Sequoia McDowell

Computer Systems Analyst

The Rabbi and the Open Source Project


A rabbi finds himself at a tech conference, perusing the vendor booths, when he is approached by a Frustrated User who has a pressing need to vent.

"Rabbi, can you believe how stuck up and unfriendly these Programming Élites are?" The User asks. "I am struggling to keep my head above water with all the new frameworks and tools coming out daily, and the documenation for these libraries are terrible to non-existent, but when I post a polite question on Github about about a problem I'm having, someone closes my issue, tells me to learn programming basics & says I should read the source and improve the docs myself!

"I'm trying to understand the thing, how am I supposed to write the docs? And what an insulting thing to say, 'go read a book on programming.' Isn't this a terrible way to treat a beginner trying to ask a question & learn?"

The rabbi considers the matter for a few moments, then responds: "You're right."

The User leaves satisfied, but the rabbi is approached by second person. "Rabbi," says The Maintainer, "I overheard your conversation, and I want to tell you different story.

"I maintain a very popular library, for free, and every day I get feature demands, people getting angry at me, people expecting to be spoon-fed answers without reading the documenation or the source code, and thinking someone else is going to do the work of fixing bugs, writing documenation, creating new features, and all the other work of maintaining an open source library, when in fact it's their job just as much as mine. Don't you agree these users are horribly entitled?"

The rabbi thinks for a moment then looks at The Maintainer and says "You're right." The Maintainer, satisfied he's won the rabbi to his way of thinking, walks off towards the speaker lounge.

A vendor, having overheard both exchanges, calls the rabbi over to his booth. "Rabbi, you just told The User he was right, but then you turned around and told The Maintainer he was right—they can't both be right!

The rabbi thinks a minute. "You're right!"

Nota Bene

I drafted this post in January of 2016 and didn't get around to posting it for a few years. If you'd like it to be topical for 2018, pretend one party is the developer of a popular open source project who's frustrated about people making money off the software and not contributing, and the other is a SAAS vendor who feels that if the software is free it's free, and the developer needs to live with that choice, or any other two parties who can't both be right.

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