Saturday, October 24 A Thought Exercise On Keeping Secrets -

A Thought Exercise On Keeping Secrets

Last week I had a 40 minute conversation on “gated content” with my colleague Andrew. I was building a resource for our MongoDB User Group organizers and I was wondering whether or not I should make it public for the entire MongoDB community, or save it for just User Group organizers.

Neither of us were interested in gating this content. Both of us are against the idea on principle, but we were going through the pros and cons:


Promoting community growth and leadership

A great resource for people interested in creating user groups of any type

We would get more feedback, giving us the opportunity to improve

Building our leadership in the open source space


Other people could take our content and build on it

We were excited about the opportunity for people to use our material and knowledge to create more and grow the MongoDB community. We both understood that putting our content out there for everyone to see would reveal our special sauce, giving people the opportunity to build their own user groups.

We were discussing this hours before the Apple town hall announcing the new iPhone 5. I found this an interesting contrast. Apple is a company that maintains its aura through, among other things, secrets. If everyone knew when to expect the next iPhone, Apple’s town hall would not be quite as interesting. The the months leading up to a projected product release, journalists have their ears to the ground for anything that might possibly lead them to a blueprint, photo or napkin drawing of the next device.

The company has taken this secrecy as part of its culture, so much so that many employees are not allowed to discuss their own projects internally. Their culture of privacy is something that keeps it on top. I think Adam Lashinsky puts it nicely:

All companies have secrets, of course. The difference is that at Apple everything is a secret. The company understands, by the way, that it takes things a little far; there is a hint of a sense of humor about its loose-lips-sink-ships mentality: A T‑shirt for sale in the company store, which is open to the public at 1 Infinite Loop, reads: I VISITED THE APPLE CAMPUS. BUT THAT’S ALL I’M ALLOWED TO SAY

Apple are known for firing employees who leak information to the press. It’s also been reported that Apple purposefully leaks false product information to their employees to catch leaks.

This culture of secrecy is really shocking compared to the openness of many new technology companies today. Many companies such as foursquare, Stripe, twitter and facebook open source many of their tools and even many startups post open blog posts about their strategies and tactics for growth.

Apple does build a lot of character through their attention to privacy, but for an open source company like 10gen, we would not be able to build the same type of success by gating our products and resources. So we need to think of our goals here: are we special because we’re open or are we special because we’ve got secrets?

Ultimately I decided that anything I created for MongoDB user group organizers would have to be open and readily accessible to everyone in the MongoDB community. Raising the barrier to entry in open source is never a good idea. Making this information secret would not make us a better company and it wouldn’t make it more desirable to get involved in the MongoDB community.

We’ve started putting some of this information together on the MongoDB wiki. One of the most recent pages is on presentation tips for speaking at MongoDB user groups–but they’re generic enough for speaking at any user group. I’ll post more of the content when we’ve released it.