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Thoughts on Open Source, Running a Company, and OSBC.

Dear Reader,

I had the pleasure of attending OSBC last week. All in all, it was a positive experience. However, my eyes were opened to a whole new side of Open Source.

Most of you know that I work quite closely with the PHP community. It’s my job. It’s a rough life but somebody has to do it. PHP was built by thousands of volunteers across the world. Most contributions are made by people “scratching their own itch” without any real though given to “monetizing their contribution”. (I’m learning a whole new language in this job, we used to call that “getting paid”)

At OSBC, most of the attendees were working on a project that they had labeled Open Source but in several cases, the focus was not on sharing code, sharing rights, or…sharing. Their focus was on project monetization, business models, “Demand Management” and a host of other new buzzwords and concepts that boil down to making money off of open source. Now, to be fair, most of the projects on display were not permutations of other projects, i.e. somebody repackaging Joomla and selling it as a commercial product. These were all project that the companies had created and I presume, owned 100%. I respect any company’s right to license their code any way they want to. It’s their code after all.

There was lots of talk about building community. In many cases, community was equated with “user base” and was mainly something that was to be minded for paying users, not something to be fostered because a healthy community helps ensure a healthy project.

Here are 7 thoughts that I jotted down during the course of the conference. Take them for what they are worth, I don’t pretend that this is anything profound, just the thoughts that hit me while sitting in the sessions. Also, I respect the owner of the project’s right to license the project in any way they feel is appropriate.

  1. Developers seem to be willing to sell out for bucks these days. There were a LOT of ex-JBoss developers who have started new projects. While I don’t pretend to be an expert on JBoss history, my recollection of the project was that, like other early open source projects, it was a community effort, not a grab for the brass ring. Apparently the developers that were involved in the project, now feel that sharing for the sake of sharing is not a valid goal. All the projects I saw that were by ex-JBoss developers were all hybrid OS/Commercial projects. In all the cases I saw, the emphasis was on the commercial.
  2. Free Download!=Open Source. Many of the projects I saw represented were using the term Open Source as a marketing gimmick. Like the “free trial” that Id gave away of the original DOOM, many companies are now treating open source as their free trial version but it’s a crippled version. Projects like Zimbra and SugarCRM get it, they provide full-featured versions of their product and then sell valued-added upgrades. You can use the product as is though without the upgrades. I saw two projects that were egregious violators of this. Giving away what can only be described as crippelware (with full source code) and hoping that people liked enough of what they saw to pony up the bucks. This, in my opinion, violates the spirit of open source.
  3. Business people who work with open source consider it a business model. Even those who have worked on open source projects tend to get a selective amnesia when there is money involved. They forget that open source is about sharing, not about monetizing. I’m all for developers getting paid for their work but let’s not do it under the color of open source. Either your project is open source, in truth and in spirit, or it’s not. If it’s not, that’s no sin, but don’t call it open source.
  4. Hire from your community. This is one of the things the JBoss team and then RedHat did very well. If you’ve got a community, that’s your candidate pool when trying to fill an opening. The hardest thing about filling positions is finding people who you can work with and can do the work. If you’ve built a community around your project then you’ve already overcome the first hurdle and the second one is very easy to judge. Why more projects don’t understand this I’ll never understand.
  5. Transparency is the new black. This applies to all companies but it came to light at the conference so I thought I’d mention it here. Inside your company, you have to be 99.999% transparent. This is especially important in software development companies. If your C-Level is not 100% transparent to your development staff (the talented ones that the C-Level is sponging off of) then I guarantee you that your talent will move to greener pastures. No, most developers don’t want to be involved int he day-to-day business of the company but with very few exceptions (and most of the valid exceptions deal with local privacy laws, not things you want to keep secret) there should be nothing “above the pay grade” of your development staff. And if you are going to treat your developers with that kind of respect, you might as well go all the way and treat everyone like that.
  6. Outsource everything that is not a core competency. This is one that I picked up from several speakers. In this day and age, people are perfectly willing to outsource key components of their business like development but feel it necessary to staff an HR department. That’s just backwards. There are hundreds of solutions for dealing with HR, benefits, payroll, etc. That’s a commodity these days. True development talent is a precious resource. If your company develops software then spend your money on developers, if it consults, spend your money on consultants. Unless you are an HR company, outsource such non-essential jobs.
  7. If you take yourself too seriously, no one else will take you seriously at all. I saw a lot of these companies showing their wares, participating on panels and talking in the halls with very solemn looks. I can’t stress this enough, we develop software, we do not cure cancer. Yes, we feed our families with the work we do but honestly, software development, with very few exceptions, does not rise to the level of practicing medicine. (There are exceptions, I didn’t see a single one at OSBC) Lighten up! Customers can tell if you take yourself too seriously and they won’t.

Like I said, take this rant for what it’s worth. You may not agree with one or more of my points and that’s fine with me. (it doesn’t make them wrong though.) :)

Until next time,