Old Wounds

I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking.

It’s easy to shoot your mouth off in the heat of anger, and it can be hard to apologize for it.  But when you finally realize, unequivocally, that you’ve done the wrong thing, then apologizing is the right thing to do, no matter how hard it is.  I’ve said and done a lot of stupid things in my life, and the only way to live with those stupid things, I’ve discovered, is to own them.

I’m not an active member of the Linux world anymore — but I learned over the past few days that people still pay close attention to what I say about that world.  I was highly visible in that small world for a relatively long time.  You don’t go from highly visible to completely invisible overnight.  (An aside: thanks but no thanks, anonymous member of the Linux press; I’m not the least bit interested in being interviewed.)

Naive, perhaps, to feel like my blog post would receive relatively little notice — but there we are.  “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” Oscar Wilde once said.  Hmmm… not necessarily true, as it turns out.

My initial rant was over the top, it was disrespectful, it was simplistic, and it hurt a lot of feelings unnecessarily, and I regret it now.  I wish I could take most of it back.

* * *

That leaves the question, though: if I’m so sorry now, why did I feel so compelled to shoot my mouth off in the first place?  It’s the question I thought about all weekend.

Mark is exactly right when he says the internet has a long memory.  I’ve got a long memory myself.  And one of the days I remember most, of all of the three thousand days I spent at Red Hat, was the day Mark Shuttleworth called Red Hat a proprietary software company.

I cried that day, I was so angry.

I never took any comment more personally in my entire life.  It was basically the most painful accusation anyone could have levelled at us, at me — at the company I’d poured my life into.  And even though it was coming from a competitor, it was also coming from a member of our shared tribe.  Someone who, I thought, believed deeply in the same things I believed in.

Someone who, in that moment, made it feel like he belonged to a different tribe than I did, after all.

Someone who, in my opinion, should have known better.

Very much how a lot of people might have felt about me in these last few days, I imagine.

All of those feelings came roaring back in a flash when I read through the GNOME Survey on Thursday, when I was honestly shocked to see lots of Red Hat names up and down that committers list, but almost no Canonical names at all.  “Who’s proprietary now?” I thought.  And I seethed.

It made me angry, and out of anger, I responded.

It seems that I took Mark Twain’s advice, only I was Doing It Wrong.  Twain said “when angry, count four; when very angry, swear.”  So I counted four, and then I swore.  Only I did it from a mountaintop in the middle of the Internet.  (Incidentally, I shudder to think what Twain’s blog might have looked like.)

It was like starting a fire.  First I was cold, and then I felt warm and comfy, and then I watched the fire blaze all the way to the horizon, and thought, “oh shit, that’s not good, is it?”  So it goes.

The Linux business is a damned hard business.  Canonical is struggling through the exact same process now that Red Hat struggled through so long ago.  Before Red Hat was a billion dollar company, Red Hat was a gigantic bust that turned $300 shares into $4 shares.  It took many years, and a number of blind alleys, for Red Hat to find its way — and I’m hopeful that Canonical will find its way too.  It means a better world for all of us.  I believe that.

Here’s the thing, though: Red Hat found its way by fighting an incredibly hard uphill fight, every day, to do things the right way — and they fight that battle still.

I guarantee you that no proprietary company has ever had to struggle, quarter after quarter, to sell against a free version of itself.  Red Hat does.  When presented with the continuing temptations to close off that source code repository in small (but perfectly legal) ways, Red Hat continually resists.  A gigantic monster competitor like Oracle takes the very same source bits that Red Hat uses to build a directly competing product, and still, Red Hat fights on and does the right thing.

It was that willingness to do the right thing, under relentless pressure to do otherwise, that made me proud to go to work under the Shadowman every day, and why I’ll be proud of that association for the rest of my life.

It also makes me too quick to jump to Red Hat’s defense against any threats, real or imagined, even though it’s obvious that the days Red Hat needed such help are long past, if they ever did exist.

As Canonical grows, I hope that it lives up to similarly lofty standards — and part of living up to such standards is bearing an ever-increasing share of the weight.  It is my very strong, honest, and believe it or not, largely impartial opinion, that after five-plus years of building a global brand on top of the GNOME platform, Canonical should be doing way more to sustain that platform.  And although I understand and agree with the arguments that Canonical contributes in many important ways, I contend that it still isn’t nearly enough.  Not if you want to claim the mantle of leadership.  You cannot simply talk the talk; you must ultimately walk the walk.

But that’s just my opinion, and it’s an opinion that has certainly received far too much airtime already.

As a wise friend said to me: “I would rather live in the world in which Canonical’s contributions are commensurate to their reputation, than in the world where their reputation is equal to their current contributions.”  That sentiment is exactly right.  If my embarrassing tirade has the side effect of bring us closer to such a world rather than pushing us farther away, then I’ll consider myself very lucky.

Calling Canonical “a marketing company masquerading as an engineering company” was, in hindsight, every bit as accurate as Mark calling Red Hat “a proprietary software company”.  Which is to say: not at all accurate, and completely unfair, and hurtful.

So Mark, I’m sorry, and I hope that you and yours can forgive me.  After three years, it’s time for me to let that bad day go.  Life’s too short to hold on to grudges that I probably shouldn’t have developed in the first place.

Besides, I’ve got other battles to fight now.

Old Wounds