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Bill Gates and barbers

September 23rd, 2005 · 6 Comments

What is it with Bill Gates and barbers? While reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, I noticed this quote in a section on Open Source:

Added Bill Gates, “You need capitalism [to drive innovation]. To have [a movement] that says that innovation does not deserve an economic reward is contrary to where the world is going. When I talk to the Chinese, they dream of starting a company. They are not thinking, ‘I will be a barber during the day and do free software at night.’…When you have a security crisis in your [software] system, you don’t want to say, ‘Where is the guy at the barbershop?’ (page 101)

Then again, in an interview with Bill Gates published by news.com last week – found via Dave Winer – the barber idea makes another appearance:

Looking at the open-source world, there’s this movement away from selling licenses toward selling support. A lot of people are participating in that, and you have been skeptical. Why? Do you think that’s fundamentally the wrong model?

Gates: The industry will always be a mix of free and commercial software. So there will be a balance between those. I think that we are going to have a lot of both. There are some zealots that think there should be no software jobs, that we should all, like, cut hair during the day and write code at night. Should you take some of those extreme views, I think it’s easy to say that’s not right.

I don’t think the Open Source community as a whole is encouraging programmers to work in barbershops rather than companies. Why does Gates persist in using this inaccurate illustration? I find it insulting both to barbers and to the Open Source community.

I think Gates is using the example of a barber because it sounds ridiculous. Would you want a barber writing your software? I think he likes the contrast between [Microsoft-qualified] programmer and barber, playing them off each other as if one is much more valuable. Yet if you’ve ever had a good barber, you know how valuable one is. And I believe that there are probably a number of barbers who would be able to write code. This takes me back to the dialogue Doc Searls started last spring on intelligence, quoting both Friedman and John Gatto. To quote Doc: I can save Microsoft a pile of time and money by reporting a fact no school wants to admit, one that will flatten the world far more than any other factor: pretty much everybody is smart. What’s more, they’re all smart in their own ways.

There are probably a number of barbers who might have become software engineers or pursued technology careers if someone had encouraged them, believed in them and helped them succeed in the system we call school. And it’s not too late for them to learn if they wanted to do so. One of the ideas behind Open Source, I think, is that anyone can be creative and contribute to computing, not only certain elite who can pass exams or hold certain titles. (I confess I sometimes dream I might be able to learn to code and join an open source community.) And what if there are barbers or plumbers or day care workers who write code at night? What would be wrong with that? Gates’ comment on barbers reveals an attitude and also a lack of understanding and respect for others in their abilities, choices and options.

It is also insulting to the Open Source community. Okay, I’m not a member myself. Please correct me if I am wrong. But I think I have an idea how it operates. When there is a security crisis, it’s not as if the solution has to wait for one specific person to fix it. In a community, everything belongs to everyone. So the problems belong to everyone. I imagine that a security crisis would be solved as soon as possible by whomever around the world and clock was available to help. Open Source is not about running down to the barbershop to find the guy to fix the bug in between buzz cuts. I also don’t think Open Source as a whole movement believes there should not be any economic reward: many people such as my husband are now paid to work on Open Source as their full-time employment and many new business models are being explored and experimented. Gates seems to be intentionally perpetuating a ridiculous and inaccurate picture of the community’s operation, beliefs and achievements.

Gates believes innovation requires capitalism for motivation. I’ll agree that economic reward is a necessary option: a society without the possibility would be oppressive. Yet anyone who has thought about inventions or studied history knows that market pressures don’t always result in the best products. What will sell is often different from what is ideal or optimal. Financial pressures often frustrate creativity, forcing freedom and values to sacrifice themselves for revenue. And what if some would prefer to choose not to pursue economic rewards first but rather focus on other goals?

One can argue on a personal and individual level whether money is the best motivator. I’ve heard critiques of the system Microsoft uses to reward its own employees for their work and I’ve heard of issues at other companies too. Money can destroy morale and turn people into machines.

Gates obviously believes in philanthropy. But does he believe in community? Does he believe that people can come together successfully and independently to work for something they want without money as primary motivation? Does he see that quality can be created outside a corporation?

Passion or paycheck? It doesn’t have to be an either/or. But what the Open Source community taps, I think, is the idea that we want to work for something, for our labor to have a meaning more than money. We long to live what we believe. Visions, ideas and ideals help us feel alive. That’s why people around the world are willing to put their spare time and resources into creating software together. I believe we humans hunger for more than just a job. We want to change lives. Open Source is about empowering people. It values choice, cooperation and community.

When I hear my husband talk about Open Source, I hear the struggles and successes of community building. Community happens when people are willing to come together, give what gifts each one has, and pour their lives out for something. Maybe the goal is to create software. Maybe the goal is to build a playground. But in both cases, all cases, there is the same something driving people to participate. This something has a name. It’s called passion. It’s called generosity. It’s called love.

Some thoughts for Bill Gates to consider…the next time he’s sitting in the barber’s chair…

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adrian Sampson // Sep 23, 2005 at 8:00 pm

    As a “member” of the open-source community (I use quotes because there are so many more who are so much more involved), I think that you’re spot-on.

    Additionally, however, I’d like to say that, in my ideal world, at least, people _do_ cut hair during the day and write code during the night. To reinforce much of what you mentioned, I think creative processes (I consider code to be a creative process) can only be limited by monetary motivation. They are best fueled by passion or pursuit of glory or anything more personal than money.

    An organization a quarter the size of Microsoft made up of people who cut hair (or bake or repair motorcycles) during the day could change the world for the better and perhaps give corporations like MS a run for their money. They would have perspective and therefore insight that overcompensated assembly-line programmers lack.

    Of course, I do not represent the community — as a young person, I should be expected to feel invulnerable and therefore be more amenable to things like accepting poverty for the sake of a higher good.

  • 2 Peter // Sep 23, 2005 at 9:18 pm

    The most ironic thing about this is that Bill Gates spent at least 20 years being mocked for his bad haircut.

    One thing Bucky Fuller recounted in Critical Path is that one day he decided to stop worrying about how to make money, and start working solely towards the betterment of humanity, and figured that things would work out. Not all of us are as brilliant or courageous as he was. But some of us do feel compelled to spend at least some of our spare time working towards the betterment of humanity, and not just through charity, and writing code is one way of doing that, and a highly leveragable way at that.

    Gates is partly defending his turf, but I’ve gotten the feeling that he truly doesn’t understand why anyone would write code unless they got paid for it.

  • 3 philippe boucher // Sep 24, 2005 at 9:58 am

    Bill is upset and frightened. Very defensive of/despite/because his billions.
    I have had the same “argument” with other microsofties that were on the same company line. There is a very strong trend in favor of open source that they consider a lethal threat to their survival and (maybe more important) a denial of their most basic assumptions about the absolute superiority and power of $/money as the ultimate motivator (as Adam much more eloquently wrote).
    Thank you Julie!

  • 4 Bob V // Sep 24, 2005 at 1:34 pm

    Maybe Gates was just frustrated with 40 years of lousy haircuts.

    In his defense, there are a number of open source programs that have the characteristics Gates talks about. They have one primary developer on whom the project depends on. Linux is a rarity in that it has thousands of developers. Most projects on a place like sourceforge.net seem to be the children of single parents.

    As for contributing to the community, you don’t even have to write a line of code! Projects need people who can help Beta test the new versions of their products. They are also generally behind on their documentation work. Or, if that doesn’t sound like fun, merely using the software and encouraging others that you know to use it is a way to help.

    >Gates believes innovation requires capitalism for motivation.

    Actually, he doesn’t. 🙂 You think he’s doing all this for the money? Bill Gates, just like the open source developers you mention, is driven by much more than that. I recommend checking out “Built to Last” by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. (Actually, anything by Jim Collins is great.) It turns out that companies that have non-financial ambitions can outperform financially-driven companies drastically. Guess what? Employees want to work for companies that want to accomplish something that matters to them. Making money for shareholders usually doesn’t meet that bar. A non-corporate example is Michael Jordan. Do you think he played for the money? Or did he play because of his undying committment to winning and his desire to annihilate the competition? (Hmm, what corporation does that sound like?)

    What the open source community must deal with (and I hope they/we do successfully) is that they do not have a monopoly on passion. When MicroSoft becomes the Micro$oft the open-source community portrays it as, the giant will be close to its downfall. Until then, they will have to contend with a corporation driven by not only profit, but also its own dreams and vision of the world it is building.

  • 5 James Stansell // Sep 28, 2005 at 10:27 pm

    Julie, thanks for this post. If I had seen those quotes before, I had never noticed the barber thing specifically.

    You say you aren’t part of the open-source community, but I disagree. Your very comments provide your “membership.” If you don’t think commenting is enough, consider this: do you use open-source software, or do you report bugs to the programming teams, or do you suggest documentation improvements? Those may not sound as important as coding, but they honestly are. In fact, they’re a big piece of what Bill G. is missing when he suggests that money is the only important payment.

    Another missing piece for him is that open-source software _is_ commercial. I suspect we’ll come to see that it is _more_ commercial than proprietary software. One dimension of the puzzle is that FL/OSS has a “complete”-ness that most proprietary software is missing. A small part of that is that it allows companies to conduct business according to their needs, to a far greater extent than otherwise.

  • 6 Yule Heibel // Sep 30, 2005 at 10:37 am

    I missed the Doc Searls article, Julie, so thanks for the pointer! (John Taylor Gatto is occasionally a tad too far into conspiracy theories, but he remains one of my intellectual heroes — to see his ideas juxtaposed so creatively by Doc to Friedman’s, whom I really don’t like because of his overemphasis on competitive globalisation, which puts me in mind of the infamous “work makes you free” outrage, was really astonishing.). Hats off to Doc Searls. …Who also doesn’t have as bad a hair cut as Bill Gates!

    Perhaps Mr. Gates is worried that the open sourcers will do a hatchet job on his company the way barbers have been doing on Mr. Gates’s head of hair for these many decades…? 😉

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