Too Many Stone Soup Chefs and Not Enough H1-B Immigrant Indians

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Nat Torkington
Feb. 23, 2002 01:06 AM
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I want to correct a misconception about the "stone soup" story. You know, villagers whine they have no food so the canny homeless hobo puts a stone into a pot and has the villagers add garnish, until they have a hearty meal. The story is often used to illustrate how you can bring nothing to the table but enthusiasm and have other people fill in the gaps for you. I don't think this is what the story is about.

It is very tempting to apply the stone soup story to open source software. There's no Microsoftian chef in the kitchen directing the ingredients and courses, so it must be a stone soup, right? This seems to spring from, or at least promotes, an incorrect view of open source development: "Hey, I've got a great idea for what open source software lacks. Let's start a mailing list and make some stone soup!"

The fallacy is in thinking that you can bring nothing to the table but an idea and canny wiles, and people will magically fill in the substance for you. The bones of the thousands of dead projects on Sourceforge are a monument to the complex requirements for success in open source software.

In particular, I think a successful project requires two things: code and users. The user side of things is a lot like marketing a book--it's really easy to build up a userbase if people already want your product. So regardless of how good your idea is, the software will only be successful if (a) it's written, and (b) people want it. Continuing the parallels with books, every novelist will tell you that ideas are a dime a dozen. It's the act of crafting a novel that creates value around an idea, and I feel that a lot of would-be stone soup chefs fail to appreciate the inherent lack of value in most ideas.

I do draw a distinction between seeding a project (actually doing work and accepting help from others) and the true stone soup story. Ultimately the hobo in the story added nothing of value to the soup, he merely catalyzed the cookery of others. There are few to no people like this in open source software--you live or die by your contributions, and people who are all TODO and no diff tend to be ignored by those who do the work.

The hobo was able to catalyze the stone soup because the villagers were both the coders and the users in this open sauce. They really wanted a meal, and they supplied the ingredients. The lesson from the story is really one of pooling resources for a common good, a socialist moral that obviously doesn't sit well with the would-be bourgeois who think "we can have an unpaid legion of programmers to create our great ideas!"

So although I feel like a duffer grumbling about "donut", the use of quotation marks for emphasis (I'm "Great" In Bed), and the continued confusion of i.e. and e.g., I'll persist. When next you need an allegory for open source, please think twice before using stone soup.

We duffers thank you.

Nat Torkington is conference planner for the Open Source Convention, OSCON Europe, and other O'Reilly conferences. He was project manager for Perl 6, is on the board of The Perl Foundation, and is a frequent speaker on open source topics. He cowrote the bestselling Perl Cookbook.