Thanks, Peter; Hail and Farewell

As Peter Quinn steps out of the spotlight, we owe him our thanks. And we should have respect for his privacy.

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
– Computer scientist and visionary Alan Kay

For the last three and a half months I’ve been covering the ongoing debate and, for want of a better phrase, “related events” surrounding the decision by the Information Technology Division of Massachusetts (ITD) to mandate use of the OpenDocument format (ODF) for archiving Executive Agency documents. The architect and public spokesperson for that policy has been Peter Quinn, the head of the ITD, and the CIO of the Commonwealth.

Like everyone else who has been covering this story, whether on one side or the other, I’ve felt free to use Peter’s name and report on his actions as if they were public property. Which, in a way, is what one’s name and actions become — even legally, as regards the threshold for proving libel — when one accepts a public position. And while I have invariably been complimentary, and even protective (in the case of the Globe article questioning his travel records), I’ve never asked Peter’s permission to keep putting his name out there, day after day and week after week, thereby doing my small bit to help keep him pinned down at the center of a controversy.

Now, as you know, Peter has decided to resign his position, in part to permit the work of the ITD to move on unhindered, and in part to allow his and his family’s life to do the same thing. I can’t begrudge him the decision, but I’m very sorry to see him go, especially as a result of the reasons that led to that decision.

I can’t say that I know Peter. I’ve interviewed him once, heard him speak or testify three times, and exchanged a few brief emails with him over the past several months. But I have admired him, and I’d like to take a few minutes to say why.

First of all, I’ve been working with standards organizations for 18 years, and those organizations have created hundreds of ITC standards during that period. But most of those standards, while important, were not significant in any larger sense. Most were simply the cleverly created tools that were needed to take the next incremental step in the march of technical progress.

ODF, though, is a standard that matters, even though very few people yet appreciate it. Unless ODF (or another mechanism capable of achieving the same end) becomes universally adopted, much of the information of today’s world will not only fade from view as time passes — it may literally disappear for all practical purposes, leaving little or no trace. Peter not only realized this, but he committed to do something about it.

Second, I’ve always admired the leaders and visionaries that see things before the rest of us, and have the courage to show the way. It’s both risky and lonely to be out in front. The enemies, doubters and flaks always outnumber the friends and those that “get it,” and too often it’s those that follow that get the credit rather than those that took the heat.

And finally, I’ve always admired people who did the right thing simply because it was the right thing to do, regardless of whether it would be easy or hard, popular or controversial, personally beneficial or costly to one’s career. There are all too few of us that ever rise to that challenge, especially (it seems) in public life.

Unfortunately, I and others in the blogosphere and the traditional media will need to mention Peter a bit longer, as the consequences of his resignation play out. I hope that he will understand and not begrudge our actions too much, in hopes that his goals will be more likely to be achieved as a result.

But we should keep it short. It’s the least we can do for someone who expected no personal benefit from doing something that needed to be done for the benefit of all, and who took the fall for doing so — not because what he wanted to do was wrong, but because what was good for all was threatening to a few, and because those few were powerful.

So as Peter steps back from the spotlight, I’d like to express my gratitude to him, and wish him well.

To everyone else, I’d like to suggest that the best thing we can do for Peter is to give him some peace and privacy. And we should do everything we can to achieve what he set in motion – for our benefit as well as in recognition of his efforts. It’s the least we can do for someone who tried to make a difference — and did.

So thanks, Peter. Hail and farewell.

[To browse all prior blog entries on this story, click here]

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