Note: This is a republished version of an article from an old blog.
Richard Stallman resigned and/or was pushed out of the FSF, depending on your alignment.
People put up with his behavior because he helped start the free software movement. But after a point you have to wonder: how many potential contributors were put off because software development as a culture makes excuses for great men with underdeveloped interpersonal skills?
I have a theory that people in tech who tolerate this behavior can’t imagine doing anything else. Dealing with this kind of behavior takes time and energy, and risks becoming a pariah. So they optimize! They live and breath code, and can’t imagine that someone would be drawn to it and not feel such a pull that they would put up with anything to be a part of that culture. From that perspective, avoiding difficult conversations—minding that their interpersonal skills might also be lacking even if they see the problem and want to say something—is a rough optimization so they can focus on code and intellectually stimulating conversations.
Unfortunately, like all premature optimizations, avoidance of conflict leads to more problems than it solves. Not everyone who would make a great developer sees it as their only option. Many see the culture and run off to the less toxic cultures around one of their other hobbies. Like knitting: oft-mocked by toxic people, but just as technically challenging as any software project. If you think debates over code licenses get loud, try knitting pattern licensing.
This culture put me off going further into tech for a long time because the pull wasn’t strong enough to make the value proposition compelling. Instead, I went to music. I put up with irritating EDM bros because I love listening to and making electronic music even if it drives me to want to quit sometimes. And, I’ll admit, I avoid taking people aside to talk about their behavior because I’ve been burned so many times doing that. I could be better about this.
This kind of situation is even bad for a person pushing people away. Making excuses for their behavior denies them the opportunity to grow and learn to make sharp critiques in a way that makes the recipient learn and feel better about the work they did in the process of making the subject of critique.
Time for a personal story!
I used to make a lot of bad, lewd puns every time a chance presented itself. A friend pulled me aside and said they appreciated my humor, but felt like my misses took away from the hits because I had no filter, no standards. By realizing they were right and doing the work to step up my pun game, I was happier and made a lot more people groan.
Richard Stallman had to leave in 2019 because people made excuses for his behavior for decades. This could have been prevented anywhere along the way. Genius doesn’t matter if the vessel for that genius repels equal geniuses who feel like they have better options.