Writing good code makes you a good man. Or not.

“If you didn’t run code written by assholes, your machine wouldn’t boot”.

This is how the hacker Rusty Russell titles a recent post of his blog:

Quite some time ago I was horrified by the private behaviour of a hacker I deeply respected: malicious, hypocritical stuff.  And it caused an internal crisis for me: I thought we were all striving together to make the world a better place. Here are the results I finally derived:

  1. Being a great hacker does not imbue moral or ethical characteristics.
  2. Being a great coder doesn’t mean you’re not a crackpot.
  3. Working on a great project doesn’t mean you share my motivations about it.

Russell is talking about two discoveries that have a huge impact on one’s life:

  1. that a respected public figure may have a disappointing private life;
  2. that a community could share a formal ideal but people in it may have pretty different motivations, goals, visions – often disappointing as well.

This reminded me of a conversation I had last year during a meeting of my association, when the topic came out whether it is better to know the details of our favourite author’s life or not. Someone said that discovering that that author was a prick would spoil his artwork; some other said that the relationship you have with the author is so “personal” you can’t separate his life – both lights and shadows – form his work: in the end, even if he is a total dumb-ass a good piece of work cannot come out of anywhere. And anyway, no one is just either a good fellow or a bad man.

So what’s my conclusion? I have none. Maybe Rusty is both right and wrong. I totally agree with his words, considering them at the level they are spoken. If we respect the work, this doesn’t mean we have to respect the man the same way: understanding this means that we don’t idealize and that we can discriminate – which is good.

But – at another, deeper and more complex level – if we respect the work, maybe this tells us something we can’t see otherwise of the man behind it.

We need role models, we need to admire people to build our motivations; changing point of view about this need means that we all learn from each other (even from the ones we don’t respect or see as leaders), and we always may show someone else a better way (even people we admire and think need no advice).

[2011-05-21 - Update: Rusty's post generated many comments around, you can find a couple of them here and here]

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