Altruistic innovation and the study of software economics

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Recently, I have been reading rather a lot of papers that are ostensibly about the economics of markets where applications, licensed under an open source license, are readily available. I say ostensibly, because the authors have some very odd ideas about the activities of those involved in the production of open source.

Perhaps I am overly cynical, but I don’t think altruism is the primary motivation for developers writing open source. Yes, there is an altruistic component, but I would list enjoyment as the primary driver; developers enjoy solving problems that involve the production of software. On the commercial side, companies are involved with open source because of naked self-interest, e.g., commoditizing software that complements their products.

It may surprise you to learn that academic papers, written by economists, tend to be knee-deep in differential equations. As a physics/electronics undergraduate I got to spend lots of time studying various differential equations (each relating to some aspect of the workings of the Universe). Since graduating, I have rarely encountered them; that is, until I started reading economics papers (or at least trying to).

Using differential equations to model problems in economics sounds like a good idea, after all they have been used to do a really good job of modeling how the universe works. But the universe is governed by a few simple principles (or at least the bit we have access to is), and there is lots of experimental data about its behavior. Economic issues don’t appear to be governed by a few simple principles, and there is relatively little experimental data available.

Writing down a differential equation is easy, figuring out an analytic solution can be extremely difficult; the Navier-Stokes equations were written down 200-years ago, and we are still awaiting a general solution (solutions for a variety of special cases are known).

To keep their differential equations solvable, economists make lots of simplifying assumptions. Having obtained a solution to their equations, there is little or no evidence to compare it against. I cannot speak for economics in general, but those working on the economics of software are completely disconnected from reality.

What factors, other than altruism, do academic economists think are of major importance in open source? No, not constantly reinventing the wheel-barrow, but constantly innovating. Of course, everybody likes to think they are doing something new, but in practice it has probably been done before. Innovation is part of the business zeitgeist and academic economists are claiming to see it everywhere (and it does exist in their differential equations).

The economics of Linux vs. Microsoft Windows is a common comparison, i.e., open vs. close source; I have not seen any mention of other open source operating systems. How might an economic analysis of different open source operating systems be framed? How about: “An economic analysis of the relative enjoyment derived from writing an operating system, Linux vs BSD”? Or the joy of writing an editor, which must be lots of fun, given how many have text editors are available.

I have added the topics, altruism and innovation to my list of indicators of poor quality, used to judge whether its worth spending more than 10 seconds reading a paper.

Is it worth attending an academic conference or workshop?

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

If you work in industry, is it worth attending an academic conference or workshop?

The following observations are based on my attending around 50 software engineering and compiler related conferences/workshops, plus discussion with a few other people from industry who have attended such events.

Short answer: No.

Slightly longer answer: Perhaps, if you are looking to hire somebody knowledgeable in a particular domain.

Much longer answer: Academics go to conferences to network. They are looking for future collaborators, funding, jobs, and general gossip. What is the point of talking to somebody from industry? Academics will make small talk and be generally friendly, but they don’t know how to interact, at the professional level, with people from industry.

Why are academics generally hopeless at interacting, at the professional level, with people from industry?

Part of the problem is lack of practice, many academic researchers live in a world that rarely intersects with people from industry.

Impostor syndrome is another. I have noticed that academics often think that people in industry have a much better understanding of the realities of their field. Those who have had more contact with people from industry might have noticed that impostor syndrome is not limited to academia.

Talking of impostor syndrome, and feeling of being a fraud, academics don’t seem to know how to handle direct criticism. Again I think it is a matter of practice. Industry does not operate according to: I won’t laugh at your idea, if you don’t laugh at mine, which means people within industry are practiced at ‘robust’ discussion (this does not mean they like it, and being good at handling such discussions smooths the path into management).

At the other end of the impostor spectrum, some academics really do regard people working in industry as simpletons. I regularly have academics express surprise that somebody in industry, i.e., me, knows about this-that-or-the-other. My standard reply is to say that its because I paid more for my degree and did not have the usual labotomy before graduating. Not a reply guaranteed to improve industry/academic relations, but I enjoy the look on their faces (and I don’t expect they express that opinion again to anyone else from industry).

The other reason why I don’t recommend attending academic conferences/workshops, is that lots of background knowledge is needed to understand what is being said. There is no point attending ‘cold’, you will not understand what is being presented (academic presentations tend to be much better organized than those given by people in industry, so don’t blame the speaker). Lots of reading is required. The point of attending is to talk to people, which means knowing something about the current state of research in their area of interest. Attending simply to learn something about a new topic is a very poor use of time (unless the purpose is to burnish your c.v.).

Why do I continue to attend conferences/workshops?

If a conference/workshop looks like it will be attended by people who I will find interesting, and it’s not too much hassle to attend, then I’m willing to go in search of gold nuggets. One gold nugget per day is a good return on investment.