Eric Raymond's tips for effective open source advocacy

by Rick Moen

If anyone is qualified to tell us how to effectively lobby for the wider adoption of open-source software, it's Eric S. Raymond. After being propelled -- much to his surprise -- to sudden global prominence in 1998 through his involvement in inspiring and launching the Mozilla Project, Raymond found himself the de facto spokesman for an entire movement, observed that he was fairly good about it, and so set about explaining how and why. He briefed a large audience at the recent LinuxWorld Conference & Expo on these happenings, and on how the rest of us might do likewise, in a talk entitled "Meme Hacking for Fun and Profit."

Eric's first step was to figure out why the 1998 effort suddenly worked, making business interested in our community's software model, after nearly two decades of entirely futile attempts. It wasn't easy.

In May of 1997, Eric published an essay, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" (CatB), explaining his theories of how free software (the only term for it, then) gets created, and why the process creates such good software so quickly, based on his experience managing a piece of utility software called Fetchmail (see Resources). This socio-technical analysis, while written to be accessible to a nontechnical audience, succeeded only in generating acclaim among propeller-beanie Linux users -- preaching to the choir. Eric remained better known as Guy Steele's successor in editing the MIT Jargon File, one of the cornerstones of "hackish" (computer programmer) culture, and as mastermind of the shadowy, tongue-in-cheek (or so They would have us think) Eric Conspiracy -- until January 23, 1998.

That morning, Eric received an emailed tip from a friend, suggesting he look at the prior day's announcement from Netscape, and cryptically commenting "I think someone's been reading your paper." And so Eric did -- and was thunderstruck by the fact that a major corporation seemed to be implementing his software-management ideas. Indeed, many parts of the announcement seemed to be quoting CatB directly.

He cold-called Netscape Communications Corporation's main telephone number, working through a bureaucratic maze for fifteen minutes, seeming to reach a dead end at a voicemail mailbox. His bewildered message went something like, "Hello, my name is Eric Raymond, and I think I had something to do with your announcement. Could somebody please call me?" Within the hour, Roseanne Cino of Netscape Marketing called back, saying, "Yes, all of our top people read your paper and loved it. Jim Barksdale is giving your name to the national press, and wants to meet you."

As Eric says, "This was the moment of vindication our tribe had been waiting for for twenty years." During all that time, the technical/Unix community had received essentially nothing but brushoffs, being considered impractical freaks in sandals, even though it offered clearly better technology. It was clear that the problem was not one of substance, but of perception, and Eric saw that Mozilla was our key to changing that.

We'd never had a success before, and a procedural analysis of the traditional Unix evangelism strategy, typically carried out by software engineers within their own companies, showed why. In a such a situation, you typically would:

  1. Become excited by some great technology, and become impressed by its potential to change the world for the better.
  2. Talk it up to your peers.
  3. Join your peers in approaching the next level of management, trying to get them excited, and hope that the excitement trickles upward until it reaches the top and changes company policies.
  4. Sit back and wait for the people at the top to clap their hands to their foreheads, and exclaim in a sudden burst of enlightenment, "Gosh, we were wrong all along! But we'll change our fundamental policies and fix everything!"

Enlightenment doesn't flow uphill

Of course, real authority hierarchies don't work that way. Instead, you have, in rough terms, three strata.

The traditional strategy fails because it hits the purposely granite-hard wall of middle management, and advocates of open source software will wait until Doomsday trying to work past them. And until 1998, that's exactly what they were doing.

Mozilla gave us an example to point to, but also material to learn from: in that case, enlightenment did not trickle up from below. One guy at the top (Jim Clark) encountered a persuasive essay, had a moment of enlightenment, and enforced his new vision on everyone beneath him.

Clark was convinced, not by moral suasion, but by CatB's pragmatic analysis showing why free software yielded shorter time to delivery, better code quality, and lower costs.

Ambassador to the suits

Eric could see that the Mozilla code release would be a crucial moment, which could yield any of several alternative outcomes:

He decided that he could help ensure the first outcome by working out a credible, coherent explanation of the open source model and its benefits that would be amenable to the right sort of audience. That target audience would be precisely the one ignored by prior advocates: Fortune 500 chief executive officers.

This is easier said than done. As Eric puts it, "Most of us don't play golf with Jack Welsh [longtime CEO of General Electric]. We need some other way to slip our LSD in their water supply."

Thus, Eric figured, our best bet is a media-centered campaign aimed at Fortune 500 CEOs. It might seem at first glance that entrepreneurs would be a better bet, but the Fortune 500 are the biggest, most influential market that can be reached by a single marketing campaign. He decided to concentrate exclusively on the following news outlets: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Barron's, and the Economist.

This list pointedly excludes technical journals, since the people we need to reach don't read them, but leave that task to underlings. Eric cited what he called Rule Number One of Marketing: "Appeal to the prospect's interests and values, not to yours." If the smarter, more forward-looking CEOs were convinced to come aboard, the others would tend to follow.

The sales pitch

The term "open source," coined by Chris Peterson of the Foresight Institute at a strategy session Eric attended in February 1998 after the Netscape announcement, followed naturally from this logic. Eric feels that the traditional term, "free software," had been a millstone around all of our necks, and was simply a nonstarter as rhetoric to convince any but the hard-core believers. From the businessman's perspective, "free software" sounds at best ambiguous, or possibly even threatening: you must explain which meaning of "free" you intend (free as in speech, rather than free as in beer), and then clarify what free speech has to do with software. Your audience might react, "Free? That sounds cheap, shoddy." Or, worse, "Free? That sounds like communism."

It's much more effective to sell the concept on the basis of reliability, instead. Big corporations lose millions of dollars per hour when their datacenters go down. Executives are keenly interested in avoiding that.

Also, even concerning their desktop boxes, executives are aware of the money drain. Mean time before failure (MTBF) of Windows 9x is less than a week. As an installation ages, that shrinks to less than a day. With Linux, a box left alone has MTBF of around two years.

Your winning points will be:

An executive who allows his company to becomes dependent on software he is not allowed to see inside, let alone change, has lost control of his business, and is on the wrong side of a monopoly relationship with a vendor who can thereby control his business. With open source, the executive is in control, and nobody can take that away. The opportunity to reduce and control business risk is a key concern of any CEO. You'll be listened to.

Eric warned that none of this will work without purging one's mind of the common techophile's notion that business people are stupid. Eric characterised them as "differently optimised," and said that we should respect them for their specialty. For one thing, you cannot sell to people if you project an attitude of disrespect. Even if you don't express it explicitly, it will come through in body language, intonation, and other subtle aspects of your demeanour.

Of course, it probably seems reckless to approach one's company CEO and advocate changing company policies, and it may well be so. It's usually more successful to work on other people's organisations, since companies seem oddly resistant to listening to their own technical people. Also, partially because most executives will be less inclined than Jim Clark to read long essays on the Web, Eric has published "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" as part of a book of the same name, available from O'Reilly, suitable for leaving as anonymous gifts on executive desks.

Dress to persuade

Eric himself tries to adopt the Prince from Another Country stance, a term coined by science-fiction writer Norman Spinrad to describe his technique for being accepted in multiple communities: You adopt the attitude of being a high-ranking member of a different hierarchy, which gets you respect without subjecting you to hierarchical obligations. Thus, when Spinrad was trying to gain respect in Hollywood as a scriptwriter, he conducted himself as a respected science fiction author. Conversely, in the science fiction community, he billed himself as a leading Hollywood scriptwriter.

Following in the same mold, Eric dresses well but casually, and donates his time as a speaker on open source, rather than billing it as consulting time. Dressing "well" includes good shoes, meaning, in Eric's case, $90 Rockport walking shoes rather than beat-up Reeboks. He generally combines these with a neat polo shirt and slacks.

Don't dress like a hacker, Eric warns. Dress the way hackers do in the movies. You want to look like a credible, respected member of a foreign social system to an audience of executives who've never come closer to a real hacker than a Sandra Bullock movie. Therefore, "Birkenstocks are right out!"

Even worse than underdressing, as a strategy for being credible to executives, would be overdressing. A technology advocate dressed in a business suit would tend to come across as a bad imitation of a business person -- and thus a person to ignore. It's far safer to stick to neat, good-fabric casual wear.

Amy Abascal, head of the Web development team at VA Linux Systems, interjected, "But what should the technical woman wear?" I had a brief moment of lurid anticipation that Eric might recommend that she emulate Carrie-Anne Moss. The daydream passed, and Eric quite rightly pointed out that the high-quality black casual wear Amy was wearing would serve perfectly.

Local Linux user and magazine columnist Mae Ling Mak shouted out, "But what about me?" Eric gazed at Mae Ling's black vinyl cheongsam and replied, "Mae Ling, you're a law unto yourself. Never change a thing."

The other sales front

Eric anticipated that his other task would be equally tough: convincing free-software advocates to change their rhetoric when speaking to business. The Open Source Initiative was founded in February 1998 towards that end, with Eric and fellow OSI director Bruce Perens advocating the new approach among traditional free-software advocates.

To their utter astonishment, they observed 85 percent of the community switching the wording on its Web sites within six weeks, suggesting pent-up demand in the community for a more effective, less confrontational approach. Some organs of the press that used to carry what Eric termed "condescending, snarky pieces about free software" fell over themselves to speak glowingly of open source.

Talking to the press

Eric's strategy for getting his views across in the press ("press manipulation," he freely admits) relies on knowing that most people are asleep most of the time. It's impossible to keep your audience awake. Therefore, you keep a good stock of attention-getting sound bites in reserve, and zap the reporter with them at well-spaced intervals. The theory, which Eric claims works quite reliably, is that the reporter will remember the sound bites, reproducing them as the backbone of his coverage, and discard the parts he half-dozed through. (This reporter found the suggestion about as annoying as the wrist cramp from his nine pages of lecture notes, but concedes the point may be more correct than not. Eric stoked some of our egos a bit by saying that technology reporters tended to be way ahead of that curve on account of the same hackish traits that got them into that field in the first place. Sorry, no kind words for technology readers.)

The other side of the coin

One member of the audience asked how corporations should approach relations with the open source community. It's the same problem as before, just from the other side: "Appeal to the prospect's interests and values, not to yours." Once more, if anyone is qualified to address this point, it's Eric.

But seriously, folks

As a bit of parting advice, Eric suggested that the most valuable skill to pick up is that of effective public speaking. There are a variety of groups that aim to teach it, but Eric found his model in what at first might seem an unlikely place: stand-up comedy, which he says can be effectively studied for tips on timing, punctuation, and body language, among other things.

Eric is an animated and extroverted speaker, with a flair for reaching out to audiences, and a whimsical sense of fun -- but conceptualising him as a Robin Williams or Mike Myers puts him in a new light.

Me: Maybe I'd be a reporter.
Eric: An evil reporter?
Me: You always do that!


2009 update: Fixing now-broken URLs.

Rick Moen is a recovering system administrator in the San Francisco Bay Area, who served as primary Bay Area organiser for Windows Refund Day, and has been one of the main troublemakers behind Silicon Valley Linux User Group's Silicon Valley Tea Party, the Great Linux Revolt of '98, and other Bay Area Linux PR events.

Copyright (C) 2000 by Rick Moen,
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