Blog Post

Slap fight in Node.js land

Isn’t life supposed to be all copacetic and cooperative in the open-source world of Node.js? That’s not the case lately, as a dispute over the use of gender pronouns caused quite a flap.

Two major contributors to the popular server-side language are squabbling over whether they can nuke gender pronouns in the Node code and project, in general. The spat, because of the nature of open-source projects, spilled over on this Github thread. Long story short is that one major Node.js contributor, Ben Noordhuis, rejected a pull request that gender pronouns be eliminated. Project lead Issac Schlueter, a Joyent employee, over-rode that move.

Joyent SVP of engineering Bryan Cantrill weighed in on all of this in a “Power of a Pronoun” blog post over the weekend because he said Joyent was being blamed for Noordhuis’ move even though he is not a Joyent employee. Joyent launched and nurtured Node.js, so it is often associated with any and all moves involving the language. Cantrill backed up what Schlueter did and added that had Noordhuis been a Joyent employee, he would have been fired.

Cantrill wrote:

While we would fire Ben over this, node.js is an open source project and one doesn’t necessarily have the same levers. Indeed, one of the challenges of an open source project that depends on volunteer effort is dealing with a**holes, and fortunately in this regard, node.js is in Isaac’s very capable hands. Isaac is one of the most inclusive, empathetic engineers that I have ever had the privilege to work with, and I know that he will deal with Ben’s unacceptable behavior accordingly and in the best interests of node.js.”

Noordhuis is one of the founders of StrongLoop, a startup founded to bring commercial support to Node.js in Red Hat(s rhat) Enterprise Linux, Mac OS(s aapl) and Windows(s msft) environments. And there have been signs of friction between it and Joyent over the project in the past. Now more of that friction is bubbling to the surface.

Update: StrongLoop CEO Isaac Roth responded with a post of his own, stating that a lot of this whole kerfuffle boiled down to a language problem — for Noordhuis, for whom English is a second language. Roth wrote:

“Ben made a mistake by not understanding how important the gender pronoun change was in the pull request. But he was trying to interpret the commit rules, and he did write 28% of the current libuv codebase. This is more than any other contributor by far except Bert and 3x more than all of Joyent’s sponsored contributions combined to that library.”

The flap highlights emotion-freighted issues around high-tech’s male-centric culture, and between folks who prefer the status to remain quo and others who want to make the business more inclusive.

Or, it’s just a straight-out power struggle.

As one source close to the action put it: “This is totally a food fight in Node land. StrongLoop and Joyent have been going at each other hard for a while over Node … The StrongLoop business crew comes from Red Hat(s rhat) and they want to turn Node into a Red Hat model.”

Note: This story was updated at  10:00 a.m. December 2 with Roth’s comments.

15 Responses to “Slap fight in Node.js land”

  1. Chris Travers

    Meh, I think the gendered pronoun issue is a non-issue. The fact is up until wapman/wer disappeared from English, “man” *was* gender-neutral (if grammatically masculine), and Old English “wifman” (-> woman) would be used with a male gendered pronoun in a generic context (but of referring to a specific person would use a female gendered pronoun). Language is language. We should try to pay attention to what people mean and not manufacture fake controversies. At any rate that’s where the generic “he” comes from (complex rules of gender agreement in Old English, leaving this as a trace in Middle English and Modern English up until a couple of decades ago). The question of sexism in it is strongly exaggerated. In almost no other language does one assume that natural gender equates to grammatical gender and even in English, this is a very recent phenomenon based on misapplying the theories of Whorf.

    If it is a bad documentation change, reject it. But there’s no need to have a tempest in the teapot. Life is better if you don’t assume everyone has bad intentions.

  2. Please actually bother to learn basic stuff about what you’re writing, especially if you’re going to blithely call a difficult issue a “slap fight.” NodeJS is not a “language.”

  3. The1960sAreOver

    NodeJS and Joyent, in particular, is more obsessed with being in compliance with whatever Jon Stewart and Tumblr says than using computer science to solve its outstanding problems other platforms solved 20 years ago.

    • Christopher Thomas "Christopher Thomas Davies" Davies

      Perhaps they are trying to use words to solve a problem that hasn’t been solved: the systemic prejudice against 50% of Earth’s human population, a prejudice inherent in language itself. If you aren’t actively trying to change this, you are culpable. Clearly Joyent recognizes this, or at least they’re PR firm recognizes that Joyent should appear to recognize this. Not everything in the tech industry is about engineering; sometimes people have to actually give a shit about people.

      Read this– I challenge you to learn something new:

      • The1960sAreOver

        Joyent: Committing to outdated Marxian interpretations of social justice and curing the world of all ills. One code comment at a time.

        It’s just more feel-good middle class white people speak to make them feel like they are doing something meaningful.

        Meanwhile, their management team is 100% male.

  4. George Gamble

    Mature adults would have taken this offline and worked it out between themselves. Not sure I see mature adults anywhere in this kerfuffle. The leaders of Joyent should be ashamed (as a company leader you don’t publicly blog that you consider someone an asshole).

  5. Good Day, Sir!


    I don’t think it’s fair to equate the rejection of a wholesale find/replace of pronouns in a codebase (which creates other issues) with supporting the status quo of male dominance in tech. I would have rejected that pull request, and I’d like nothing more than to see more women and tech events, as would almost everyone I know. The two things are quite unrelated once you scratch the surface. Replacing pronouns in a code base is not going to change the gender ratio, and most women would probably be repelled by the prospect of how childishly this kerfuffle has been handled. It’s another sad example of poorly conceived solutions making a problem worse.

  6. Who gives a shit? OH NO – someone might be offended, END OF DAYS.

    Modern tolerance has become a practice of celebrating those you agree with and deriding and chastising those with which you do not. It’s pathetic.

  7. The “inclusivness” of Joyent is perfectly captured by its 100% lily-white management team.

    Given that 99.9% of the stakeholders in the top 100 tech firms in California are Caucasian, the statements by Bryan Cantrill are, actually, offensive.

  8. stevetaylorceo

    I would have reverted the changes because they replaced gender exclusion with incorrect grammar, both of which are issues. It’s pointless replacing one issue with another. As indicated in one of the pull request comments, this could be resolved by consistently using plurals in these sentences to make them gender neutral and grammatically correct.