Why OpenStack doesn't need a Linus

As comparing OpenStack with Linux becomes an increasingly popular exercise, it's only natural that people and press articles start to ask where the Linus Torvalds of OpenStack is, or who the Linus Torvalds of OpenStack should be. This assumes that technical leaders could somehow be appointed in OpenStack. This assumes that the single dictator model is somehow reproducible or even desirable. And this assumes that the current technical leadership in OpenStack is somehow lacking. I think all those three assumptions are wrong.

Like Linux, OpenStack is an Open Innovation project: an independent, common technical playground that is not owned by a single company and where contributors form a meritocracy. Assuming you can somehow appoint leaders in such a setting shows a great ignorance of how those projects actually work. Leaders in an open innovation project don't derive their authority from their title. They derive their authority from the respect that the other contributors have for them. If they lose this respect, their leadership will be disputed and you'll face the risk of a fork. Project leaders are not appointed, they are grown. Linus wasn't appointed, and he didn't decide one day that he should lead Linux. He grew as the natural leader for this community over time.

Maybe people asking for a Linus of OpenStack like the idea of a single dictator sitting at the top. But that setup is not easily reproduced. Three conditions need to be met: you have to be the founder (or first developer) of the project, your project has to grow sufficiently slowly so that you can gather the undisputed respect of incoming new contributors, and you have to keep your hands deep in technical matters over time (to retain that respect). Linus checked all those boxes. In OpenStack, there were a number of developers involved in it from the start, and the project grew really fast, so a group of leaders emerged, rather than a single undisputed figure.

I'd also argue that the "single leader" model is not really desirable. OpenStack is not a single project, it's a collection of projects. It's difficult to find a respected expert in all areas, especially as we grew by including new projects within the OpenStack collection. In addition to that, Linux as a project still struggles with its bus factor of 1 and how it would survive Linus. Organizing your technical leadership in a way that makes it easier for leadership to transition to new figures makes a stronger and more durable community.

Finally, asking for a Linus of OpenStack is somehow implying that the current technical leadership is insufficient, which is at best ignorant, at worse insulting. Linus fills two roles within Linux: the technical lead role (final decision on technical matters, the buck stops here) and the release management role (coordinating the release development cycles and producing releases). OpenStack has project technical leads ("PTLs") to fill the first role, and a (separate) release manager to fill the second. In addition to that, to solve cross-project issues, we have a Technical Committee (which happens to include the PTLs and release manager).

If you are under the impression that this multi-headed technical leadership might result in non-opiniated choices, think twice. The new governance model establishing the Technical Committee and the full authority of it over all technical matters in OpenStack is only a month old, previously the project (and its governance model) was still owned by a single company. The PTLs and Technical Committee members are highly independent and have the interests of the OpenStack project as their top priority. Most of them actually changed employers over the last year and continued to work on the project.

I think what the press and the pundits actually want is a more visible public figure, that would make stronger design choices, if possible with nice punch lines that would make good quotes. It's true that the explosive growth of the project did not leave a lot of time so far for technical leaders of OpenStack to engage with the press. It's true that the OpenStack leadership tends to use friendly words and prefer consensus where possible, which may not result in memorable quotes. But confusing that with weakness is really a mistake. Technical leadership in OpenStack is just fine the way it is, thank you for asking.