Saturday, September 6, 2014

Creativity and KDE

Creativity Inc., by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar

My book to read for this trip finally arrived from the library last week, and I could hardly wait to dip into it. I see a profound parallel between the work we do in KDE, and the experiences Catmull recounts in his book. He's structures it as "lessons learned" as he lead one of the most creative teams in both entertainment and in technology. His dream was always to marry the two fields, which he has done brilliantly at Pixar. He tried to make a place where you don't have to ask permission to take responsibility. [p. 51]

Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening Catmull says on p. 23. When he hired a person he deemed more qualified for his job than he was, the risk paid off both creatively and personally. Playing it safe is what humans tend to do far too often, especially after they have become successful. Our stone age brains hate to lose, more than they like to win big. Knowing this about ourselves sometimes gives us the courage to 'go big' rather than 'go home.' I have seen us follow this advice in the past year or two, and I hope we have the courage to continue on our brave course.

However, experience showed Catmull that being confident about the value of innovation was not enough. We needed buy-in from the community we were trying to serve.[p 31] My observation is that the leaders in the KDE community have learned this lesson very well. The collaborative way we develop new ideas, new products, new processes helps get that buy in. However, we're not perfect. We often lack knowledge of our "end users" -- not our fellow community members, but some of the millions of students, tech workers and just plain computer users. How often do teams schedule testing sessions where they watch users as they try to accomplish tasks using our software? I know we do it, and we need to do it more often.

Some sources rate us as the largest FOSS community. This can be seen as success. This achievement can have hidden dangers, however. When Catmull ran into trouble, in spite of his 'open door' management style, he found that the good stuff was hiding the bad stuff.... When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what's bugging them for fear of being labeled complainers.[p. 63] This is really dangerous. Those downsides are poison, and they must be exposed to the light, dealt with, fixed, or they will destroy a community or a part of a community. On the upside, the KDE community created the Community Working Group (CWG), and empowered us to do our job properly. On the downside, often people hide their misgivings, their irritations, their fears, until they explode. Not only does such an explosion shock the people surrounding the damage, but it shocks the person exploding as well. And afterwards, the most we can do is often damage control, rather than helping the team grow healthier, and find more creative ways to deal with those downsides.

Another danger is that even the smartest people can form an ineffective team if they are mis-matched. Focus on how a team is performing, not on the talents of the individuals within it.... Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.[p. 74] One of the important strengths of FOSS teams, and KDE teams in particular, is that people feel free to come and go. If anyone feels walled out, or trapped in, we need to remove those barriers. When people are working with those who feed their energy and they in turn can pass it along. When the current stops flowing, it's time to do something different. Of course this prevents burnout, but more important, it keeps teams feeling alive, energetic, and fun. Find, develop, and support good people, and they will find, develop, and own good ideas."[p. 76] I think we instinctively know in KDE that good ideas are common. What is unusual is someone else stepping up to make those "good ideas" we are often given, to make them happen. Instead, the great stuff happens when someone has an itch, and decides to scratch it, and draws others to help her make that vision become reality. 

The final idea I want to present in this post is directed to all the leaders in KDE. This doesn't mean just the board of the e.V., by the way. The leaders in KDE are those who have volunteered to maintain packages, mentor students, moderate the mail lists and forums, become channel ops in IRC, write the promo articles, release notes and announcements, do the artwork, write the documentation, keeps the wikis accurate, helpful and free of spam, organize sprints and other meetings such as Akademy, translate our docs and internationalize our software, design and build-in accessibility, staff booths, and many other responsibilities such as serving on working groups and other committees. This is a shared responsibility we carry to one another, and what keeps our community healthy.

It is management's job to take the long view, to intervene and protect our people from their willingness to pursue excellence at all costs. Not to do so would be irresponsible.... If we are in this for the long haul, we have to take care of ourselves, support healthy habits and encourage our employees to have fullfilling lives outside of work. [p. 77] This is the major task of the e.V. and especially the Board, in my opinion, and of course the task of the CWG as well. 

Isn't this stuff great!? I'll be writing more blog posts inspired by this book as I get further into it.