Don't Underestimate the Amateurs
I was reading HN like a dutiful tech employee, when I stumbled upon a classic HN scene: a laudatory Rust post followed by a whole host of reactionary anti-Rust comments. In these comments was an inadvertently good question: Why is “(re)written in Rust” a good selling point?
My first instinct was to respond with the typical arguments: Rust is safer; Rust has a nicer build system; Rust is faster. But after some thought, I actually wanted to respond with the answer that most people hold in contempt: Rust is fun!
This is where some people sneer and say that this is foolish, that we should not pick our tools because of such frivolous reasons, that we should use “the right tool for the right job”, that that’s no reason to rewrite or reinvent the wheel.
My only response is:
Hello everybody out there using minix -
I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).
I’ve currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work. This implies that I’ll get something practical within a few months, and I’d like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them :-)
PS. Yes - it’s free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs. It is NOT protable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that’s all I have :-(.
Yep, that’s the original Linux release email. Remember, when Linus was doing this, he was a college student writing an amateur operating system for fun. This was not a grand project meant to become the most used OS in the world. In fact, I bet if that was the intention, it would have never succeeded (cough GNU Hurd cough).
All of this is well known. Worse is better, New Jersey style, etc. But what’s forgotten in the equation is why amateurs decide to build: They build because it’s fun. Therefore if your project is fun, if it uses a language that people like to write, if it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and if it has a culture, i.e. a branding, of fun, then it has a possibility of really taking off.
Sure, a lot of these projects won’t make it. But that’s true with serious, “professional” projects too. In fact there’s a lot of drawbacks with being professional, or at least what a team may deem professional. I remember talking with someone who built an extremely popular open source tool. They mentioned that when they were building this tool, they had a lot of free time, so when a bug report came in, they’d fix it immediately, and ship a patch within a couple hours. That super fast feedback loop gained them lots of trust and adoption. Is it the most professional system? No. A feedback loop measured in hours or even minutes implies little to no code review.
This, as with all things, is a trade-off. Being professional makes you stable, but it can also make you boring. In the early stages of a project, boring is a lot more dangerous than unstable. A new project is inherently unstable. Who knows if you’ll stick around? The people who want boring, stable technology are not going to use your project even if you do all the fancy stability stuff like RFCs, semantic versioning, etc. You’re just too new. The people who will use your product will be the early adopters who are cool with breaking changes, who might even investigate bugs themselves and open a PR. Stability occurs when those early adopters convince their coworkers and boss to use your project, an issue occurs, they start sweating, and then they come back to you asking that hey maybe you could obey semantic versioning and write a few more tests please? When that starts happening, you should celebrate! That’s a sign that people are using your code and that the stakes are now real.
Basically, stability has a time and a place—and that place is after gaining users. But before that, you should own your instability. Trying to act all professional and stable is like a young filmmaker who has a shoestring budget but insists on trying to shoot like the big Hollywood folks. It alienates the indie film crowds, and the big budget crowds don’t even know you exist. It’s taking oneself too seriously.
Instead you should aim to be fun. Be a fun project to contribute towards by eliminating process and putting trust in people. So what if a pull request isn’t perfect? So what if the code breaks? So what if Rust isn’t the best language to use for the project? If you can make a project that appears to contributors, then you’re already doing well.
And appealing to contributors will also appeal to users. First, because a lot of early adoptors are also potential contributors. And second, because more contributors means you get closer to Linus’s law, i.e. “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. If you can make an environment where people have fun learning and programming, then no task is insurmountable.