On the Reign of 'Benevolent Dictators for Life' in Software

Sometimes, open-source projects need an enlightened despot.
Django Reinhardt, jazz guitarist, provided a name to Django, the software (William P. Gottlieb/LOC)

On Monday, a small change was made in Django, a popular open-source software framework. The change didn’t alter any code: It struck a paragraph from a tiny text file titled “committers” that described the purpose and provenance of the software bundle.

In Github—a website that helps store and manage the Django codebase—the change got a short, cryptic title: Removed BDFLs section from docs/internals/committers.txt.

But in that moment, Django as a community grew up a little bit. Django had lost its Benevolent Dictators for Life.

Like Democracy, But With Programmers 

When a software platform goes truly open-source, it’s entrusted to the community that runs it. Going forward, volunteer programmers (usually) must make all the decisions about which features should be added, which should be cut, and when all that should happen. While non-profit entities sometimes steward these projects (like the Mozilla Foundation stewards Firefox), they can also be self-run. Developers make decisions about the software by voting, coming to a consensus, or simply writing working code the fastest.

But what happens if a consensus doesn’t form? What if a problem is intractable? 

The two teams could split, each forking the project and going their own ways. But even then, who keeps the spoils and the name of the project? Some open-source communities, therefore, have entrusted the power to make decisions in one or two people.

These people get, to first approximation, the absolute raddest titles in technology. They are the Benevolent Dictators for Life.

In 1995, the programming language Python had a small but growing community. Its leaders established a foundation to support the language—Python’s inventor, Guido van Rossum, had even just moved from the Netherlands to the United States to help the project. So as the foundation established itself—at that point, it and the community were synonymous—it appointed van Rossum the final arbiter of all developmental conflict. He was the first First-Interim Benevolent Dictator For Life.

While I can't prove my title (with or without the First Interim prefix) was never used before, I'm pretty certain that it originated [in that 1995 meeting],” Rossum wrote in 2008.

Since then, BDFLs have been appointed for a number of other projects. Linux, OpenStreetMap, and WordPress all have BDFLs. Ubuntu, the user-friendly commercial distribution of Linux, even has a Self-Appointed Benevolent Dictator for Life, Mark Shuttleworth.

(Shuttleworth can make such appointments because his $500 million fortune has funded the development of Ubuntu. He is also the first independent citizen of an African nation to travel to space. Also also, he resides on the Isle of Man with his wife and 12 ducks.)

It Came From a Small Town in Kansas

Until last week, Django had the same. Its BDFLs were Adrian Holovaty and Jacob Kaplan-Moss. They held the title because they, like van Rossum, invented Django.

Presented by

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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