For digital transformation success, get serious about open source

Commentary: Here's how to make open source a key strategic asset.

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If ever there were a time to control your destiny through open source software, it's now. With rampant uncertainty in the economy, the company that can support its own software needs will be better positioned to care for customers and outpace competitors. To take control of one's software requires deeper investments in open source, because all software is now permeated by open source. As FossID CEO Oskar Swirtun recently said, "We have never seen software that didn't include open source….I don't see how you build a company today without open source."

With this in mind, what can enterprises do to better participate in the open source communities that are essential to their success?

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Every company is a(n open source) software company

In the wake of COVID-19, software-fueled digital transformation initiatives have hit overdrive. Companies have long believed they needed to get serious about software, yet lacked motivation to take the leap. The pandemic has changed all this, making it an imperative to modernize.

As MongoDB CEO Dev Ittycheria said on the company's most recent earnings call, "[E]ven with customers in highly challenged industries...the digital trends are accelerating [because companies] want to move to more modern cloud native stacks [and] because software is powering almost every business and they want to use that as a competitive advantage…. [Companies] need [the] ability to move quickly and they need to be able to change directions quickly to respond to new threats or seize new opportunities." Similar sentiments were expressed on the earnings calls of Fastly, Elastic, and Twilio, and no doubt will continue to be highlighted by others.

However, you can't really talk about the importance of software without calling out just how central open source is to the software that every organization on earth builds and uses. While you can absolutely pay others to support open source for you, the companies that want to have the most control over their digital futures will be those that also contribute strategically to open source projects.

Here's why.

Why you should contribute to open source

I've written about how encouraging your developers to participate in open source communities can help with retention and improve their happiness. As Tim Hooley, Red Hat chief technologist for financial services in EMEA, detailed, open source also "allows [companies] to take advantage of the ideas and resources provided by thousands of developers worldwide." Want your developers to apply the lessons of a wide variety of industries to your financial services business? Let them use open source.

But there's more, as Hooley also explained: "[C]ompanies that provide leadership in communities can influence product roadmap, an advantage you don't often get from using proprietary software where you're reliant on the vendor adding the features you need." In a world of social distancing, you're unlikely to share enough golf games with your favorite sales rep from Software Vendor Y to get the features you need. Your best bet is to invest in the open source projects that matter most to you.

As Hooley enumerated, there are at least three ways to do this. The first is simply to provide funding to a particular project, either to help defray development costs or something else like stage an (almost certainly online) event. The second is to commit your own developers to the project. This can be the most effective way because the more code they contribute, the more influence you can earn over the direction of the project. It also means your developers become experts in supporting that project. And finally, companies can invest time in reviewing code to help improve quality and catch bugs. 

If you're in business, you need to become a software business. And if you're a software business, you're necessarily an open source software business. But doing that right is more than using open source: The most successful companies will contribute to open source communities. You should, too.

Disclosure: I work at AWS but this article reflects my views, not those of my employer.

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