"Nestor, gladly will I visit the host of the Trojans over against us, but if another will go with me I shall do so in greater confidence and comfort. When two men are together, one of them may see some opportunity which the other has not caught sight of; if a man is alone he is less full of resource, and his wit is weaker. " Homer, Illiad 10 (Diomedes about to go out spying on the Trojans)I have always loved the simplicity in the image above, which Plato paraphrased simply as "when two go together, one sees before the other." Real collaboration works this way - like Diomedes and Odysseus, we think together, and do more, better, faster than we could alone. For this to work, we have to be thinking about the same thing. Rather than just periodically sharing fully working ideas, we need to think out loud, sharing the not-yet-sense that eventually workable ideas come from.
I remember when I was a mathematics grad student I thought I would never be capable of producing the brilliantly incomprehensible work that I saw published in professional journals. It took me forever to read papers and there appeared to be so many little miracles embedded in them that there had to be some magical wizardry involved. All of that changed when I started thinking together with some real mathematicians. Seeing the thought process, the not-quite-sense at the base of the ideas, the stops and starts, the workarounds, let me see that while I would never be Diomedes, I could at least have a little fun as Odysseus.
The key here is to actually externalize and share the thought process underneath ideas in the making, rather than just handing them back and forth as "products." I am belaboring this point because it bears on a dynamic in the open source world that I find alternatively exciting and troubling - the rise of distributed version control systems (DVCS). Thanks to Git and GitHub, the process of contributing to open source has become much easier and the number of projects and contributors is exploding. That is the exciting part. The thing that I sometimes worry about is that the "forking is a feature" meme that can result from DVCS can take us away from thinking together and more toward "black box" exchange of completed ideas. The traditional, central VCS, central mailing list model works more or less like this:
- Someone has an "itch" (idea for enhancement, bug fix, idea for a change of some kind)
- Post to the project development mailing list, talking about the idea
- Patch, maybe attached to an issue in the project issue tracker, maybe directly committed
- Commit diff from the central repo triggers an email to the list - everyone sees each small change
- Idea evolves via discussion and commits, all visible to all following the project
- Someone has an itch
- Clone the repo, creating a local branch
- Experiment with new ideas in the local branch, possibly publishing it so others can see and play with it
- Submit a request for the changes in the local branch to be incorporated in the "mainline"
- Changes are eventually integrated in a batch
The DVCS train has left the station and as I said above tools by themselves don't determine community dynamics. Its up to those of us who participate in OSS communities to keep engaging in the real collaboration that created the great software and communities-around-code that have made OSS what it is. So lets take a lesson from Diomedes. Great warrior that he was, he still thought it best to bring "the wily one" with him when he went out into new territory.