3 min read

The emergence of worker solidarity and organization throughout the tech industry has been one of the few upsides to a difficult 18 months. And although it might be tempting to see this wave as somehow separate from the technical side of building software, the reality is that worker power – and, indeed, worker safety and respect – are crucial to ensure safe and high quality software.

Last week’s npm bug, reported by users last Friday, is a good case in point. It follows a matter of months after news in April of surprise layoffs, and accusations of punitive anti-union actions.

It perhaps confirms what one former npm employee told The Register last month: “I think it’s time to break the in-case-of-emergency glass to assess how to keep JavaScript safe… Soon there won’t be any knowledgeable engineers left.”

What was the npm 6.9.1 bug?

The npm 6.9.1 bug is complex. There are a number of layers to the issue, some of which relate to earlier iterations of the package manager.

For those interested, Rebecca Turner, a former core contributor to npm who resigned her position at npm in March in response to the layoffs, explains in detail how the bug came about:

“…npm publish ignores .git folders by default but forces all files named readme to be included… And that forced include overrides the exclude. And then there was once a remote branch named readme… and that goes in the .git folder, gets included in the publish, which then permanently borks your npm install, because of EISGIT, which in turn is a restriction that’s afaik entirely vestigial, copied forward from earlier versions of npm without clear insight into why you’d want that restriction in the first place.”

Turner says she suspects the bug was “introduced with tar rewrite.” Whoever published it, she goes on to say, must have had a repository with a remote reference and had failed to follow the setup guide “which recommends using a separate copy of the repo for publication.”

Kat Marchán, CLI and Community Architect at npm, later confirmed that to fix the issue the team had published npm 6.9.2, but said that users would have to uninstall it manually before upgrading.

“We are discussing whether to unpublish 6.9.1 as well, but this should stop any further accidents,” Marchán said.

The impact of npm’s internal issues

The important subplot to all of this is the fact that it appears that npm 6.9.1 was delayed because of npm’s internal issues.

A post on GitHub by Audrey Eschright, one of the employees who are currently filing a case against npm with the National Labor Relations Board, explained that work on the open source project had been interrupted because npm’s management had made the decision to remove “core employee contributors to the npm cli.”

The implication, then, is that management’s attitude here has had a negative impact on npm 6.9.1. If the allegations of ‘union busting’ are true, then it would seem that preventing its workers from organizing to protect one another were more important than building robust and secure software.

At a more basic level, whatever the reality of the situation, it would seem that npm’s management is unable to cultivate an environment that allows employees to do what they do best.

Why is this significant?

This is ultimately just a story about a bug. Not all that remarkable. But given the context, it’s significant because it highlights that tech worker organization, and how management responds to it, has a direct link to the quality and reliability of the software we use.

If friction persists between the commercial leaders within a company and engineers, software is the thing that’s going to suffer.

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Being a Senior Content Marketing Editor at Packt Publishing, I handle vast array of content in the tech space ranging from Data science, Web development, Programming, Cloud & Networking, IoT, Security and Game development. With prior experience and understanding of Marketing I aspire to grow leaps and bounds in the Content & Digital Marketing field. On the personal front I am an ambivert and love to read inspiring articles and books on life and in general.