Can't We All Just Get Along?

Posted 15 Jun 2002 at 21:41 UTC by goingware Share This


bytesplit emailed me privately recently, and in all sincerity asked my advice on how he could become a better programmer. He explained that he'd studied hard at it for a while but hadn't had much luck and felt quite stuck at it. I knew very well of the ongoing controversy here but felt that a sincere effort to better oneself should get a sincere response, and so I wrote back with some thoughts on how to proceed as well as recommending some books and websites.

But one bit of advice I should have given and didn't was a lesson that I learned early in my career - one thing I had to do as a young programmer was to learn to work with people I didn't like.

In some of the jobs I've been on, I have had to work closely with people who I really didn't care for for various reasons, and sometimes with people who made their dislike of me readily apparent. To the extent that I could I would try to arrange not to have to work with them anymore, but sometimes this was not possible, and honestly these were just jobs and shouldn't be all-consuming.

Generally I would try to set boundaries, be appropriately polite but no more, and stand up for myself. But I wouldn't lash out at people or try to pursue pointless arguments. In some cases I would try to let it ride while I looked for another job.

Computer programmers are generally not reputed to be especially possessed of the social graces. Even the ones that try to be nice are often clumsy and either say things that can be taken the wrong way or react harshly without thinking of the consequences of their actions. Many are overtly abrasive and antisocial.

Sometimes I made mistakes and spoke inappropriately to unpleasant coworkers, and sometimes I got myself a long lecture from the management.

This is not to say that one should be a victim of abuse or to stay silent when one witnesses wrongdoing. I feel it is very important to speak one's mind - I quote a profound speech on the topic given 102 years ago on my page Make a Bonfire of Your Reputations.

But what is important is to choose your battles to be topics of real importance. Don't get drawn into petty personal feuds. Devote yourself instead to speaking out on social injustice. Devote your time to working out real solutions to the problems that plague people or exposing evil. Despite what you may justifiably think of Bill Gates, even he is devoting time and money to enabling education and the treatment of terrible diseases.

Of course, web communities like Advogato are different from the sometimes difficult workplaces I had to deal with when I was a young programmer. But we didn't have the web then, and we have a new community on the global Internet now.

bytesplit, I want you to consider that there are people who participate in this website who are from enemy countries that are divided by decades or even centuries of religious or ethnic strife, there are people of extreme, polar opposite political persuasions, all kinds of people who have lots of good reasons to hurl vitriol at each other through their diaries and articles. But for the most part they don't. Perhaps they abstain because they don't subscribe to these all-too-common hatreds. But I suspect that some suffer from these prejudices but participate politely because they know it serves the common good.

The essence of the civil disobedience that was applied to such great effect by Ghandi and Martin Luther King is polite resistance - standing up for yourself, not giving in, but doing so civilly until you win public support and your enemy is shamed into giving you what you want.

Don't think I'm just spouting off empty advice. I learned these lessons the hard way, a very hard way. I used to be one of the most awkward and cynical geeks of all, and at times was quite a hellraiser. I paid a heavy personal price for this.

I still see much in the world that fills me with anger, but I know that the problems most worthy of struggling against do not present simple solutions that are amenable to shouted insults. The struggle is worthwhile, but one must struggle in an effective way.

Now everyone, don't think I'm just taking bytesplit to task by writing this. There are others here who have participated in the quarrel in a childish way, and in so doing have perpetuated it and really have cast discredit on themselves and the Free Software community.

Thank you for your attention.

thank you, posted 15 Jun 2002 at 22:47 UTC by bytesplit » (Journeyer)

I haven't even read the entire article, never would have guessed that anyone would take this much of his or her free time to be this kind to me.

Today I (at least I hope that I did) told goingware that i will not any further be looking for criticism of me (or others for that matter), but look to contribute to in any positive way that i can. i do ask that anyone who reads this article, and who has responded with criticism of me in the past, to edit their diaries to the point that this saga never existed. i will do the same.

Thank you


..., posted 16 Jun 2002 at 00:26 UTC by mslicker » (Journeyer)

The essence of the civil disobedience that was applied to such great effect by Ghandi and Martin Luther King is polite resistance - standing up for yourself, not giving in, but doing so civilly until you win public support and your enemy is shamed into giving you what you want.

I'm not sure how this fits in to your essay. However, I would like to point out, civil disobedience may not be polite or civil (in the sense you used). It can be quite ugly, or even violent. Though these men promoted non-violence, this does not mean their action was civil or polite.

Otherwise, perhaps a good strategy is just to stay out of other peoples arguments. No sense in fanning the flames. I usually skim the recent log, since little has any relevence or interest to me personally.

My Experience, posted 16 Jun 2002 at 01:37 UTC by johnnyb » (Journeyer)

I once had an employee (yes, he worked _for_ me) who would yell at me almost every day. I think he did not like the fact that I was promoted as a manager over him. Anyway, what I found is that when I got past my initial defensive reaction, what he said was usually worth considering.

It's one of those things where his tone was rude and obnoxious, but if you got past that, he made valid points. I didn't always do what he said or agree with him, but I grew because I was able to look at his points, and see my own failings and deficiencies clearly. Had I lashed back, fired hime, or simply ignored him, which was easy to do because of his demeanor, I would have been the worse for it.

Anyway, it's not an entirely relevant story, but the article reminded me of it.

GNU and real problems, posted 16 Jun 2002 at 06:11 UTC by tk » (Observer)

The article gives GNU as an example of a movement which aims to find "real solutions to the problems that plague people". This is only partly true. I'm reminded of the Linux vs. GNU/Linux debate... apparently the GNU people believe that if people remove the first four characters of a system name, then the world will start turning evil. Huh?

Still, the GNU movement has done a lot towards solving real problems, and I respect it for that.

are the replies drifting away from the intent of this thread?, posted 16 Jun 2002 at 06:33 UTC by bytesplit » (Journeyer)

I'm not sure where you are getting the information about the article having to do with a Unix vs. Linux debate. Without having yet looked at the pages linked to the this main thread, I would say that the article written by michael has everything to do with how I could have better handled the saga that occured on, and how computer programmers in general might better cope with the real, quite often non- intellectual world. Soon I'll look at the linked pages :)

Re: GNU and Real Problems, posted 16 Jun 2002 at 14:39 UTC by goingware » (Master)

What I had in mind when I posted the link to the Free Software Foundation was the phenomenon of the adoption of Free Software in third-world countries.

I don't think that supplying software to stimulate education and economic growth in countries without the money to acquire intellectual property from the industrialized nations was quite at the forefront of Richard Stallman's mind when he published the GNU Manifesto, but that is definitely one of the effects it is having.

If you think Microsoft wields too much power in the U.S., imagine the feelings of people in countries that are threatened with trade sanctions because people pirate too much software there. Free Software gives them an honest way out of the bind which has the added benefit of stimulating the growth of local expertise.

Of course there are many other benefits to Free Software, but that's what I was thinking of.

Yes, RMS picks a lot of nits over issues that most people think should be inconsequential. But everybody has their faults, even those with the greatest accomplishments. I understand even Ghandi made his wife's life pretty hard.

GNU and Linux, posted 16 Jun 2002 at 17:24 UTC by dalinian » (Journeyer)

Consider this:

A person is told that "Linux" is a good operating system, and that s/he should use it. So, the person will try a Google search. Because the search gives such results as, and, the person will think that these are the most important sites with the best information about this new operating system. The person never finds out why free software even exists. And because s/he doesn't know why it exists, he does not understand s/he should avoid proprietary software even if it might have some technological benefits.

But what if the person is instead told about "GNU/Linux", the exciting new OS? A Google search again, of course. S/he will then see results with a significantly greater emphasis on the "GNU/" part. S/he may even click on the third link, Linux and GNU - GNU Project - Free Software Foundation (FSF). After reading it, s/he might decide that the FSF and GNU are a bunch of loonies or something like that, but at least the decision will be a bit more informed. More likely, s/he will appreciate the efforts of the GNU project and decide that they make some valid points; after that, s/he will tend to search for free alternatives for the software s/he uses.

There is a deep misunderstanding about the GNU project, or rms in particular. He is seen as a crazy radical that doesn't really agree with anybody about anything, even when he should. This is not a true picture, because rms is fighting a completely different, philosophical battle. The only thing common between rms and your average computer geek is of course, computing. But in the end, rms is not about computing at all. He is about freedom; software freedom is only one piece of that puzzle. An average computer geek cannot have a sensible discussion with rms, because they are talking about different issues (maybe even in different languages), even if they are using the same words.

An average geek:

  • free = "don't have to pay, don't have to obey"
  • software = "a product related to computing"


  • free = "you are free to share it, and you have a moral obligation to share it as well"
  • software = "digital speech with a function"

Now how could two people disagreeing about the most basic issues agree about anything else either? I find it quite strange to bring GNU and the FSF into a conversation like this, because I understand this is about programming and cooperation, not philosophy. You can talk with rms, and even have a good discussion with him, if you understand moral philosophy and are willing to talk about it. But then it's no longer cooperation between two programmers, but two philosophers.

The lesson is: when talking with someone, always make sure you are talking about the same thing, and agree about the meaning of the words you use.

As a programmer, rms might not be setting a good example. Working with him is often difficult, I've read. In my opinion, the perfect free software "hero" would have the ideals of rms and the "nice guy" qualities of e.g. people like Linus. Not that we need heroes, but still. :-)

Technical discussion and ethic discussion, posted 16 Jun 2002 at 20:41 UTC by adulau » (Journeyer)

IMHO, the technical discussion is not the same discussion as ethic and freedom. You can get some "conflicting" point of view on technical implementation (this is often the case) but the freedom discussion is a not really an issue. We need Freedom for Software and agressive discussion on the technical side (check all ml on development) is an important mixture for Software Engineering.

Just a quote from the FSF/lucid discussion :

Message-ID: <>
Date: Thu, 27 May 93 11:23:12 PDT
From: Jamie Zawinski <>
Subject: the future of Lucid Emacs

The release of GNU Emacs 19 from the FSF does not mean that Lucid Emacs is going away. We will continue developing it, and merging in bug fixes and new features from the FSF version as appropriate; we do not have plans to discard the functionality that RMS has chosen not to include in his version.

Evolution is normal and required for Free Software...

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