Sunday, August 29, 2010

Finland - Breeding Ground for Race Car Drivers and Community Builders

I've been loving watching Top Gear on Netflix streaming lately, even though it's last season.

In the episode I watched today (embedded below), they sent James May to Finland to learn from Mika Hakinen how to do the Scandinavian flick and other tricks of the trade. I always knew Fins were disproportionately represented in the ranks of elite drivers, but before watching this episode, I had no clue why.

It takes three years to get your full driver's license in Finland. Before the authorities grant it, you must prove able to control a car on a wet skidpad. According to Mika, this means that, by the time a would-be Finish racer takes the track, he's got an innate feel for the car in turns, even at high speed with the rear tires breaking loose.

After learning all he could from Mika, James took the wheel in Captain Fast in some Finnish town's Community Race, which happen weekly all over Finland. Notionally, these community races are very similar to Legends car racing in the US, where the value of participating cars may not exceed a certain dollar value. The idea - there and here - is to keep it fair to emphasize driving skill and not how much money one can pump into their car. What I found very interesting, and cool, about the Finnish version is the way they achieve this end. In the states, being the litigious lot we are, Legends racers are governed by a mile-thick rule book and an army of inspectors. The proverbial space pen that can write upside down.

In Finland, they take a much more practical, and I'd argue, effective, approach. There, after any race, any participant can buy any other participant's car for a set amount of money, and the seller must oblige. The proverbial pencil.

Perhaps this knack for simple and effective rule enforcement explains why it was a Fin who fathered the world's most successful community software project. Like his compatriots who, at age 15, can effortlessly flick a car's rear end loose through a gravel turn at 80 MPH, Linus Torvalds - a man with zero formal management training - has captained the Linux community with uncanny ability.

The lesson I, and I'd bet many Linux watchers, have traditionally drawn from the fact a Fin invented and grew Linux to its present status, is sort of a twist on the World is Flat - so flat that even someone from a tiny, remote place like Finland can invent, and rally many of the world's top developers to invest (time and effort) in, a free operating system that would ultimately undo Sun Microsystems (not that this was the goal, but I think it's safe to say that it was an effect, and a big one). But maybe this is wrong. Maybe the real lesson is that there's something special about the Fins and the flatness of the world was merely a necessary precondition for the rest of us to find out.

1 comment:

  1. I almost forgot about Marten Mickos, another Fin, who led MySQL to - ahem - Sun. But still, everything I've heard and read says he was, and still is, a gifted open source leader.