Perens Addresses Individualism Vs. the Company Line

by John Spurling

Hackers are infamous for having strong opinions. Slashdot's bandwidth bill alone is a prime indication of this.

Bruce Perens' talk at SD West, "Individualism and the Company Line", addressed the fundamental conflict between hackers' natural desire to express themselves and a company's natural need to protect its image. The talk drew on his two-year stint working for Hewlett-Packard as a senior strategist for Linux and open source.

Perens and HP parted ways shortly after the Compaq and HP merger. The timing was not a coincidence, according to Perens. "Compaq's business model was entirely dependent on Microsoft", he said. Today, HP and Microsoft have a non-aggression pact.

"Companies need to protect their images", said Perens. While it may seem unfair that your employer can control what you say about it, public statements made about a company by its employees can quickly tarnish its image.

J. Random Hacker may argue that she still has freedom of speech. This is true; however, there is a context for this freedom. Publicly attacking your employer's products or services yields clearly defined results. Although Perens's contract with HP stated he could express his opinion to the press freely, attacking HP's business parter Microsoft was a problem.

So where does your right to express your opinion publicly begin and end? "Some of you have strong opinions about life versus choice or about the war", said Perens. Employers cannot discriminate or censor you on topics such as these. Still, Perens emphasized that if your opinions are too close to your employer's business, you may have to be able to support yourself financially some other way if you wish to voice them publicly.

Your manager isn't likely to know your rights. Perens related how his manager told him that he couldn't hold public office while employed at HP, despite the fact that this is quite legal. A human resources representative more conversant with the law corrected the manager.

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