Saturday, March 10, 2007


Contributing to open source projects on company time

Vishwanath Venugopalan wrote an interesting blog on Contributing to open source projects on company time which is long overdue. Most analyst firms talk about open source from the perspective of the vendor and it is refreshing to see analysts to start talking about open source from the perspective of the end user and their potential for contribution...

He asks the question: Is it a good idea to have enterprise software developers contribute to open source projects on the company dime? My belief is yes and no. In my travels, when I talk to peers at other enterprises, they still think that open source is all about source code and have never really thought about it as either a software development methodology embracing the principles of the agile manifesto nor have any sense of what it means to belong to a larger community. Enterprises see themselves as the community where all focus is pretty much insular.

If enterprises cannot break insular thinking then by having them contribute to an outside community may over the long haul become detrimental. Contributing to open source in any sustainable way from an enterprise has to be more than just discussions on ROI and CBA's. Financial considerations are important but folks equally have to let their moral compass guide them as well. Sadly, many enterprises lack a moral compass which can lead to frustration to the individuals who have to play both sides (enterprise and community) and may have unintended consequences.

One could have the perspective of large companies being more risk adverse than small ones but this really is a cop-out. The bigger issue is that large enterprises don't really have the ability to observe how small firms who are already contributing mitigate their risk. You may note that enterprise architects on occasion talk to CTOs of Internet startups but have you ever observed equal interaction between their lawyers? Sharing of knowledge and perspectives for lawyers should occur before sharing at the software developer level but sadly this isn't happening in any meaningful way.

Maybe this could be an opportunity for industry analysts. Think about how a corporate lawyer learns about a community. They are for the most part disintermediated through services such as Lexis Nexus and will attempt to find court cases where open source was tested. The notion of precedent is big in the minds of legal folks yet they can't find anything that helps them in this regard as there are no US cases that have tested this exposure. Likewise, industry analysts that cover open source tend to write their research targeted at IT executives. What if they decided to do some research on the legal aspects of open source (this is not about comparing licenses), had it reviewed by a prominent law firm and made it generally available?

Anyway, I hope that Vishy will in future blogs start talking about the benefit of open source and contributing not from the perspective of enterprises contributing to commodity-oriented horizontal software such as ECM, J2EE Application Servers, BPM or operating systems but in terms of enterprises networking with their competitors and developing systems together in situations where there is no competitive advantage in the system itself. If one were to analyze the spend of the enterprise from an IT perspective, enterprises definetely spend more on software specific to their vertical than all the commodity stuff that current forms of open source addresss...

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