January 31st, 2006

Personality Type and the Open Source Community

In The Jargon File, Eric Raymond does a great job of describing hackers, who dominate the thought of the open source community. He touches on personality type briefly in this document, and he also refers to it in other presentations. He points out that most hackers fit the NT personality types (INTP, INTJ, ENTP and ENTJ) in the Myers Briggs personality model. But what does that mean exactly, and how can we gain insights from that observation, particularly if we fit into that category?

It all starts with the renowned psychologist Carl Jung. In formulating his personality theory, Jung focused on two major aspects of how we relate to the world: how we prefer to take in information (Perceiving), and how we prefer to make decisions (Judging). When perceiving, some people trust more in what they can see, hear, smell, touch and taste (Sensation), and others trust more in concepts and ideas (Intuition). When judging, some people rely more on logic and impersonal considerations (Thinking), while others rely more on values and personal considerations (Feeling). Each of the Perceiving and Judging Functions can be directed at either the outside world of people and objects (Extraverted), or to the inner world of the mind (Introverted).

These ideas were later organized into a framework of 16 personality types, called the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). For example, my MBTI type is ENTP, which stands for (Dominant) Extraverted Intuition with (Auxiliary) Introverted Thinking. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of ground to cover on this subject, most of which we’ll be breezing past here. For the full tour, let me point you to two of the best books I have read on personality type — David Keirsey’s Please Understand Me II and Lenore Thomson’s Personality Type: An Owner’s Manual. A good online personality test is available at Lenore Thomson’s web site.

To simplify our discussion, let’s just look at the four basic functions — Sensing (S), Intuition (N), Thinking (T), and feeling (F). Referring to a type as “NT” means that the preferred Perceiving function is Intuition (as opposed to Sensing), and the preferred Judging function is Thinking (as opposed to Feeling). SF types have the exact opposite set of preferences — they prefer Sensing over Intuition, and Feeling over Thinking. There are also NF and ST types, and there too, the letters tell you their preferred functions.

Fine, you might say, but what does it exactly mean to prefer “Intuition” over “Sensation”, and “Thinking” over “Feeling” (as NT types do)? Let’s start with the Judging function preference (Thinking/Feeling), since it’s
usually the easier of the two pairs to understand. Just contrast Spock and McCoy in Star Trek. Spock clearly preferred to make decisions with impersonal logic. And McCoy clearly preferred personal, human values. T
types emphasize fairness and objectivity, whereas F types emphasize compassion and humanity. Everyone of course has the ability to use both T and F functions, just like we can write with either hand if we really want to. But just like with handwriting, we usually develop a strong preference for one or the other. T types feel most confident when they are able to use logic to support their actions, and F types feel most confident when their actions are consistent with their values. Conversely, T types are least confident when making complex decisions based solely on feelings and values, and F types are least confident when making complex decisions based solely on logic. As we grow and develop, we’re able to include more input from our non-dominant judging function, while we still maintain our overall preference. For example, a dominant Thinker who needs to make a tough decision on staff reductions can consciously incorporate Feeling (from himself and/or by getting help from a dominant Feeler) to ensure that the decision is carried out in a way that demonstrates respect for employees. Likewise, a dominant Feeler who needs to select one employee for a key position can consciously incorporate Thinking (from himself and/or a dominant Thinker) to ensure that the most capable person for the job is selected.

How about the Perceiving function preference (Intuition/Sensation)? A rough way to look at it is “book smarts and big picture” (Intuition) vs “street smarts and details” (Sensation). N types live in a world of ideas and possibilities. They are constantly building and refining their mental models of the way things (and people) work — the engineer who invents a new way to harness solar power; the author of a fantasy book with imaginative creatures and locales. S types, on the other hand, are grounded in the here and now. They are keen on concrete, tangible facts and experiences — the ever-observant field agent, who acts without having to analyze anything; the detailed accountant who balances the books to the last penny. Again, everyone has the ability to use both N and S functions. N types feel most confident when they understand the meaning of the information that they get, and the experiences that they have, realizing the potential of what can be. S types feel most confident when they are fully in touch with their surroundings and their possessions as they currently exist, living life in the moment. On the flip side, N types can get careless with attending to facts, rules and details that don’t fit together in any meaningful way to them. And S types can lose sight of the forest in their focus on the trees, leaves, branches, and roots. As with the Judging functions, over time we are able to include more input from our non-dominant Perceiving function, while still retaining our preference. For example, a dominant Intuitive who needs to do his taxes can consciously incorporate Sensing (from himself and/or by getting help from a dominant Sensor), to ensure that all of his capital gains and losses are properly recorded, and all of his deductions are properly itemized. And a dominant Sensor whose business model is outdated can consciously incorporate Intuition (from himself and/or a dominant Intuitive) to come up with new ways for his company to provide value to customers.

With that as background, we can look at the Intuitive Thinker type (NT) more closely, which Keirsey estimates to be no more than 7% of the population. NT types like to build mental models based on logic. They develop a foundation of knowledge deeply rooted in first principles, constructed by constantly asking Why? Why? Why? and following those answers as far as their capability, interest and time permits. From that, they expand an empire of knowledge that covers anything and everything that captures their attention. To use our jargon, NTs really grok their stuff.

You can see how open source plays to the natural strengths of NT types who work in IT and software engineering. Access to source code allows NTs to peel the onion of a software package as much as they wish, uncovering its inner workings and finding out how all of the underlying components fit together (and in the process, expanding their knowledge base even further). Root-cause analysis is the NT’s instinctive way of troubleshooting and solving complex problems. Learn how the thing works, understand what it’s supposed to do, and figure out why it isn’t doing that. Is there an underlying design problem with even broader implications, or is it just a correctable error in implementing the design? They want to get to the bottom of the whole situation and resolve the issue once and for all. Closed source software, by preventing introspection into the deep structure of the source code, frustrates precisely this form of analysis at which NTs excel. Is it any wonder why many NTs prefer open source?

To make large systems manageable, NTs prefer to rely on modularity, where the the components share common architectural principles. Contrast this with a monolithic design, which requires painstaking attention to numerous details which cannot be cleanly separated. NTs can clash with other types over the importance and priority of architectural principles. NTs see these principles being as important as the end product itself, since they have unshakable trust in the optimum results being achieved when the right principles are followed. Whereas other types, to the extent that they are aware of them at all, may see them as far more negotiable. For example, an NT type may specify a guiding principle that W3C standards-based HTML should be used when designing a web site. Another type might just choose the most convenient tool that works with the most common browser, heedless of its compliance to HTML standards. For NT’s, it’s usually not enough just to solve a problem — it needs to be solved in the right way.

To be sure, NTs can sometimes go overboard in this department, pushing for purist perfection at the expense of pragmatic approaches. Also, there is a tendency among some NTs towards minimalism at all costs, and reductionist logic. NTs can be hypercritical of any flaws in a system, running the risk of throwing away the baby with the bathwater. We see this for example on the Slashdot forums, where it’s almost a contest sometimes as to who can be the most sarcastic, the most biting, the most cynical, in their commentary.

Fortunately, as NTs develop, they’re able to use their Intuition and Thinking functions more broadly, and their mental models expand to include more input from their Feeling and Sensing functions. After all, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were NT types, and they did pretty well as founding fathers of a nation dedicated to the principles of freedom and equality of opportunity. NTs have the potential to be visionary leaders who change the world.

2 comments to Personality Type and the Open Source Community

  • I read with great interest the application of MBTI.I am an accredited user of MBTI and have used the system in Indian IT industry.
    by and large i appreciate the application of MBTI and think that it is an extremely powerful tool.
    I think the last domain of executing decisions or the J&P has large influence on WORKING/LIFE STYLE of people.e.g INTJ & ISTJs have more rigid mindset and working style. they have less flexibility and adaptability.
    NTs can sometimes go overboard in this department, pushing for purist perfection at the expense of pragmatic approaches. Also, there is a tendency among some NTs towards minimalism at all costs, and reductionist logic. NTs can be hypercritical of any flaws in a system, running the risk of throwing away the baby with the bathwater. We see this for example on the Slashdot forums, where itโ€™s almost a contest sometimes as to who can be the most sarcastic, the most biting, the most cynical, in their commentary.
    this is more applicable to NTJs than NT-P

    • Thanks for your comments. I agree that MBTI is a powerful tool and can be used effectively in an IT environment.

      Regarding the potential for hyper-critical behavior among NTs, from my experience (ENTP) as well as interacting with others, NTPs are no slouch in this department ๐Ÿ™‚ I would say that NTJs and NTPs can have different ways of expressing this behavior. The flip side of this is how well-developed NTJs and NTPs are also good at using logic to build common ground and bring people together.

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