The Importance of Dissent

The Importance of Dissent

Summary: Word is going around that Monty Widenius, founder of MySQL, is parting ways with Sun. Matt Asay blogs about it and says it's a good thing Widenius is taking his dissent on the road:At this point, however, Monty has done the right thing with his dissent.


Word is going around that Monty Widenius, founder of MySQL, is parting ways with Sun. Matt Asay blogs about it and says it's a good thing Widenius is taking his dissent on the road:

At this point, however, Monty has done the right thing with his dissent. He has taken it outside the company, as Arjen Lentz, MySQL's twenty-fifth employee, did before him. Arjen continues to be both a promoter and critic of MySQL, but is able to do so publicly without the constraints of an employee agreement.

Not sure if Matt's saying that "the right thing" is to jump ship when an employee disagrees with a company's policies. Maybe it's my journalism background, but I think it's healthy for companies to deal with some internal and external dissent over policies and direction. (And by "dissent," I am specifically talking about reasoned discourse -- not ranting and flaming, that helps nobody.) Does anyone really think that a company the size of Sun (or Novell, or any other company with a workforce larger than about four people...) can reach total agreement on major policies? Of course not, and it's insulting to a community to pretend otherwise.

Now, if you can't find any common ground with your employer, it's probably time to spruce up the resume, but a little friction, even publicly, between employees and the employer is (in my opinion) a good thing. But if every employee has to seek out an employer that they can agree with 100% the jump in unemployment would be drastic, to say the least.

It might be a good policy for the Corleone Family to forbid taking sides against the family, but I'd advise against it for any companies that are trying to build a community around their offerings -- whether that's an open source project or some other type of offering. One of the linchpins of community is the ability to actually communicate freely, and that includes the community inside the company that happens to be on the corporate payroll.

If the external community suspects that a company's representative is being less than genuine, they're not going to feel its worth the time it takes to approach that representative with issues. If employees feel they can't speak up, they're going to feel less invested in the company and the community surrounding it.

Granted -- there are limits. You shouldn't expect to remain employed long if you go on a personal attack against the powers that be at your company, but a disagreement on a company policy should be respected so long as that disagreement doesn't extend to a refusal to do the duties of your job.

The nice thing about Widenius' dissent is that it's also producing potentially useful code. I think Drizzle is a great idea, and once again proves the value of the "right to fork" that comes with free and open source licenses.

What do you think? Should employees just fall in line, or shout the rooftops when they think their company is in the wrong?

Topics: Data Management, Data Centers, Enterprise Software, Open Source, Software

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • would be nice...

    It would be nice if we could "shout from the rooftops" without fear of reprisal. In reality, with most companies, the options are "jump ship" or "keep your mouth shut and do as you're told".
    • Re: would be nice...

      I think that's been true in the past, but I'm seeing less of it than I used to.
    • As stormy notes

      This would likely be a firing offense according to the employment contracts most of us sign. There are mature ways to disagree. Publicly flaming decisions your employer has made, just because you didn't win the private battles before those decisions were made public, is immature and wrong.
  • When, where, and how of dissent

    No surprise: When a policy is being decided upon, advice can and should be provided to the fullest extent diplomatically feasible. When the policy has been set, not supporting it is correctly seen as dissension, not dissent.

    The job can be making a policy you think is inadequate work. And even not saying "I told you so" when the opportunity is available.

    The reason? Aside from comity, there will be other policies formulated. How well one is heard on these policies will in part be based on the reaction to past policies.
    Anton Philidor
    • Sometimes, it's appropriate to say "I told you so"

      But only in private. As they say in the westerns, it's "heap bad medicine" to embarrass the boss, even if no outsiders are listening.

      But no, one should not be expected to check one's personal opinions at the office door, or to refrain from giving the boss one's honest professional opinion when it conflicts with the conventional wisdom.
      John L. Ries
  • It's hard to disagree publicly with your company

    I agree with you but I think it'll take us a while to
    get there.

    It's very hard to disagree with your company in public
    especially if part of your job is being a public face
    for your company! I'm sure many companies and
    individuals would consider it a fire-able offense to
    publicly speak against the company. Maybe there's a
    best practice guide for how to say, I'm accepting what
    the company is doing but I don't agree ...
    • But one can disagree in private

      The boss has the right to make decisions, but not to suppress reasoned internal debate. Only a very foolish employer would do the latter.
      John L. Ries
    • Very delicate issue

      You raise an interesting point. However, one way or another, constructive honesty wins in the end. For many customers, openness and transparency are positive qualities in a business.

      I realize that doesn't address your concern directly, but honesty is the good fight, even if taken in small steps so one doesn't get fired.
  • RE: The Importance of Dissent

    Drizzle is a good lens through which to consider this. You say it "proves the value of
    the 'right to fork,'" and so it does. Mat says it's "the fork that shouldn't have
    happened," and if I understand him right, I buy that, too: I think he means "these
    ideas should have had scope to be accepted within the existing product; the need to
    exercise the right to fork is sad." In OS projects I've followed closely, the "right to
    fork" is mostly there as a looming presence. In its own way, forking is to open
    source as bankruptcy is to capitalism: the last thing in the world you want, a spur to
    be avoided at all costs ... and your salvation, when you run out of other options.

    Open-source communities generally thrive on discussions that companies see as
    dissent. Most commonly, open-source communities mention the possibility of
    forking as a way of preventing it: cajoling disputants into cooperation or
    compromise: a way of allowing differences for a time, and redeeming them into a
    coherent plan. Corporations have a lower tolerance for "discussion," but also a lower
    tolerance for the standard open-source solution to dissent, the fork (or its threat).

    No wonder open-source experienced dissenters think they have to leave the
    corporation in order to honor their dissent!
  • RE: The Importance of Dissent

    Dissent is important within the organization, but there is a
    need to present a more or less united front to the world. I
    think people should quit when they don't agree and do so
    quietly, unless it is an issue that is hurting customers in a
    critically acute way. Then, we call that "whistle-blowing"
    and we're not talking about a really new problem.

    Differences of opinion have launched a lot of great
    companies, especially when someone quietly goes and
    launches a competitor to a former employer.
    Mitch Ratcliffe
    • The united front is overrated

      So, you're saying the best thing for a company is to have a united front, except for those employees who disagree that go off to start competitors?

      While I'm all about competition, I'm not sure that's an institutional advantage. I'd rather have an employee disagreeing (respectfully, of course) than going off to do their own thing.

      The old days of the false united front are, I hope, coming to an end. I recommend that employers embrace the ability for their employees to publicly air dissenting opinion, rather than trying to enforce a united front that doesn't exist.
      • Joe, I'm waiting for you to do this one at Novell...

        ...Go ahead. Publicly dismantle the company's strategy as wrongheaded. I can't wait to see what happens. :-)

        It's not about a publicly united front. It's about maturity. The time to negotiate, haggle, and bicker is before a decision is made. Once that decision is made, it's time to buck up and pitch in. If you cannot get behind a decision, it's time to leave.

        A company needs to be rowing in the right direction. If someone is sitting to the side, taking shots at the rowers, it hurts everyone. The selfish act of public betrayal is neither fair nor warranted.
        • One can implement decisions with which one disagrees

          I agree, though, that if one needs to criticize company policy, that it should be done in private.
          John L. Ries
      • I'm not saying it is better

        but it is necessary to get people to give their best. Not
        necessarily those who disagree, but everyone else who
        want to know that their efforts will not be wasted.

        That said, lots of bad decisions get made and the
        important thing is that dissent be considered before and
        after trying what the company decided "to do."

        At some point, the blogging employee who continues to
        dissent should go try to compete. I don't see any problem
        with talking about issues publicly, but if it doesn't work it
        is time to move on.
        Mitch Ratcliffe
    • The point of unity is the product

      If you can't honestly recommend what your employer sells to the general public, then I think it's time to leave. I also don't think it's all that politic to publicly criticize one's employer (better to express criticisms in private to those who can actually do something about them). Aside from that, people are entitled to their own opinions and to express them publicly, even if they differ from those of management, and even if they are not in the economic or political interests of the company or its managers.
      John L. Ries
  • RE: The Importance of Dissent

    Disagreeing is one thing. I do that all the time within my company. But doing so publicly - publicly dismantling a chosen path that your company has taken - is bad policy. The time for dissent is before the decisions are public. Once they are public, fall in line, dissent internally and quietly, or leave. It's simply immature to publicly undermine your employer.