Contributing organizations

Originally written in 2009, but never published. Conclusion was reworked.

The open source model is widely different from the typical business plan. There used to be a time when contributors were volunteers, working for passion and love of the project in their free time. These days, I feel most of the contributors to projects make a living out of it. I do it. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a good thing. It’s a lot more sustainable. Everyone needs to make a living, so odds are you loose a contributor because the company he works for just bought out (or is on the verge to be) and needs to work 70 hour weeks and burns out are much lower. Contribution can become a top priority for a reasonable amount of work hours per week. The Linux kernel was probably one of the first sample where all the top contributors ended up being paid by companies to do it.

As an individual, I find it makes a lot of sense to focus on open source software. There is nothing that I hate doing more than writing the same code twice. Building from an open platform, and contributing back, allows me to avoid writing the same thing twice and prevents me from ever writing some code. I’m mostly a developer. I don’t do much of the applying for contracts and filling specific needs. Tried it before. Not a happy place for me, even if basing it on open solutions. I’d rather leave the pressure to deliver on someone else. Turns out many companies out there see open source as a business opportunity. They can build on an existing product to deliver more value fast. I get hired to take them further while they handle the day to day problems. It’s a good deal for both sides.

There is however a major difference between a company serving real tangible clients and the open source world. After working for several clients, I can see a major difference between the successful ones and those that barely stay above waters. It turns out it probably differentiates successful from unsuccessful in any field. It’s called vision. The good companies see ahead. They anticipate problems and make sure they are resolved before the client meets them, at least the fundamental ones. Unsuccessful companies just keep fighting fires and push down the problems and hope for someone to resolve them right away.

A while back, I read one of Joel’s articles on micromanagement. Apart from the conference organizer’s inside jokes about terrible WIFI access in conference centers (and the great advice to make sure they give it for free if it does not handle the load — which is always), the following passage made me smile:

At the top of every company, there’s at least one person who really cares and really wants the product and the customer experience to be great. That’s you, and me, and Ryan. Below that person, there are layers of people, many of whom are equally dedicated and equally talented.

But at some point as you work your way through an organization, you find pockets of people who don’t care that much.

Having spent most of my time as either an employee (or technically an intern, as I never really had a full time job otherwise), I spent most of my time as a consultant working in fairly small of organizations and have been kept closer to developers than the management-types. I can say without an hesitation that the people down the ladder mostly blame high level management for getting in their way and preventing them from doing their job. Both are probably right. However, I still find Joel’s wording a bit harsh.

To function correctly with open source and make the relationship efficient, you need to embrace it. Companies trying to make it a one way relationship ended up failing. In open source, the project extends beyond the company. Every line of code you don’t contribute back is one line you will have to maintain yourself. At some point, it will simply break. Upgrading to obtain the later versions will become harder. At which point, you better hope you have killer traceability to go back to the original issue, because you will have to implement it over again. With a high turnover, it might just kill the company, and the community (and consultants part of it) might not be motivated in helping you out if you did not contribute back when times were good.

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