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.

And what is Django? It’s serving the website you’re reading right now. Django’s a framework for writing applications using the language Python, particularly applications that have a news-y element or work sort of like a content management system. It runs some or all of the websites for Rdio, Instagram, and Pinterest. It was created only about nine years ago.

Django sprang from rather unusual roots for a piece of software: a college town in Kansas. As detailed in this excellent brief history, it was created by developers at a local newspaper, the Lawrence Journal-World, after they couldn’t find a Python framework they wanted to use. So they made Django.

Now, the team at the LJ World—detailed in this 2005 New York Times story—turned out to be an absurdly talented group. Assembled by a guy (Rob Curley, known for his local digital news mettle) who was hired by a guy who wrote emails on a typewriter (Dolph C. Simons, Jr., the paper’s conservative, septuagenarian owner), they included Holovaty; Kaplan-Moss; Simon Willison, who later worked at the Guardian, and Wilson Miner, who has helped design Facebook and Apple’s corporate website.

For years after creating Django, Holovaty and Kaplan-Moss spent oodles of free time on it. “We spent a ton of time promoting the framework, fixing bugs and adding features,” writes Holovaty on his blog. “I considered it my baby, and it would be entirely fair to call it an obsession.” But now the community is much larger and stronger, and the two don’t spend much time on it anymore.

After founding Everyblock, a neighborhood news service, Holovaty now works on Soundslice, a tool for musicians and guitarists. Kaplan-Moss works at the popular cloud-hosting service Heroku.

So why is this news important?

Well, it’s kind of important to me, first of all. I remember reading about Django and the Journal-World in high school. In those pre-Twitter days, I’d get home from school and read the blogs of Holovaty and others on his team. (I remember this post in particular: They were talking about “should journalists code?” when everyone else was stuck on “are bloggers journalists?”)

I didn’t know back then that the little software they were working on would eventually run the websites of publications where I’d work, both student and professional. I didn’t know I’d spend hundreds of hours in their software. I’m using it right now.

Software comes and goes, but it’s fulfilling—for me, at least—to follow a project from its inception to maturity. Django, the creation of young people less than a decade ago, now invisibly undergirds software you probably use everyday. As it marks a stability it’s already gained, it deserves a small salute.


via Chris Barna