In a tough job market, your open source experience may be an asset in more ways than one

open source work experience
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Does this describe you?

You've been using open source software or contributing to open source projects for a long time. Perhaps you are in a job where you utilize open source tools regularly, or maybe you are just fooling around with them for fun or to learn new skills.

You've been known to tell (possibly true) stories that highlight how long you've been a part of the open source world (from "I remember downloading the first version of Fedora" to "I was in the room when the term open source was coined"). But, most importantly, you consider yourself an active member of one or more open source communities.

Did you ever consider that your time spent participating in these open source communities might be more than just good technology experience? That it might prepare you for jobs completely unrelated to using or making software?

In college, I studied history and political science. Not because I wanted to be a political scientist or a historian but because, well… actually I'm not really sure.

But in retrospect, I'm really happy I studied these fields.

Why? They gave me plenty of experience doing research, writing, and learning to articulate my thoughts and ideas effectively. While I don't remember how Alexander the Great defeated the Persians at the battle of Issus and I can no longer compare and contrast the views of Rousseau and Locke effectively, I use many skills I learned when studying these subjects on a daily basis.

At the risk of sounding like an advertisement for a liberal arts education, let me get to the point.

While you've been happily participating in open source communities because you have a need for a piece of software or want to help make it better, you may also be the beneficiary of an important side effect. You may be getting experience in how organizations of the future will be run.

Over the past few years, I've had an opportunity to work with organizations in many different industries, including finance, education, service, hospitality, even in the government and non-profit worlds. Many of these organizations are busy exploring how they can better compete using techniques that many of us in the open source world have already successfully put into practice.

For example, some are interested in testing large-scale collaborative projects involving people outside their organizations. Others want to know how to create internal meritocracies where people feel empowered and the best ideas can come from anywhere. Others want to begin to form more meaningful relationships with the community of people who care about their organizations. If you've been reading, you've seen us highlight many examples in business, government, education, health, and elsewhere.

These organizations have a lot to learn from those of you who already have real experience using these practices in real communities.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell introduced the idea that those who became world-class practitioners at their craft (he uses examples like Mozart, Steve Jobs, and the Beatles), have done so in part because they were able to get an inordinate amount of practice before others in their field. According to the research Gladwell cites in the book, a person needs about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery.

How close are you to putting in 10,000 hours participating in the open source world? If you've spent 40 hours a week working in open source communities for 5 years, you may have your 10,000 hours in already.

But even if you don't yet have 10,000 hours, my guess is you've already learned quite a bit about how open source communities work.

So if you believe that the organizations of the future may be run using many of the same principles that are currently being used to great effect in open source communities, and you already have plenty of experience working within those communities, could you be an asset to an organization that is looking for better ways to compete? And could you be an asset not just because of your open source technology skills, but also because of your open source thinking skills?

An example: My friends Dave Mason and Jonathan Opp, who each have well more than 10,000 hours of experience in the open source world, recently entered the joint Harvard Business Review / McKinsey M-Prize contest on the Management Innovation Exchange with a hack deeply inspired by their open source experience.

Their idea? Take the principle of "forking" as practiced in open source development projects and apply it to the way organizations are managed (read the full details of their hack here). Their "Free to Fork" hack was recently selected from a pool of almost 150 entries submitted by people from around the world as one of 20 finalists for the M-Prize. Pretty impressive.

So think about it: Beyond your technology experience, what else have you learned from working in open source communities that might be valuable to a potential employer? Are there hidden skills or ways of thinking open source has taught you that might be worth highlighting in a job interview or in making the case for a promotion or new assignment?

Start thinking of your open source experience as a new set of thinking and working skills that may be very much in demand in organizations hoping to remain competitive in the future.

By doing so, you might open yourself up to interesting opportunities you wouldn't have considered before.

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