The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Open-source software development

The internet’s connective tissue is built with free and open-source software. Data centers run various Linux distributions. You can browse the web with Mozilla Firefox. It’s highly likely your company stores data in one of many open-source databases such as Postgres and MySQL. Maybe you have Lucene indexes served up in a distributed cluster by Solr. When you reflect on what you can download and use for free while also receiving continual updates from skilled engineers that contribute to a hobby, it’s quite staggering

Book: The Cathedral and the Bazaar

However, the watershed moment for this model was the development of the Linux operating system. The Cathedral and the BazaarEric S. Raymond. The Cathedral and The Bazaar. O’Reilly & Associates, Inc., Sebastopol, CA, 2001. is an expansion of an essay of the same name that drew attention due to the radical ideas it shared for its time. Before Linux, many open-source software projects were carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation.

The title of the book comes from the two different software-development models that it covers:

  • In the cathedral model, software is free and open source, but it is developed by the aforementioned hermit wizards. In the book, the GCC compiler is given as an example. These projects have long release intervals and are controlled tightly by the development team.
  • In the bazaar model the entire world contributes and opens their development to the public, despite the chaos. They operate under the tenet that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” There’s less to lose if occasional issues slip out. Linux is described as the poster child for this movement.

How they relate to you as a manager

Now, step back from this a second. What does this have to do with management? Well, let’s find out. Let’s consider engineers’ potential motivations to want to work under both models.

  • In the cathedral model, we could reason that the project’s maintainers are most comfortable when they have control. That is, they have a final say in their own destiny, and are subject to less distraction and noise from the outside community while they are managing tasks.
  • In the bazaar model, the project maintainers are motivated by change. They prefer the fast pace of development by hundreds, if not thousands, of contributors and the fact that all bugs are easy to solve if a large number of people are working on fixing them.

Now, we’re not here to debate the relative pros and cons of each model. However, I think that the models highlight relevant individual personality traits and motivations that are well worth thinking about as a manager. Keep in mind that some individuals are highly motivated by control and stability, and others are motivated by chaos and change.

Think of a real cathedral. It is beautifully built using the finest material and craftsmanship. It is meant to stand the test of time, both in terms of use and the number of years that the building is expected to be on this planet. It evokes quiet contemplation and peaceful reflection. Now, think of a bazaar. It is heady with aroma and the voices of sellers. It’s bustling and ever-changing. Within the chaos are incredible new things to be found, such as exotic food and beautiful garments. Those that are driven by new experiences are drawn to the bazaar and like to be swept away by the experience.

Think of your team for a moment. Given that you’ve worked with them for a short while, have you discovered which of them are cathedral constructors and which are bazaar browsers? How would you categorize yourself? Remember that, regardless of whether your staff thrive within chaos or stability, neither is right or wrong. They are just personal preferences and motivations. However, they can also change over time depending on a person’s life, circumstances, and drive.

The challenge for you as a manager is to have the conversation. You have to identify which of your staff are in either camp and then build that into how you delegate the opportunities you give them and cultivate the environment within which they work.

Let’s take a look at both types of people and give some example situations in which they’ll thrive. Bear in mind that those who index strongly to either end of the scale may be harder to integrate into teams and may require careful management. This may include moving them to a different team.

Cathedral constructors

Your cathedral constructors yearn for focus, stability, purism, and craftsmanship. As a manager, you need to be able to offer them the following opportunities:

  • To become subject-matter experts: Are there opportunities for them to build and contribute to a core area of the technology stack? Can they be given ownership over it in such a way that lets them become the most knowledgeable in the company about that particular part?
  • To be a cornerstone of the team: Are there opportunities for them to become an individual that their teammates seek advice from when approaching something new? Are they able to provide the scaffolding that new functionality is built on top of?

  • To go deep, not wide: Your cathedral constructors delight in thorough knowledge. Is there an opportunity for them to contribute back to open source projects that they are experts in? Are they able to purposefully stay away from newness to practice deep mastery?

  • To show others their own ways: Those that become experts also benefit from, and often relish, in teaching others what they know. Ensure that your cathedral constructors have opportunities for mentoring.

  • To revel in the detail: Try to keep incomplete knowledge or politics away from your cathedral constructors, so they can focus on the small details. Let them be in their happy place.

Bazaar browsers

The bazaar browser wishes to sample sights and sounds as much as possible. They want excitement, variety, chaos, and change. This is where they thrive and grow. You need to be able to offer them the following opportunities:

  • To get as much newness as possible: Is there a new project coming up? Your bazaar browsers want to sample new challenges, domains, products, and technologies as much as possible. Put whatever new thing you have in front of them first.

  • To build and throw away: Are you about to go through a phase of quick prototyping and iteration? Are you going to be experimenting with some new technology? Your bazaar browsers love this. Send it their way.

  • To avoid stagnation: Unlike the cathedral constructors, the bazaar browsers find working on the same area for a long time a sign of stagnation rather than mastery. Ensure that you’re talking with them about how they feel and give them opportunities to switch up what they’re doing as time goes on.

  • To even move around teams: If your team cannot keep a bazaar browser motivated, why not consider loaning them out to another team for a short while? They’ll get to do something new and fun and bring back knowledge. You could even take on a bazaar browser in return to inject some new energy into your team.

Having the conversation

While many may have had a discussion with their manager about whether they want to become managers or not in the future, one could speculate that far fewer have discussed whether they are cathedral builders or bazaar browsers. This is great material for your one-on-ones.

You may also find that your preconceptions about some of your staff could be completely wrong. Maybe Bob was underperforming recently because he needs more variety, but you thought it was best for him to stick with what he knows. That was wrong! Maybe Alice is happiest when she can stay inside her comfort zone, and the new challenge you gave her is uncomfortable rather than exciting.

By knowing what drives people, you can better place them in upcoming projects and teams. This improves both their happiness and the team’s performance for your business.

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