Brazil’s free software forum: cooperative is more than an attitude

By Andy Oram
April 19, 2006

Yesterday I arrived in Porto Alegre, in the South of Brazil, and introduced my readers to the Fórum Internacional Software Livre. At that time I had met some of the animals but had not yet attended the circus. Today I experienced the full excitement of being with thousands of people with many different interests: free software developers, students, government leaders, and more. I estimated a full two thousand people in today’s keynote presentation, which featured a range of government leaders and a little video in which the Brazilian national anthem was played by a variety of musicians from different regions and ethnic backgrounds.

I attended a few talks in English--which were quite good--but mostly got taken around by colleagues to meet interesting folks in the Brazilian free software community. I also learned more about the state of documentation and the need for new models here.

I get the sense that things are done a bit differently here than they would, perhaps in other places such as Northern Europe. It’s harder to use printed signs and documents (even putting aside the language barrier) to navigate the logistics of the show. I got virtually no written instructions on such things as how to get back and forth to and from the show, and where to get lunch. What makes up the gap is personal attention. It’s easy to find organizers on the show floor, and they spend a lot of time making sure the people they invited are comfortable. everybody is very happy to spend time and try to help find out what I need (although sometimes it’s the third person I ask who knows), and nobody gets cross with a foreigner who is clueless about the most basic everyday things.

[Arial view of FISL conference floor]

The FISL 2006 conference floor was a typical melange of vendors and visitors, quite lively and convivial despite the warehouse setting.

Cooperative is more than an attitude

I learned a little more from a software developer about the boost to the Brazilian IT industry that I reported on yesterday--the “market reserve” that tried to make Brazil rely on its own computer developers and use less equipment and software from outside.

According to this developer, the market reserve worked well for about a decade, leading to better computer resources inside the country and a more self-sufficient pool of developers. This took place because the computer industry up until the early 1980s was fairly predictable and stable in its basic tasks and requirements--in the way it interacted with users and society.

What doomed the reserve was the profound disruption in the computer industry caused by the personal computer. People on the ground--actual developers and users--recognized that this would require a completely new way of relating, and a rethinking of the policies behind the market reserve. But the politicians in charge of the policy had no inkling that anything needed to change. Finally they abolished it.

The story is an old one: policy-makers putting in place an artificial incentive that temporarily leads to desirable results, but that is too rigid to respond to changes in the environment. Still, the gains of the early years cannot be dismissed.

Brazil should perhaps be judged by another innovation that I learned about today: programming cooperatives. I felt like I was thrust back into the Spanish Republic of the 1930s here, or earlier, but the movement seems vital and productive. There are several software companies run as worker-owned cooperatives in Brazil, but only one is a free software vendor Solis. I talked for a while today to Cesar Brod, a manager at that firm.

[Solis staff]

Cesar Brod, a manager at the Solis free software cooperative, with organizers of FISL 2006 conference.

Solis is run by administrative board elected by its employees. It pays wages based on the typical labor market (so that a senior programmer gets a lot more per hour than an administrative assistant) but at the end of each fiscal year it distributes its surplus purely on the basis of hours worked. So an employee can potentially earn three times as much from the surplus as he or she did from a year’s wages. Some of the surplus, of course, is invested in future development, but the amounts to be invested or distributed to employees are determined by a meeting held at the end of the year. And any employee can suggest a project for investment, not just managers.

Solis started as an internal project at a university in the south called Univates, and then was spun off. Some of the projects they’ve developed include:

In other words, Solis is a dynamic company. They started out offering a pure service model, but found that many customers want something more resembling a traditional, proprietary, product licensing model. So they’re offering a variety of services and products, while keeping all their work under the GPL. They don’t want to grow too big (they have about 35 employee/members now, and can envision growing to be 100), but would like other small cooperatives to spring up in imitation of them.

I asked Cesar how they could outbid other software companies so often. It seems that they take advantage of several elements of Brazilian law affecting cooperatives. Required payments into a government-run worker’s training fund, and other fees, add 60% to the cost of paying a salary for the average firm, but cooperatives are charged only 30%.

Most important, though, is the flexibility that the legal system allows to cooperatives in setting workers’ hours. Flexible hours is a key demand of companies in other countries, of course; major strikes have been fought over it. It has a particular history in Brazil.

For much of the twentieth century, Cesar says, ordinary laborers in Brazil worked under conditions not much better than they had when slavery was in force. Pro-labor laws finally put some limits on what employers could demand. But one aspect of those laws was to put in place a rather rigid system of work hours. Because cooperatives are run by their employees, they are freed from this requirement. If somebody is needed for only 20 hours on a particular week, he can be asked to work just 20 hours and paid for 20 hours. The democratic process within the cooperative is supposed to prevent abuses.

Clearly, different systems are better for different employees (and different types of companies). But I suspect the flexible work hour program is one reason Solis has an extremely young workforce. Young people are less concerned with saving for the future and have fewer commitments (such as children) than older workers.

The book business in Brazil

I’m fleshing out some of the points people told me yesterday about the market for books in Brazil and some of its needs. Print-on-demand is one recent development in the publishing field that could pay big dividends in Brazil. Not only shipping costs, but import tariffs, can be avoided by a contract whereby a foreign publisher licenses its books to a local publisher in electronic form. In fact, the local company doesn’t even have to be a publisher. The bookstore that runs the show sometimes waits until just before a conference and then prints ten to twelve copies of a book that the manager thinks will be a hot item.

Still, I think there will be a huge gap between the need for information and the available documentation, until the communities that use software are harnessed to produce better documentation for themselves--better organized, better at tying concepts to practice, easier to find, and more reflective of new users’ needs.

[Bookstore with penguin stuffed toys]

Crowded conference bookstore with a shelf of books, some familiar to me and some not.

Other blog postings on this conference:

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