Leadership, Strategy and Qt

June 23, 2012

Last week has seen the most devastating cuts into the funding of Open Source projects in the history of Qt (and KDE). Not that it was completely unexpected – on the contrary, in the light of the recent decline in market share and turnover, it was obviously only a question of time until Nokia had to decide for one platform or the other. Of course we all wished that the advantages of using an open, competitive platform that had a proven ability for community building would be convincing enough. It is probably useless to ponder what the company would have chosen if it’s hands were free.

A strategic re-alignment it was not, young padawan. Consider this scenario: A tech company plans to implement a challenging new software platform under immense competition and time to market pressure. It happens to own the best qualified, most experienced and highest revered C++ development team this side of the galaxy. This team is able to jump into development for the new platform in a blink. What would you do if you were the competent and responsible CEO? You would probably go and talk to your team. You would explain to them that strategies will be shifted, that you need their experience and commitment, and that they can make a difference. Very likely, the majority of your team could be convinced. Techies know that nothing is as inevitable as change, and adjust (Oxford comma!). Just compare how big the paradigm shift from widget and C++ based Qt to Qt Quick and QML is. Did it damage the Qt development community? It actually made it grow.

Your other option would be to fire your existing team and hire a new one. There will probably be consequences. First, the job market is not exactly afloat with qualified and experienced developers ready for hire for that new platform strategy. It takes time for new hires to bond and to learn, much more time than for the existing team to re-adjust and re-learn. Second, all those that get laid off will work for your competitors in the future. Third, the last thing a struggling company fighting for a turnaround needs is bad press. Hiring talent for the new platform strategy will be hindered by the insecurity created by the lay-offs. All things considered, the second option bears considerable risk and realizes little additional potential.

Nokia chose to divest itself from this team. It cannot be said that there was no choice. First, there is always a choice, if there is a vision. But consider the math behind it – the lay-offs affect 10.000 employees, of them about 700 developers, of them about 100 core Qt developers. That is 1 percent of them! The 8020 rule in this case indicates that the 80% most important contributions come from 20% of the developers. But more importantly, there is the “Internet rule of the 1%“: 1% of your community will be the creators. Spot on! With that in mind, it would have made sense to keep the core team, as it would not change the overall impact of the reductions and contributes a lot to the bottom line. This means it was simply not a priority to keep this team. From Nokia’s point of view, it makes no difference if the individual developers actually get laid off, or move on to another organization. They will not contribute to Nokia’s recovery any more.

The only explanation that assumes Nokia is free to make it’s own decisions and holds merit is that this is purely an act of desperation. It is not a strategy shift. Recent financial updates point to Nokia heading into liquidity problems, which is a dire situation for any company to be in. It pre-empts strategy in a fight for pure survival. Normally, the last thing to do when fighting to get back to the top in a highly competitive tech market is to cut R&D efforts. Essentially, this amounts to the biggest knowledge transfer in the history of the mobile industry, away from Nokia. I feel sorry for the Qt team, and for Qt the technology, and hope both will be doing well in the future.

PS: Did you get the “this side of the Galaxy” pun? ­čÖé

PPS: Photo by Paul Holloway – http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulholloway/79425727