about how great the cookies are that you made (and are wolfing down as a coping mechanism).

But before you consult the Twitter WFH experts, perhaps it’s a good reminder that much of the software you depend upon every single day — some of the world’s most complex and important software — is written by people who (gasp!) do not sit next to each other at work and (double gasp!) most likely don’t even work for the same company.

Yes, I’m talking about open source developers, who invented much of our essential software infrastructure while (yes) WFH. If they can, well, perhaps you can, too? (But, no, none of this will watch your kids for you.) Much of the best and most widely used software we have started with a sometimes grumbly Finn named Linus Torvalds in his fairly pedestrian home office. Want a tour? Knock yourself out.

In the beginning was the Linus

Torvalds may be best known for inventing Linux, but his other innovation — Git, a distributed version control system — is arguably more impressive. Most people will never need to know what Git is, but rest assured, the developers writing the software we use are very familiar with it. Today Git is a “near universal” in development, according to studies compiled by analyst Lawrence Hecht. How “near universal?” Well, Stack Overflow surveys put it at 87 percent in 2018, while JetBrains data has it jumping from 79 percent (2017) to 90 percent (2019) adoption.

Git makes it easy for developers to collaborate on code without interacting with each other “in real life.” Unlike previous version control systems like Subversion, Git stores data as a stream of snapshots, making it similar to a mini file system. It creates a highly local system that allows developers to work offline or off the network, maximizing productivity. Developers submit “pull requests” to alert others to changes that you’ve made to a Git repository (generally accessed on GitHub or GitLab).

It’s a highly efficient way for developers to collaborate, and we only have pale shades of similar tech — like tracked changes in Microsoft Office, Google Docs, Quip, etc. — for the non-developers among us. If only we could get Torvalds to turn his attention to sales and marketing tech…?

What hath Linus wrought?

Git may be the single-best example of why open source development can thrive from home (and corporate) offices everywhere, but Linux arguably is the single-best proof that it works. Over a decade ago, the Linux Foundation estimated Linux to be worth $1.4 billion, and since that time the value (and code base) of Linux has continued to grow. In 2016 one estimate suggested 41,000 person years had gone into Linux development, tallying up to roughly $5 billion in “free” labor. Today Linux is easily worth tens (hundreds?) of billions of dollars, running behind-the-scenes to power much of the web, Android phones, all of the fastest supercomputers, and much more.

Linux is the sort of thing a company would love to own, and yet no particular company contributes more than 11.5 percent of the Linux kernel, according to the most recent data. Depending on how you measure code contributions, no developer is responsible for more than 1.6 percent (changesets) or 3.6 percent (changed lines) in the latest Linux kernel release (5.5).

Sure, many of those contributors get paid to sit in cubicles and write Linux drivers and other code. But for these critical contributors to Linux, exactly none of them would get fired if they decided they’d prefer to WFH — and many of them already do.

A new world of WFH

Which brings us back to you. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Matt Burr and Becca Endicott argue:

It’s very likely that the way we work — at least for some of us — isn’t going to snap back to what it used to be. Chaotic times have a way of reordering reality and, in the process, opening doors to new opportunities and mind-sets. In the past month Americans broke a habit of almost a century’s standing: The office lost top billing as the place where white-collar work gets done. Hundreds of thousands of newly remote employees will soon begin to see that productivity, innovation, and creativity remain as strong, if not stronger, under new conditions.

Of course this won’t be true for everyone, but if you’re a developer, this externally imposed exercise in WFH just might call into question why something as big as Linux can be developed by distributed teams but your billing app can’t. And even if you’re not a software engineer, and your Microsoft Office or Google Docs is not quite as magical as Git, your tools are pretty darn good and suggest that maybe, just maybe, you, too, can be as productive WFH as you used to be WFW.

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