Quick question: Would you rather be good at your job but disrespected, or bad at your job, but respected for your work?
RespectabilityFor example, let’s say you are the manager of a struggling major league baseball team. You just read an article that says that if you get rid of your short stop and center field, and replace those positions with two half-center outfielders who always play close, your defense will improve, automatically, by 75%. Rigorous testing and research back up this statement. The facts are definitely clear. Now, all you have to do is face ridicule if you are either wrong or unlucky, and your team could win 25 more games a year than they otherwise would have.

If you are like most major league managers, you will choose to ignore that article. Sure, you might win more games. But you might also suffer massive shame both in and out of the community and eventually lose your job. The odds are better for the first possibility, but the results are much worse for the second.

Historically, this has happened numerous times. The most famous example in recent years is the decision whether or not to “go for it” on fourth down in American football. In almost every circumstance, statistically, going for it is a better idea than punting. Yet zero coaches are ever actually willing to go that route, due to fear of ridicule.

I bring this up because XBMC is at an awkward stage in its life cycle right now. The program and organization have been around for nearly 10 years.*

*December 14, 2002, y’all!

In many ways, we are no longer the angry kid in his parents’ basement, screwing around with broken Xboxes. Now we have nearly a million active and regularly online users. We are being ported to numerous devices. Companies are actively contacting us to get XBMC working with their devices.

Raspberry-Pi-computer

Mmmm, Raspberry Pi is delicious!

Mmmm, Raspberry Pi is delicious!

It’s an exciting time for members of Team XBMC, but it is undoubtedly a time of change and reflection as well. Consider, on March 18th, 2004, we ran this article on the XBMC front page asking for donations to buy Frodo an Xbox.* Today, Cory (theuni) and I, the two most frequent front page authors, would never even consider running an article like that. The front page of a site visited by 780,000 unique visitors last month is simply not the place you go to beg for cash, even if it is in the spirit of development.

*Interesting fact: The XBMC forums date back to Oct. 1, 2003. They existed before then, but the dates on those earlier posts are janky. One of the earliest posts from that time was a discussion of currently available GUI actions between two relatively new XBMC guys (new in the sense that they weren’t founders) named Pike and Jmarshall. Today, Jmarshall is our Foundation president, and Pike is our boss-man Project Manager, who was one of the major pushers for getting the Raspberry Pi to SCALE. It’s sort of amazing how long people stick with this project.

Why is that we act so reserved about asking for tax-deductible non-profit donations? I think the answer is different between Cory and myself, because our jobs are slightly different. It is Cory’s task to court businesses and organizations that are contemplating opening up their hardware to XBMC. Such organizations would, one presumes, be nonplussed to see a call for donations coming from a software group they were looking to connect with. I come at it from the entirely different realm of the user. I’d rather let the user come to us to donate, rather than having the Foundation come to them.

Regardless, XBMC is a much more established organization now, and this reality leads to awkward editorial discussions. How do we want to represent ourselves to the world? Recently, we wrote a post on the SOPA blackout. The first draft I put together included the following:

We believe this “choice” is not a choice at all. We believe that SOPA is terrible for small businesses, for private and public foundations, for non-profits, and for every person’s freedom of speech around the world. We believe our job is to act as software developers, not copyright police for the MPAA and the RIAA. We believe that SOPA and bills like SOPA are censorship on a vast scale that will ultimately destroy America’s already fragile economy. We believe that the entire justification for SOPA is based on statistics that are, at best, overblown and wholly inaccurate.

The final draft, on the other hand, replaced the above lines with:

We, the developers of XBMC, believe this “choice” is not a choice at all, and as such, we oppose this Bill.

We recognize that many disagree with our stance on this subject, and invite all to examine the text of the SOPA Bill, the coverage of the SOPA bill performed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and whatever sources you trust on this topic, before coming to your own conclusions.

Needless to say, things changed. Did they change for the better? It’s hard to say. I can say for certain that they changed for the “more professional.” We didn’t write an anthem. We didn’t cover any areas in which we had no expertise. We cleaned it up so that we were simply informing the public that a decision had been made. In so doing, we made the statement much more acceptable and possibly even more believable for those who don’t actually agree with us.

And we cut the heart out of the statement.

5 years ago, assuming we said anything,* I have absolutely no doubt we’d have gone with the first message. Today, we ended up running with the second statement.

*A lot of effort five years ago was spent on keeping our heads down and avoiding getting sued by Microsoft. The rumor these days is that such a lawsuit not only was never going to happen, but numerous MS employees actually used XBMC on their own Xboxes. Who knows how true rumors like that are?

dr horrible xbox

Even Dr. Horrible had XBMC (presumably)!

Was the decision to go with the second statement correct? I honestly don’t know. I didn’t know then. It was definitely safer. It was more respectable. It was probably a good message for people who weren’t ardent users of XBMC.

And maybe that’s the trick. Maybe our decision to go with the safer message falls neatly in line with the decisions of professional American football coaches. Whether you are crafting a message or making a 4th and 7 decision, when you are under the spotlight of a big stage, you don’t care whether you are doing it right. You care whether the message you are throwing out into the world is going to be accepted by the largest number of people. You care whether you are going to keep your job, or keep people using your software, or keep companies interested in expanding to your software, more than you care about the message you are sending right now.

To be honest, I dislike that route. I dislike the cynicism that says people are unwilling to give the benefit of the doubt or unwilling to expand their horizons when challenged. I dislike that a strongly worded message will be taken to say more about the organization, than about how the organization feels about the message.

Yet we live in a world where information comes rapidly and from all angles, and in that world, it is incredibly difficult to filter for the things that matter. So we use our brain tricks. We don’t think about what a stop sign means; we see a red, octagonal blur, and our foot goes straight to the brakes. We don’t think about the message the group is trying to present. We think about the group making the message.

Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory stop sign

"Honey..., what did that sign say?"

 

…Unless, of course, we are road workers who really care about road signs, or we spend an unusual amount of time paying attention to the myriad voices coming out of our favorite groups.*

*I’m informed that some people even think all Dave Matthews songs DON’T sound exactly alike, which totally blows my mind.

And so, to bring it back around again, I conceded my more strongly worded arguments with regards to SOPA. In every draft of the letter, I included a line that essentially read, “we are programmers with no stomach for or interest in politics.” But to make that line true, I had to cut out all the politics, for otherwise the causal observer would not believe me.

Humorously, simply blacking out at all meant a wide variety of people didn’t believe our professed desire to stay clear of the political spectrum. It’s entirely possible that trying to keep it clean never mattered. We were judged regardless.

And, at the end of the day, we are still stuck at our crossroads. Do we want to be an organization that does as much as it can to steer clear of political dialog, or do we want to stand up and pick those fights that we think are important?

I still don’t know the answer to that question. Then again, when it comes to choosing words, I never claimed to be wise.

Any wisdom-ous words, Natalie?

natalie_not_wise_dress

Evidently not today.