If Meritocracy is a dirty word, what should we say instead?

The Apache httpd project has been based around a concept called “Meritocracy” since the very first. Meritocracy means that you earn your seat at the council table by working hard. If you work to make things better, you get to decide the direction of the project.

Unfortunately, over the last year or two, Meritocracy has become a dirty word, by association with projects and communities that are not truly meritocratic.

Two main problems stand out:

* People tend to elect/promote other people that are like themselves, resulting in largely homogeneous communities that reward similarity to the ruling class, rather than actual merit.

* In order to gain merit, you need to already be privileged in certain ways. You need to be wealthy enough to have a computer, spare time, and internet access. You need to speak English proficiently. You need to have grown up in circumstances that made it possible for you to develop an interest in computing. And on and on. And while it’s possible to fight your way up through the ranks without these privileges, few people actually do.

And so a well-meaning word that describes a utopia has come to mean all the failures of communities that strive to be meritocratic, as well as other communities that make no such attempt.

So, what do we do? Because I want to continue to strive to be genuinely meritocratic in the projects I’m involved in, while at the same time acknowledging that the project that I spend most of my time on has more Williams than women.

While making up a new word doesn’t solve anything, it seems a worthwhile exercise to clearly define what we want our communities to look like, while stating that we want to distance ourselves from the dysfunctional habits of old-boys’-club style project governance.

And of course, just *calling* it something different doesn’t fix anything – we also need to change how we do things to so that we actually are inclusive, rather than just saying we are.

We want communities that are accessible to everyone, regardless of their privilege, while acknowledging that this is probably impossible, since a certain level of privilege is a minimum requirement. We want our developer communities to reflect and represent the diversity of our user communities. We want to be welcoming enough that nobody feels that they have nothing to contribute, or that it’s just too much effort, or that they are somehow outsiders.

The trouble going forward from here is, as Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” But while I recognize that I’m part of that white male educated privileged power class, I don’t think that means that I’m excluded from working to find solutions to the very real problems in the software development community.

Edit 1: Related reading, if somewhat more … ahem … confrontational.

Edit 2: I think I’m going to call it the little red hen governance model.