Dev

The king is dead. Long live the king! Meet Node’s newest leader

node bdfl
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Here’s another shakeup in the Node community: Once again, the face at the head of the open-source project has changed.

Effective immediately, Node.js project lead Isaac Schlueter is out — off to run his own business — and up-and-comer TJ Fontaine is taking his place.

Schlueter, formerly a Joyent employee, is continuing to work commercially on and around the Node package manager (npm). Fontaine, currently a Joyent employee, is taking over the reins.

Or rather, he took them over several months ago.

Fontaine has been a Node.js core contributor for less than a year. Starting in September, his public commits slowed down considerably. That’s when, according to the 31-year-old developer and Joyent engineering SVP Bryan Cantrill, Schlueter started slowly backing away from the project, leaving more decisions and discussions in Fontaine’s hands.

“I’ve already been doing the releases for Node since July,” Fontaine said in a call with VentureBeat this morning. “Now there’s just a bit more visibility about what my actual role is.”

Fontaine said he first started using Node around the 0.4/0.5 days as a hobbyist. During the 0.6 release, he did a full DNS implementation in pure JavaScript. While doing that, he happened upon a Node IRC channel.

“As I was watching other team members working on the core, I noticed ways I could contribute,” he said. “And Isaac noticed me and told me to apply for the job at Joyent.”

In February 2013, Fontaine was hired, and in April, he officially became part of the core contributors team, something the dev now calls “ancient history.”

“This [announcement] is pretty much the status quo,” he said. “Node has been operating [under my leadership] for a while now. This just makes it public.”

BDFL? What BDFL?

The idea that a language/technology creator would, could, or should stick with a project from cradle to grave is not a concept given much credence at Joyent.

Node creator Ryan Dahl left the project and its parent company at the beginning of 2012, making room for Schlueter to take over. At that time, we were told the move was “a natural evolution” for the project and that Schlueter, too, had been operating in a leadership role months before the transition was made public.

This transition is similarly yawn-inducing from Fontaine’s point of view.

“It’s not entirely new, but iI’m excited about being named the project lead,” he said almost casually during our chat. “Transitions in leadership happen all the time in open-source project.”

As the now-departed Schlueter said in a recent conversation with VentureBeat, “Commonly, people work on a feature they really care about, then when it’s stable, they fade out.

“A certain amount of churn in the core team is extremely healthy. We talk about the BDFL — the ‘for life’ bit isn’t realistic. People cycle in and cycle out. Ryan left, and Node’s still fine.”

“It’s important to keep getting new blood into the team and making it easier for people to contribute.”

I compared it to the papacy. One guy dies, another takes his place. That guy resigns, we get a new guy. And miracle of miracles, the Holy Mother Church doesn’t fall apart each time.

Fontaine was quick to attest to his own fallibility, but he saw the point of the metaphor.

“Node is bigger than the software, than me, than Joyent, than the core team. It’s also the community and businesses and ecosystem. It’s all of that, and it will persist and continue on.”

Fresh blood

Fontaine’s big hero moment happened when Walmart, one of Node’s largest corporate users, ran into a wall.

Rather, it ran into a memory leak. A slow leak for its mobile shopping site just weeks before Christmas.

“As Node is in production, people are hitting bugs, and I’ll have to go heads-down on that,” said Fontaine. “The Walmart memory leak took three weeks of my time to hunt down and fix.”

In the end, Walmart was so pleased that an exec read a whole bedtime story about the fix at Node Summit in December.

Fontaine continued to note the importance of corporate, enterprise users — not just startup hackers and hardware tinkerers — to the entire project.

“Node’s path is pretty well set by the companies who have adopted Node. There’s a huge, engaged community around Node, and we’re excited about the future.”

Part of that future, he said, is taking input from the entities that use Node, “including businesses that are using Node at scale and in production.”

Walmart isn’t the only one happy with Fontaine’s performance. Cantrill said, “Bluntly, TJ is more awesome than my wildest expectations. He really came up through the OS side of the project.

“We hired him because he was contributing to Node in really interesting ways that speak to the new era of programming. Open source is the new farm team, and TJ is the embodiment of that.”

Cantrill said Fontaine showed great humility and poise during some of the core team’s recent and difficult struggles.

More than that, however, “Node’s at a level where it needs very deep technical leadership, and that’s what TJ brings to this project.”

The future

Node v0.12 is coming up “as soon as possible,” said Fontaine.

“The other core contributors have known about the transition for a while. We’re a good team; we’re gonna get the 0.12 release out and continue to focus on what we’re doing. … We all know how we want Node to grow.”

He’s also working to schedule an IRL meetup for all the Node core contributors to work out the project’s roadmap.

Another project in the works is a code of conduct, something that Fontaine said will codify the values, such as inclusiveness, that are integral to the Node project and how its team gets work done.

They’re all solid plans, but I asked the question that’s surely on many of your minds: “Do you plan to stick around for a while?

“Node’s not done yet,” Fontaine responded. “I want to lead for as long as it’s my time.”

That’s as good an answer as we’re going to get. Any leadership change will naturally give some community members the jitters, and for good reason.

But whether or not Fontaine is in it for the long haul, he’s the right guy for the job right now. He’s bright, focused, highly intelligent, and very concerned about the needs of Node’s corporate users — not coincidentally its most jitters-prone demographic.

He’s no Pope Francis, but he’ll do until the next guy comes along. And for Node, that phrase seems to be the crux of the leadership model: Throw out the dictatorship-for-life concept, and choose the person who meets the community’s needs. As the needs evolve, let the leadership evolve, too.

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