Do Top Hackers Have Too Much Money?

by Glyn Moody

The announcement that one of MySQL's founders, Monty Widenius, was leaving Sun, was generally regarded as a pity, though no huge surprise, given the rumours that had been swirling since last year. But its impact was redoubled following the even more astonishing news that MySQL's boss, Marten Mickos, was also moving on; together, they inevitably sent shock-waves through the open source world. Most analysis has centred on the state of Sun, and whether these two high-profile departures mean that the MySQL acquisition was a mistake, or has already failed. But here, I'd like to look at a bigger question that these moves pose: do top hackers (and their managers) have too much money?

A similar question was addressed by the original theorist of open source, Eric Raymond, nearly ten years ago, back in December 1999. It was at the time when the first big open source IPOs like Red Hat and VA Linux were amazing the world; as Raymond said with a characteristic turn of phrase:

VA had indeed gone out on NASDAQ -- and I had become worth approximately forty-one million dollars while I wasn't looking.

Raymond then went on to ponder the implications of this – not just for him, but for all hackers who suddenly found themselves wealthy:

Reporters often ask me these days if I think the open-source community will be corrupted by the influx of big money. I tell them what I believe, which is this: commercial demand for programmers has been so intense for so long that anyone who can be seriously distracted by money is already gone. Our community has been self-selected for caring about other things -- accomplishment, pride, artistic passion, and each other.

He was right, of course. Most hackers have coped remarkably well as they moved out of their bedrooms into corporate engineering departments, and even into boardrooms. But Raymond's observations were largely about *getting* money, not *having* it.

Having money implies a certain amount of time has passed since you first got it, and time changes many things. As most people have found, no matter how wonderful a job can seem at first, in the initial flush of triumph and enthusiasm, after a while things begin to niggle. You may find the work mundane or repetitive, the office uncongenial, management lacking in comprehension, or that there are myriad other things that exasperate you.

For hackers, there's another aspect that often trumps all these more petty concerns. They may feel that their work is simply not “right” – either in engineering or moral terms. And whereas concerns about the other annoyances of daily employment can often be largely suppressed, the issue of doing the “right thing” is more central to what it means to be a hacker. It's not just a question of self-respect, it's a fundamental issue of self-definition.

It's not the only difference that marks out hackers, especially the top ones, from other employees. The influx of “big money” that prompted Raymond's meditation happened a long time ago; many of the older, more experienced hackers are already financially secure for life (even in the present uncertain economic conditions). This means that, unlike most mortals, they don't really need to work for the money, which makes the other aspect – doing the right thing for its own sake – even more important. And if they begin to feel that they are not doing the right thing, their financial independence means that they have a very obvious option: to leave.

That seems to be precisely the dynamic that led to Widenius' departure from Sun; as he says in his blog post on the move:

The main reason for leaving was that I am not satisfied with the way the MySQL server has been developed, as can be seen on my previous blog post. In particular I would have like to see the server development to be moved to a true open development environment that would encourage outside participation and without any need of differentiation on the source code. Sun has been considering opening up the server development, but the pace has been too slow.

Because of his presumably comfortable economic state, Widenius was not only able to leave Sun without worrying about the financial implications, but also to take active steps to create *precisely* the work environment he wanted, without the compromises imposed by Sun, by setting up his own company, Monty Program Ab:

Monty Program Ab will be a true open source company, with the additional goal of being a smaller family oriented company (10-30 employees) where everyone can be owners of the company, where we care about our employees and strive to have fun together and share the profit we create.

I think this is significant, because it provides a template for other disaffected hackers out there. Many of them will have enough resources to found their own companies without needing to call on sceptical banks or VCs. And the better the hacker, the more likely they are to have those resources – and the more likely they are to become unhappy with corporate environments.

So in answer to my question whether top hackers have too much money, the answer is “no”, not just from their point of view (of course), but also from the larger open source community's point of view. In fact, it is great that Widenius is taking this step to return to his roots as a “pure” hacker. The more that follow in his footsteps, the more great free code we are likely to see, and the stronger open source will become as a result.

But the answer to my question is also clearly “yes” for companies like Sun that employ these top coders. Because it means that the employer is no longer in control; instead, it is the skilled and well-rewarded engineer that ultimately chooses what he or she will do according to their own interpretation of hacker values. Large companies like Sun must actively work to keep such people happy within the corporate context – not just by giving them more money, but by respecting those values.

This has larger implications. Off and on, there has been talk about how major proprietary software companies like Oracle could, thanks to their cash reserves, theoretically, buy up large swathes of the open source world and run it for their own benefit. Sun's experience with MySQL shows why that will never happen – or at least, will never happen in quite that way. The day that Oracle or Microsoft, say, starts acquiring open source companies simply because they can, and then tries to run them like traditional software houses, is the day that hundreds of hackers like Widenius will walk out of the door, along with much of the worth of the soon to be former employer.

In conclusion, then, we might say that top hackers certainly don't have too much money, because they are the most effective counterweight to the *companies* that have too much money, and which otherwise could spend it to the detriment of open source.

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.

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