Nobody Wants to be a Sucker

August 5, 2011

It is a thing of beauty when Nobel Laureates speak in plain language.

That is probably the reason why after recently reading the book:

       “Governing the Commons:
         The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.”
         by Elinor Ostrom
         Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009


The phrase that stuck in my mind was her wise statement:


                 “Nobody Wants to be a Sucker”


It is certainly a big contrast with the typical Economist-speak that sounds along the lines of:


    “…Economics is the study of the optimal allocation of rival resources
        made by rational self-optimizing individuals who have access to
        low-cost information…”


In her book, and in her research leading to the Nobel Prize on Economics, Ostrom analyzes the governance structures that make possible for human groups to effectively manage Common Pools of Resources (CPRs). Ostrom’s research dispels the widely held assumption that when a common pool of resources is left to be managed by a group of individuals, those individuals, acting as rational self-optimizing actors will exploit the resource without restraint to the point of destroying it. This view is commonly known as the “Tragedy of the Commons” after the title of the paper by Garret Hardin, where the concept was famously introduced. It also happens that most people who hold this view have never read Harding’s paper, but that is a rant for a future blog…

Ostrom’s research studied the characteristics of several human groups that demonstrated to successfully manage common pools of resources over periods of centuries (and millenia in some cases), and that are still effective today. They include cases of:

  • Fisheries
  • Forest management
  • Underground water basins
  • Irrigation systems

In locations as diverse as

  • Switzerland
  • The Philippine Islands
  • California
  • Spain
  • Peru
  • Japan

In most cases, the local communities that are directly affected by the availability of the resources from the common pool, reached reasonable agreements among themselves leading to a set of rules that effectively regulated the use of the resource, while still protecting its future availability. After all, it was in their own rational and self-optimizing long term interest to make sure that the common resource is not destroyed and remains available.


One of the curious and powerful things about the “Nobody Wants to be a Sucker” (NWTBAS) statement is that we can derive from it the essential rules of the Open Source Code of Conduct, or in Pirate-Speak: “The Code


  • No Private Discussions: When members of an Open Source community engage in “private discussions” behind the backs of all other contributors to the project, they are sending intentionally or unintentionally the message: “We are the deciders, and you guys, the rest, are the suckers”. The others, those who are excluded from the discussion, do not count when it comes to making some “important” decisions, so there is no need for them to know. The result, given the NWTBAS rule, is that those other contributors will be much less motivated to further contribute to the project, and will be quite likely to abandon ship and move on to participate in any of the other hundreds of thousands of Open Source projects that are out there looking for attention, and where they have better chances of being treated with respect. In an environment when you don’t hire or fire contributors, and where you have limited mechanisms for motivating them to contribute, sending them the signal that they are suckers, is not a very smart way to proceed.
  • Meritocracy: The meritocratic governance is one of the defining characteristics of Open Source communities. It is rooted on the notion that: “Those who do the work, also make the decisions“. It is in itself, all about NWTBAS. It has the additional advantage, that usually, those who do the real work are the ones who are best technically qualified and strongly motivated, and therefore are also the ones who are in a better position to carry on with the decisions and getting them to work. They will not do “design by committee” and they will particularly never do “vaporware”. Any external interference with the meritocratic governance of an Open Source community, puts contributors in the position of being suckers.
  • Self-Governance: A good deal of Ostrom’s research related to the emergence of self-organization and self-governance in communities that need to manage a common pool of resource. One of her findings is that the communities that succeeded to  sustainably manage a resource, were those for which the self-governance was respected by external authorities. This carries an important lesson for Open Source projects that are supported by companies as well as corporate and government organizations. It is key to establish clear rules of independency and autonomy for the community. Breaking that separation, also breaks the culture of the community. For example, when a manager of a contributing organization, makes the mistake of ordering a developer under his command to apply specific changes to the project, this manager has violated the meritocratic self-governance, and corrupted the Open Source project with the handicaps of corporate hierarchical structures that are behind the reason why 70% of software projects fail at a global cost of $980 billion every year. In a self-governing meritocracy, it will never be the case that “you do the work, and I make the decisions“, or that a developer performs any work because “my manager told me to do so”. In a self-governing meritocracy, by definition, there are no suckers.
  • Release Early, Release Often: Showing that the code is real and that it carries a plausible promise of becoming a working project is essential for recruiting contributors for an Open Source project. There is no better way to do this than by showing the code in public, under a suitable OSI-approved license starting on day zero. Even before any lines of code are written, the repository should be open to the public and it should be labeled with the selected license. Failure to do so, sends the signal that adopters of the code and potential future contributors are going to be treated as “suckers“, since after all, they have not been considered important enough at this point to show them what the code contains and what it is all about.  All projects that claim to have the intention of “making the code available as open source in the near future” but that have to keep it close now because “we are cleaning it up“, “working on it to make it ready for release“, are very unlikely to ever become an Open Source project, or if they ever do, they probably won’t be a good one. They have already missed the opportunity to build upon the collective intelligence of a larger pool of resources. They are in the way to deliver “vaporware”.
  • Documentation: When primma-donna developers decide that they are too important to write documentation, and their time is so valuable that they must focus exclusively on writing pristine code that is worth of a Pulitzer prize. They are sending the signal to other developers, who are required to write documentation, that they are the suckers. They are also sending the signal to any potential adopters of the code, that they will be treated as suckers, and that it will be up to the adopters to figure out how the Pulitzer-winning code was supposed to behave.
  • Skipping Procedures: When senior developers or those who for some reason consider themselves to have any level of privileges among the team, decide that they can skip the procedures and processes that otherwise are applicable to the rest of the team, they are also sending to the rest of the team the signal that they are suckers. Soon the rest of the team will recognize the hypocrisy of the situation and will get motivated to rather join other Open Source projects where they will be treated with respect according to basic rules of a meritocratic governance.


It goes on and on…

The NWTBAS principle is applicable to many situations that we confront daily while enjoying the life-changing opportunity of working with Open Source projects.



The reading of Ostrom’s book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand why is that the structure of Open Source communities occupies a space that goes well beyond the realm of software. They are in-line with self-governance structures that have proven to be effective for managing large scale problems for centuries.

As we go through our day to day interactions with member of our communities, it is extremely helpful to remember this Nobel Prize winning concept:

                                         Nobody wants to be a Sucker.

Do not accept the situations where you are treated as such, and more importantly do not engage in practices that will put others in that situation.


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