Uber Apologists, a Corporate Invasion of Open Source, and a Tool for Organizing Online – Unevenly Distributed #1

What is this? Where am I? All good questions! Unevenly Distributed is a new column on SourceContribute. Usually I post about open source projects, sponsors of open source, free/open source conferences and recently expanded to cover peer2peer technology and professionalism in software development.

In Unevenly Distributed I post in a longer format (and as a newsletter) with a focus on startups, acquisitions, the tech industry and tools we can use to prefigure and build a better future. With that comes a particular perspective that will shine a light on what is missing in most articles about the tech industry.

Let me show you what I mean with an article from that most celebrated of tech/startup news publications, TechCrunch.

Uber Apologists

TechCrunch published “Inside Uber’s new approach to employee performance reviews”, where an Uber Senior Vice President Liane Hornsey discusses how their performance review process has changed, how it used focus groups and the input of employees to improve that process. Previously Uber used employee ratings and rankings, with managers forced to pick the top 3 strengths and bottom 3 weaknesses (which TechCrunch euphemistically calls “things one could improve on”). It’s essentially a fluff piece.

After Fowler’s allegations came out, Hornsey conducted a survey of Uber employees to find out what they wanted performance reviews to look like moving forward. About a third of employees responded to the survey, and the first 600 to volunteer to be involved in the process were brought in to develop prototypes for performance reviews. Once the focus groups came up with their ideas, they brought that to 200 leaders at Uber. Initially, some of the senior leaders were not down with the proposed changes, Hornsey said. But then Hornsey pushed the “wisdom of the crowd” angle, and the leaders agreed.

Let’s say it plainly: an Uber worker was harassed and went public. Uber executives realized that in a market where the demand for skilled workers is very high, a lot of workers could just walk away. They could pursue new careers with more agreeable employment terms.

So the management [think: “The Management” from Kubrick’s The Shining] acted as any king would when confronted by the mob: they would appease the peasants and farmer-tenants. A simple survey would not require massive bonuses or begging to keep the workers around. The “wisdom of the crowd”? Hah, more like the wisdom of the crowd carrying torches and pitchforks outside the king’s castle! Survey issued, rage redirected, the human resources pipeline continues to flow.

Fixing Uber’s Direction Requires More Than A Survey

Uber is a 12,000+ employee company funded by massive amounts of VC. A small survey is not going to fix the direction of the company. Perhaps the new CEO will have better ideas, but from all the “allegations” of wrong-doing, it is built into the company that they will behave in awful ways:

The list of Uber misdeeds is already long and has been growing. TechCrunch engaging in a soft-ball interview with a Senior VP, does the reader a disservice; it’s why Unevenly Distributed exists, to sharpen the critical edge and examine Silicon Valley and startups from a tech worker-oriented perspective.

Kite is the bad apple that spoils the open source bunch

Kite is a startup that develops productivity tools for software developers, things that can be integrated into your IDE. They decided that the best way to “growth-hack” their way to success was to hire the developers of some popular extensions. After some time, those developers inserted code that promoted Kite in one way or another. This offended a lot of open source developers because Kite is a proprietary tool that sends data to its own servers. It was a clear power move to use open source projects to promote their proprietary tool.

It’s one thing to hire a developer and acknowledge that they work on a popular open source project and to give them time (or resources) to work on that project. It’s quite another to also promote your company through that project. It’s deeply offensive if you see the free/open source world as a gift economy, where gifts of time and effort are given to the community in the hopes that other community will also contribute their own gifts.

In 2016, Kite raised $4 million in VC funds to grow their business. That is a lot of money and it is enough to pay for a decent growth-hacker and marketing team. It’s enough money to sponsor the developers and maybe down the line, Kite’s goodness in the community helps promote their product.

The next time a startup hires a developer who runs a popular free/open source project, the community around that project will have a very good reason to be nervous and to perhaps considering preparing to fork the project. We’ve seen this with larger enterprise such as Oracle which stripped Sun Microsystems clean (almost all of the free/open source projects from Sun are now maintained by the community, which is good overall but bad for the developers at Sun who lost their jobs). Kite’s actions are on par with Oracle, looking at the ROI rather than being part of the community.

This invasion of free/open source projects by companies that are backed by millions in VC funding are not new but I have a feeling we will see more of them. If you run a free/open source project, you would do well to find sponsors who don’t have any demands other than a logo on your project’s home page and fundraising in other ways. If you want to defend against what a company like Kite did, you should consider the GPL or AGPL as the license for your next project.

Organizing Online With Keybase.io

Keybase.io released a new encrypted group chat program similar to Slack. It allows people to chat in chat rooms that are end-to-end encrypted and lets them upload files too. This makes it a valuable tool for organizing online.

A lot of free/open source projects rely on Slack and so do a lot of startups but they never really consider that all of their communications are stored on Slack’s servers. This data can be handed over to the government at any time. Startups rarely consider the retention policy that Slack and HipChat and other tools have. Because Keybase is free/open source, you can host it yourself for an extra-measure of security (you can also do that with Riot.im/Matrix and Zulip).

Keybase also offers accounts where your profile will list your email, social network and social media accounts alongside your encryption keys. What is unique is that each account is confirmed as yours. You post a tweet with a particular message and Keybase will confirm that a particular Twitter account is yours. This works for Github, Twitter, Facebook, Hacker News, Reddit, and your domain names.

You can share your Keybase profile with others to let them quickly find your PGP encryption key to send you safe and secure messages. Or, they can use Keybase itself to send you a message online (though I would think this is slightly less secure) or use their command-line program.

Keybase is one of many tools that we can use to protect ourselves from surveillance capitalism and mass surveillance and a tool that we can use to organize our projects for building a better future.

What Kind Of Future Do We Really Want?

The articles above lead me to ask, what kind of future do we really want? Do we want startups that are led by bros who have little or no ethics? Do we want to work at companies where harassment is not punished?

The name for this column, Unevenly Distributed, comes from the William Gibson quote, “The future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed”. It’s true and the truth is becoming more widely known as we see Uber not being punished for their bad behavior, as we see the anti-diversity crowd becoming braver in expressing their hateful views (more on that in the next column), and when a company like Kite invades open source projects.

A thought to contemplate, dear reader, is whether or not we want to keep building a future that is unevenly distributed.