Why Open Source Company Culture is Important

This post is part of a series called Open Source Citizenry discussing ways to eliminate barriers developers and companies face to participating in the open source community.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to speak at KCRuby about a topic of my choosing. Rather than use the opportunity to put together a trial run of my upcoming Red Dirt Ruby talk, I decided at the last minute to talk about something that's been on my mind for a long time. While open source participation is higher than it's likely ever been, I still see so many people too hesitant, confused, or intimidated to enter the open source community and start releasing. So I wanted to give a cheerleader talk about how everyone can and should be contributing to open source. You can see the showoff slides here, but I think the issue is important enough to merit a larger discourse. This is the first post in a series in which I will be writing about how and why every developer should participate in the open source community. First up, I aim to supply developers everywhere with some ammunition to bring open source culture to their company.

Why Open Source Company Culture is Important

Companies have many ways to benefit from an open source culture. While many arguments can be made about the philosophical implications of choosing to contribute to the open source community, at the end of the day philosophy isn't going to persuade any CEO to adopt open source. The real reason that open source culture is important to a business is because it's a business decision that can bring many real-world advantages over the proprietary-focused alternatives.

Defining Open Source Culture

There are many degrees of "openness" in a company's culture, just as there is a whole spectrum of licensing that is considered "open source" but can have vastly different ramifications for downstream users. Personally, I believe that many companies would benefit from embracing open source as a core aspect of their corporate identity. To me, fully embracing open source means changing the default. Rather than building things and thinking "Should we open source it?" the assumption should be that yes, we will open source it unless there are compelling reasons to avoid doing so.

This is a big leap for a company to take, and I don't think many are there. We recently acquired RefactorMyCode, and rather than simply taking it over and continuing with it as a product we decided to additionally open source it. There aren't a ton of reasons why open sourcing would necessarily be a huge win for Intridea, but there are even fewer reasons why it wouldn't be a good idea. It's a community-oriented project, it doesn't contain any kind of magic voodoo patentable algorithm, and we can give the public the chance to refactor RefactorMyCode.

It Leads to Better Code

You may run a tight ship when it comes to code quality and you may even have excellent processes in place to ensure that the code that you deliver is well-tested and sanity-checked before it ever reaches production. However, there is simply no review process that can compare to the power of opening up source code to the world at large and letting them take a look. The code quality bump is due to two primary reasons:

  1. Developers building things for open source know that anyone in the world can look at the code they're writing. It will make them less likely to take easy shortcuts at the expense of good code.
  2. Other people will start using your code way off the golden path you imagined when you designed it. This will cause your architecture to evolve to be more flexible, useful, and hardened.

I know that in many cases I've had to rewrite large sections of a project because the community use cases have revealed a superior architecture that will encompass a broad range of functionality. I then benefit from this architecture when I need a similar solution in the next project I'm working on for my company.

You Get Work For Free

This is probably the most commonly cited advantage of open source: once you build a community, the community gives you free bug fixes and feature updates without you having to code a single line! This is a real advantage, especially when there is a wide-open field for community addition (such as adding new strategies to my OmniAuth library).

Of course, you need to have a workable community involvement process before you can really reap the benefits of contribution. Thanks largely to GitHub, this process has never been easier, but there are still some things to keep in mind that I'll cover in a later post.

Your Developers Will Be Happier

There's a real sense of accomplishment that comes from releasing and contributing to open source. It makes your developers feel like they're giving back, becoming a real member of the development community, and investing themselves more in the craft of software development. The same can be said of encouraging developers to attend local meetups relevant to the field and conferences.

Why do you care about happier developers? Well, every company should care about happy employees, but software development is a black magic mix of science, artistry, and craftsmanship. While some work can be done by "forcing it", a good deal of that work requires inspiration and passion, something you won't be getting out of developers that feel stifled and isolated from the development community at large.

You Will Attract Better Talent

If your company becomes known as one that embraces open source and community involvement, you will begin to attract better talent when it comes time to hire. Sure, having a killer product, good benefits, competitive pay, and many more things affect this strongly as well. But the chance to be involved in open source without having to do so by moonlighting is a chance that is very attractive to the kinds of developers you want to have working at your company.

Open source is synonymous with credibility for many developers. The more well known your company is for having great open source, the higher you rank amongst the development community. It really is that simple.

You Will Gain General Technical Credibility

This may be more applicable to service-oriented companies that do consulting, but in some cases your portfolio of open source projects can be the validation your company needs to win a bid for a client. Intridea has won clients before when they check with their technical expert and he or she confirms "hey, I've heard of that company, they released X".

All of these reasons come about because contributing to and participating in the open source community changes the perception of your company for developers, customers, and other businesses alike. While a company that rabidly protects every scrap of its software might be seen as greedy or, well, basically "jerks", companies that embrace open source foster a general sense of well-being about them that is difficult to define but something that I've definitely experienced personally.

The Flip Side: Addressing Arguments for Proprietary Software

So if, as a developer, you've just made your pitch to the higher-ups to embrace open source, you might receive any of these as (valid, by the way) concerns about being more "open" as a company.

  1. But we're a software company, aren't we giving away our most valuable assets? Nope. Well, maybe if you have a completely novel complex algorithm that solves a problem in a game-changing way, but the truth is that most software isn't some "secret sauce" that can't be duplicated by competitors. On the contrary, even with high-level tools and environments at the end of the day a good deal of software development is re-inventing the wheel. The more everyone is involved in open source, the fewer wheels have to be re-invented.
  2. We're on a deadline, we don't have time for open source. This can be one of the biggest challenges to overcome. I'm not going to lie, supporting open source projects does take time and effort. However, think of it as a tradeoff: by putting in some time and some effort to maintain an open source project, you are gaining all of the free hours of community contribution.
  3. What if people look at the code and think it's awful? Well, then you're learning a valuable lesson about the code quality you're producing and you'll probably be able to identify ways to improve it. Open source projects without tests, with brittle "golden-path" architectures, and even well-intentioned projects that are simply tackling a tough domain are probably going to get some flak. But being wrong isn't nearly as damaging to your company as being ignorant of the practices that you should be using every day.

This post (and this blog series) is more about starting a discussion than providing definitive answers. I'm not saying I know exactly what your company's needs are, but I do believe that embracing open source will do more good than harm. If you have any questions, comments, or rotten produce to throw, feel free to start some discussion below. Stay tuned for the next post in the series where I'll be talking about the benefits to individuals in contributing to open source. And if you're interested in checking out some of the open source work that Intridea has done, hit our Github page.

  1. Why Open Source Company Culture is Important
  2. Why You Should Be An Open Source Developer