Dr. Lovesource: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the open

There's a lot more to open source than contributing code.
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347 readers like this
Marketing openness: Does sharing have a stigma?


I used to write code. I don't anymore. There are lots of reasons for this, including the fact that I wasn't very good at it. To clarify, I was, I think, good at writing code,1 but I wasn't very good at writing code.2 It turns out that I'm quite good at a variety of other things, so my career3 moved in a different direction—or, in fact, a variety of different directions. After a number of roles ranging from "Electronic Information Controller" to "Product and Programme4 Manager" through software engineering and pre-sales, I finally settled into something called "architecture." Which means that I mainly draw boxes and lines on whiteboards and expect people who are very good at writing code to make the boxes "real."

Through all this time I've been involved with, using, and quietly advocating for open source. I absolutely haven't been much of a voice in the community—or communities—but it's been something that I've long believed in and held dear.

But I've always worried that I'm not a real open sourcer. That I don't have any right to make a noise, stand up, become a real evangelist for open source. And that's because I've never written much code for any open source project. I've never been much of a contributor, and I've certainly never been a maintainer on any projects.

Open source is, of course, driven by code—by the source.5 And if you don't contribute to the source, it's easy to feel like a second-class citizen. And there's been some truth to that: many open source projects are guided through their lifecycle by a small band of people who write and maintain the code. In some of those projects, if you don't write that code, your voice isn't going to get much visibility.6

Overall, however, I think that's changing, and that's generally a good thing. Many projects now realise the value—the great value—in community organisers, testers, docs people, marketing folks, UX designers, graphic artists, sound artists, translators, and all the rest (even architects) who don't actively contribute source code to the project. Because without these types of people, the project, however brilliant, is never going to take off. I started to come up with exceptions to this rule, and then realised that—although I might be able to take away some elements of the list from some projects—none can become really successful with just coders.

That means that we can all be involved, even if just as users who file bugs—that's testing, folks—or pointing out that the wording in a title screen feels a bit odd—that's documentation or maybe translation.8

The other thing that's changed over the past few years, and which Opensource.com is enthusiastically promoting, is that open source isn't just about code anymore. It's about hardware specs, beer recipes, data, decision-making, even how organisations consider themselves and their culture. So what it all comes to down to is that I'm (finally) feeling more comfortable about thinking of myself as a "real" open sourcer. That's one of the reasons I started writing for Opensource.com, in fact. I realised that maybe I do—and, here's the point, all of us do—have skills and experience and talent to bring to open source.

I encourage you—whatever your skills, whatever your interests,10 whatever your experience—to poke your head above the parapet and see what you can do in the open community. Yes, write code if you can and want to, but test, document, design, or just use and evangelise: It's all for the good of the movement, and it all adds to the commonwealth of knowledge and expertise that we share and grow and celebrate.

1. Some of my previous colleagues might disagree with this.

2. But I doubt any of them will disagree with this.

3. A lesser-planned one it's difficult to conceive, given that my degree is in English Literature and Theology.

4. Yes, this is how you're supposed to spell this word (see 8)—unless you're talking about something that you run on a computer; that word is missing the final two letters.

5. The clue's in the name.

6. Unless it's an audio editing project.7

7. Work with me, work with me.

8. We need more projects with en-gb translations, IMNSHO.9

9. In My Not So Humble Opinion.

10. Unless you're interested in keeping things closed and proprietary.

I've been in and around Open Source since around 1997, and have been running (GNU) Linux as my main desktop at home and work since then: not always easy...  I'm a security bod and architect, co-founder of the Enarx project, and am currently CEO of a start-up in the Confi


Your article rings true for me, as I also have a degree in theological studies yet gradually found myself involved in open-source software, specifically in implementing open-source ERP solutions. =)

There are more of us around with theology degrees than some people realise. Shh! We can take over by stealth (and a strangely broad knowledge of historical theological controversies, literary criticism techniques, heresies and obscure languages...).

In reply to by Zeeshan Hasan (not verified)

There's an aspect to the Open Source world that people don't often talk about and it's the philosophy. I often equate Open Source with issues related to security and privacy. You can see the code and be certain that it's respecting your rights as a human being before running it.

In this day and age, this is a compelling argument.

This definitely deserves an award for the most copious footnotes ever.
Anyway, I think that there is a robustness to successful open source projects that comes from attracting a community. Projects start as some person or small group who have some good ideas, throw them out there to the public, and THEN, attracting in an ongoing way new ideas, improvements on old ideas, documenters, and of course enthusiastic users. And people understand that they can switch roles or supply more than one need at any time.

Greg -

The number of footnotes is only just over average for me!

You're right: robustness comes as a community, and acts as a positive feedback. I'm not suggesting that you don't need (in most cases, at least) to start with a core of good development - I agree with you.


I have a question for you. Since Red Hat is the biggest Linux company, I'm curious as to what proprietary applications are used? I assume that most people at Red Hat already uses Fedora/Redhat desktops, LibreOffice and Thunderbird/Lightning email/calendar. What about other corporate software that often defaults to proprietary brands? Does your marketing dept use Gimp/Inkscape or Adobe? What do Red Hat folks use for project management, CRM and ERP?

Zeeshan -

Well, _I_ use Fedora! There's some variety around the use of desktops, but in terms of our backend systems or tools used by marketing, etc., I know that there are many very passionate people who spend some of their time encouraging and helping people to use open source wherever possible.


In reply to by Zeeshan Hasan

One of the best programmers I ever knew did not primarily write programs; she wrote outstanding algorithms which solved the problem(s) at hand. She went on to become the head of a university CS school.

"My general working style is to write everything first with pencil and paper,‭ ‬sitting beside a big wastebasket.‭ ‬Then I use Emacs to enter the text into my machine."--Donald Knuth

"I don't need to waste my time with a computer just because I'm a computer scientist."--Edsger Djikstra

"Computer Science has no more to do with computers than astronomy has to do with telescopes."--Edsger Djikstra

I think what you're talking about is at least part of the reason I have a hard time with C and C++ -- they're very structure-oriented, so you have to create all these classes and variables and object-oriented things before you can even begin to touch the algorithmic logic of what you want to do. In contrast, Perl and Python are much closer to the ideas in my head.

In reply to by robertservice (not verified)

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