The power of the marginal.

So Mister Blizzard directed some wisdom my way, in the form of Paul Graham’s essay, The Power of the Marginal. I hope I’m not violating Mr. Graham’s copyright by quoting a couple of tasty bits.

But first, let me tell you why I care. Everytime you see “the outside” or “the margin”, think of the Fedora community. And everytime you see “the inside”, think of Red Hat engineering.

One reason so many good ideas come from the margin is simply that there’s so much of it. There have to be more outsiders than insiders, if insider means anything. If the number of outsiders is huge it will always seem as if a lot of ideas come from them, even if few do per capita.

Mmm hmm.

Outsiders should realize the advantage they have here. Being able to take risks is hugely valuable. Everyone values safety too much, both the obscure and the eminent. No one wants to look like a fool. But it’s very useful to be able to. If most of your ideas aren’t stupid, you’re probably being too conservative. You’re not bracketing the problem.

Mmm hmm.

The very skill of insiders can be a weakness. Once someone is good at something, they tend to spend all their time doing that. This kind of focus is very valuable, actually. Much of the skill of experts is the ability to ignore false trails. But focus has drawbacks: you don’t learn from other fields, and when a new approach arrives, you may be the last to notice.

Mmm hmm.

So if you’re an outsider you should actively seek out contrarian projects. Instead of working on things the eminent have made prestigious, work on things that could steal that prestige.

Mmm hmm.

Outsiders are free of all this. They can work on small things, and there’s something very pleasing about small things. Small things can be perfect; big ones always have something wrong with them. But there’s a magic in small things that goes beyond such rational explanations. All kids know it. Small things have more personality. Plus making them is more fun. You can do what you want; you don’t have to satisfy committees. And perhaps most important, small things can be done fast. The prospect of seeing the finished project hangs in the air like the smell of dinner cooking. If you work fast, maybe you could have it done tonight. Working on small things is also a good way to learn. The most important kinds of learning happen one project at a time. (“Next time, I won’t…”) The faster you cycle through projects, the faster you’ll evolve.

It strikes me that there are lots and lots of small things that could be built with Fedora, or on top of Fedora. And the more I think about it, the more I’m glad that we build Fedora with this stuff in mind. And the more fervently I hope that folks in Fedora land decide to do the “risky” things that Red Hat refuses to do.

The power of the marginal.

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