Is your company a cesspool of proprietary software politics? Do you long for the day that your code can live free in the open source license of your choice? Well, it’s time to stop blaming The Man and start introspecting a bit.
Or, rather, to stop introspecting and start doing something.
Individuals, not companies, change culture, and open source is ultimately a cultural thing, not a technology thing. Talking with a friend who was part of Microsoft’s massive sea change from “open source is anti-American” to the world’s top open source contributor, he made it clear that this change wasn’t driven by management. It was driven by individuals in the trenches. Those same individuals may have to save open source at some companies that have already embraced it.
The only thing we have to fear is…Legal
It’s easy to look at Microsoft’s miraculous conversion from pariah to messiah in the open source world and cry foul. “Naked self-interest!” some say, and they’re 100% correct. But then, that same criticism applies to every open source contributor.
Corporations contribute code to make money. Even Red Hat, the paragon of open source ethos, does this. It’s what companies (at least in the United States) are legally required to do: Serve the interests of their shareholders.
Yet it also applies to individuals. Yes, I might contribute code to a pet project in my spare time, but there’s a very good reason that on any significant project, virtually all of the primary contributors get paid to do so. It turns out that people need to eat, pay rent, etc. Even open source developers.
SEE: Linux distribution comparison chart (Tech Pro Research)
As such, yes, Microsoft shifted in its thinking because doing so helped it to adapt to a world where much of the industry’s innovation was happening in open source communities (e.g., Linux, Docker, TensorFlow, etc.). Even so, getting there wasn’t a decision made at the board level. The Microsoft board didn’t sit down and tell then CEO Steve Ballmer that, developer dance aside, he just couldn’t cut it as the company’s open source ambassador. New CEO Satya Nadella brought a more developer-friendly face to Microsoft, but even he and his executive team ultimately didn’t reshape Microsoft.
No, it started deeper in the bowels of Microsoft with individuals like Sam Ramji (now at Google) and Bill Staples (now at Adobe). As Ramji remembers it:
At Microsoft, Bill Staples and I and our teams had to get the policies changed through Legal and the amazing Horacio Gutierrez before individual engineers could even look at open source without fear. It was a cross-disciplinary effort.
Gutierrez, now general counsel at Spotify, once served as Microsoft’s legal front line with the open source world. I remember meeting him for coffee/hot chocolate at a Paris cafe over a decade ago to discuss open source. He was, and is, the perfect diplomat for Microsoft. Even so, he was, and is, just one individual. As critical as he (as well as Ramji and Staples) was for helping to change Microsoft’s culture, he was but one individual among several–perhaps many–who was willing to see Microsoft change in order to thrive.
Today’s open source threat
For some, the open source battle today remains behind one’s corporate firewall. For such individuals, the lesson from Microsoft is clear: Individuals who demand change, and work with key (potential) blockers like the legal department to overcome obstacles, can move mountains.
SEE: What’s the most popular Linux of them all? (ZDNet)
For others who may already work at open source-friendly companies, a different challenge is looming, one identified by Redmonk’s Steve O’Grady: Indifference.
One way this plays out is in an unthinking assumption that open source is the natural order of things: “Open source has been so successful…that the industry increasingly seems to take its success for granted,” O’Grady wrote in a recent post.
The more pernicious way, however, is in our drifting away from some of the core tenets of what open source is supposed to mean. As O’Grady continued: “[F]riction around commercialization, the threat of hyperscale cloud providers or both is leading many to drift or at least consider drifting away from standard, accepted open source models.” He then digs into the details:
Open source is currently being leveraged as a tactic to acquire and ramp up customers to hyper-scale clouds….[I]t is in most cloud providers self-interest to lock customers into adjacent proprietary services after they begin their lifecycle using open source software….[I]t seems clear that at a point in which a majority of businesses are already on the cloud at least for some portion of their workloads, while a given cloud provider’s managed open source implementations will persist as product offerings, external participation and recruitment via open source would potentially become less strategically significant. The priority instead would become differentiating between cloud providers with services unique to a given platform, which is to say not open source software.
While you may be frustrated that your company doesn’t embrace enough open source, your friends at the big cloud companies, in particular, may find that their employers embrace open source, but for the purpose of leading customers into even greater lock-in. In either situation, it’s down to individuals to help shape, or reshape, the open source course their employers take.