Facebook filed its IPO last week , which is big news in and of itself. However, what struck me most was the letter from Mark Zuckerberg to potential investors that puts an exclamation point on something that the Linux community has been practicing for years: first – don’t do it for the money, second maintain the hacker way. And, the money follows.
Zuckerberg points out that Facebook wasn’t started to become a company. It was a cause. It was an idea — to connect people. Linus Torvalds had a similar idea 20 years ago when he started Linux as a way to collectively develop software. Linus kicked off the project “just for fun” and has repeatedly stated that his motivation behind Linux is solving interesting problems with code.
In the letter, Zuckerberg clearly demonstrates how he and his company have been inspired by the core principles that Linux and the open source software movement started twenty years ago.
Just take a look at these statements:
“People sharing more — even if just with their close friends or families — creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others.”
“Hacker culture is extremely open and meritocratic. Hackers believe that the best idea and implementation should always win — not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people.”
“The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.”
“We think the world’s information infrastructure should resemble the social graph — a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date. We also believe that giving people control over what they share is a fundamental principle of this rewiring.”
Sound familiar? Zuckerberg’s interpretation of the “hacker way” could be cut and pasted from the daily workings of Linux kernel development for the last two decades:
“Code wins arguments.”
“Quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations.”
“The best idea and implementation should always win.”
Linux is the quintessential example of the hacker way. As an example, if you don’t think that code wins arguments, post some bad code along with the best-crafted argument in the world to the Linux kernel mailing list and see how it goes.
Linux is the fastest moving collaborative software project in the history of computing; it releases every three months and in small iterations with literally thousands of code changes in every release. In fact Linux is often a leading indicator of things to come. Virtualization technology, high performance computing, and more are often developed in the open first in Linux and then productized by companies later.
Of course, Facebook wasn’t just inspired by the hacker ethos. It is built on hacker code itself: Linux and a wide variety of open source technology. In fact, the economics that come with having open source software at its base makes Facebook’s filing even that much more compelling. Without the cost and flexibility advantages of open source, Facebook would be tied into proprietary contracts that would impede its ability to add users without the need to generate significant revenue. Before open source it was simply too difficult to scale, and the risk of your costs rising without your control was just too great. Zuckerberg made a brilliant decision — albeit inevitable — when he built Facebook on Linux using open source components. Would this IPO even be happening had he written Facebook as a Windows application?
It is no coincidence that one of the greatest entrepreneurial success stories of the last decade is deeply rooted in one of the greatest technology innovations of the last two decades: Linux and open development. Facebook is a great example of code + ethos that is driving great things.