Brutal honesty in open source development

There’s a bit of a flamewar going on right now between the main PulseAudio developer, and another Linux desktop developer who grew frustrated by some very real problems caused directly and indirectly by it. PulseAudio is the latest of many savior technologies that promise to make audio on Linux not suck. I’m actually pretty optimistic that the fifth(?) time’s a charm here; there’s a lot of very sensible things about the design.

Anyway, Jeffrey Stedfast wrote a series of blog posts culminating in “PulseAudio: I told you so“. In these, he documents his frustration with being given the runaround when trying to point out PA problems that he ends up debugging to the point of finding and/or filing several bugs/patches in various bug trackers. PulseAudio creator Lennart Poettering had enough, and posted to his blog with a long rebuttal, claiming that Stedfast’s blog post “flamed my software and hence me”. It’s a pretty run of the mill developer flamewar, which only caught my eye because I’ve had a few frustrating problems with PA myself and was hoping to learn more.

These kind of arguments make me sad, because they unfortunately seem an inevitable consequence of open source norms (at least as they exist today). Anyone who knows me knows I’ve laid down my fair share of smackdowns and attempted smackdowns myself. But I’ve also become more ashamed of doing it as I’ve gotten older. It just seems that there’s got to be a better way of communicating than this.

In this particular case, I get both sides of the argument equally well. I’ve been on the side of the creator who is told they need to get a thicker skin. That’s pretty rough, though, given how brutally honest many people think they need to be just to make a point. On the flip side, I’m also using PulseAudio now, and its inclusion in distributions like Ubuntu does feel like it was horribly rushed. However, it’s obvious there wasn’t any malice here; just two people who have different views on what the right path to “better” is.

The only thing I would say is that “brutal honesty” should be the last resort, and that public brutal honesty should be the absolute last resort. Just plain old honesty is good enough more often than not.

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