Programmers are having a huge debate over whether they should be required to behave respectfully to each other

Rob Monk/Edge Magazine via Getty Images
  • A programmer publicly quit a large and popular open-source project earlier this week.
  • His reason? He was opposed to the project having a Community Code of Conduct that insists all people are welcome and are to be treated with respect.
  • The CCoC has become a battleground for programmers these days.
  • Yet even the CEO of the world’s largest open source, Linux company, Red Hat, tells us that the open source world has got to learn to be nicer.

Earlier this week, a software engineer publicly quit a very popular open-source project and set off a firestorm of debate within the programming world.

They are arguing about whether they should have to agree to a community code of conduct that requires them to behave respectfully.

And they are also arguing whether programs that aim to increase participation from underrepresented groups is “racism.”

The debate began on Wednesday when a developer named Rafael Avila de Espindola publicly quit a project called The LLVM Compiler Infrastructure Project.He had been a major contributor to the project for over a decade.

Avila named a number of his frustrations with the group but he said he quit because the community was now requiring him to agree to its community code of conduct in order to attend its conference.

That code of conduct basically says that the group is open to people of all walks of life and expects its members to be courteous.

Avila also said he was unhappy that the project had decided to accept an intern from a group called Outreachy. Outreachy offers paid internships to women, folks in the LGBTQ community, and those who are African-American, Hispanic/Latin, or from of any of the indigenous American ancestries.

In other words, these internships are only for people in underrepresented gender and racial groups in the programming/open-source worlds and are not open to white men or Asians/South Asians. White men and Asian men are the two groups that are best represented in tech, according to diversity reports.

Avila explained:

“The community change I cannot take is how the social injustice movement has permeated it. When I joined llvm no one asked or cared about my religion or political view. We all seemed committed to just writing a good compiler framework.

Somewhat recently a code of conduct was adopted. It says that the community tries to welcome people of all “political belief”. Except those whose political belief mean that they don’t agree with the code of conduct. Since agreement is required to take part in the conferences, I am no longer able to attend.

The last drop was llvm associating itself with an organisation that openly discriminates based on sex and ancestry … This goes directly against my ethical views and I think I must leave the project to not be associated with this.

Ironically, although LLVM hoped to get an intern from Outreachy, it didn’t actually hire one. It has only talked to the intern-placement group so far, and hopes to hire one in the future, Outreachy organiser Sage Sharp explained in a tweet.

LLVM is a popular and famous project

This incident has gained attention throughout the developer community because LLVM is a high-profile project started by a superstar software engineer, Chris Lattner, when he was a grad student at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

Lattner was later hired by Apple. His 12 years at Apple culminated in creating Apple’s enormously popular Swift programming language and turning him into a legend.

He left Apple to run Tesla’s self-driving program and he famously quit that struggling program after six months to join Google Cloud, where he’s already doing big things. He and his team just released Swift for TensorFlow a marriage of Apple’s popular programming language with Google’s popular machine-learning tool, TensorFlow. It has become instantly popular.

Lattner is still heavily involved in the LLVM community, in part because he’s the husband of the LLVM Foundation’s president, Tanya Lattner.

Tanya Lattner is a former Apple engineer who worked on LLVM as a grad student. She was a driving force in making the project so successful.

She declined comment to Business Insider, but she tweeted:

“When I organise a conference of 500 people. its naive to think that there should not be any guidelines for attendees,” her tweet reads. “For the safety and security of all who attend, its very important,” she said.

Chris Lattner also tweeted: “I am definitely sad to lose Rafael from the LLVM project, but it is critical to the long term health of the project that we preserve an inclusive community. I applaud Rafael for standing by his personal principles, this must have been a hard decision.”

He followed up with a longer blog post about the incident, in which he explained, “while the LLVM community has never had a problem with ‘bad actors’ in a community, they do exist. My opinion is that the right time to introduce an LLVM Code of Conduct is when everything is fine – to set a written down set of expectations, with the hope that it will never be necessary.”

And here comes the firestorm

Avila’s quitting set off a now-familiar firestorm of debates on Twitter, Hacker News, and Reddit – and other channels in the programming world over so-called “social justice warriors.”

SJW is a dog-whistle term for those who believe that people with left-leaning ideologies are trying to force their viewpoints on others, and will force out the people who disagree with them.

As one person who weighed into the discussion about Avila on Reddit put it:

“F–king purple-haired SJW cancer won’t give up before everything has been destroyed.”

To be fair, there were people ready to publicly label Avila a bigot, even condemning Chris Lattner for his positive statement about Avila’s departure.

Latter responded to those flames by tweeting, “This is ridiculous. Rafael is a good and principled person who has a different philosophy on how to achieve equality and fairness. As far as I know, he is not advocating for bigotry or anything else that would lead someone to harm.”

Hating on the Community Code of Conduct

The latest battleground for those who loathe the “SJWs” is to take issue with the seemingly innocuous Community Code of Conduct.

A CCoC demands that people behave respectfully to each other and warns that harassment won’t be tolerated. But the anti-CCoC people see it as a potential weapon.

“These CoCs are not used to enforce civil behaviour, they[‘re] used to weed out people who don’t align with ‘social justice’ and ‘intersection feminist’ views,” wrote one person on Reddit.

That’s not always how it pans out.

For instance, there was a hubbub in the Node.js community last year when it voted on whether to remove one of its top developers, Rod Vagg, over some of his controversial actions, including statements against CCoCs, it said.

In the end, they didn’t boot him. But another member, Bryan Hughes, did resign. He was working on inclusivity for the Node.js group. He named Vagg’s behaviour as a reason for leaving.

Rude, intimidating behaviour

Despite that kind of rancor, CCoCs are increasingly being adopted by large, open-source communities and their conferences.

And for good reason. The open-source world has a horrible reputation for its aggressive, rude, intimidating behaviour.

In 2013, the God of open-source programming himself, Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, was called out for his profanity-laced rants on the Linux email lists. He set the tone for the whole open-source world.

Linus TorvaldsWikipedia/KrdLinus Torvalds

He and the Linux community have since done an about-face, sort of, in 2015, telling its members that their work will be criticised but asking them to “be excellent to each other” and to feel free to report abuse. The Linux Foundation also adopted a more formal Code of Conduct for its events, saying that harassment is not OK.

Still, last year Github surveyed more than 5,000 developers and found that “18% of respondents have personally experienced a negative interaction with another user in open-source, but 50% have witnessed one between other people.” These included rudeness, name-calling and stereotyping. Over 40% said they experienced conflict.

Women were also more likely to experience language that made them feel unwelcome, the report found. Not surprisingly, women are also scarce in open-source communities. They make up only about 3% of those environments, this report found.

Red Hat CEO is ‘taking this seriously’

Red Hat, the world’s biggest Linux and open-source company,is famous for its “meritocracy,” modelled after the Linux Foundation. A meritocracy is all about having an open forum to debate ideas and letting the best ideas win, no matter who they are from: an executive or a junior staffer.

Jim WhitehurstRed HatJim Whitehurst

In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, the company is doing a number of things to make sure its own culture is more welcoming, including sending its executives on a “listening tour,” CEO Jim Whitehurst told Business Insider.

He’s also been encouraging the company’s top women engineers to get out and be role models, and to speak up in open-source communities about being nice to each other.

Red Hat relies on these communities to help with its products, to find talent to hire, and to acquire other open-source companies.

“We’ve taken this very seriously. It’s like the whole conflict diamond thing,” he told Business Insider. “You can’t feel good when your supply chain has a set of norms and practices that you don’t feel good about.”

“I wouldn’t say we’ve solved the problem,” he added, but he’s had success by reminding open-source engineers that if they want a true meritocracy, they simply have to be respectful.

“You say you want the best ideas,” Whitehurst tells them. “Well if you truly mean that, that means you not saying only the best ideas from people who can withstand withering criticism.”

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