How to start an open source program in your company

With 65% of companies using open source software, it's not just internet-scale companies that can benefit from formal open source programs.
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Many internet-scale companies, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, have established formal open source programs (sometimes referred to as open source program offices, or OSPOs for short), a designated place where open source consumption and production is supported inside a company. With such an office in place, any business can execute its open source strategies in clear terms, giving the company tools needed to make open source a success. An open source program office's responsibilities may include establishing policies for code use, distribution, selection, and auditing; engaging with open source communities; training developers; and ensuring legal compliance.

Internet-scale companies aren't the only ones establishing open source programs; studies show that 65% of companies across industries are using and contributing to open source. In the last couple of years we’ve seen VMware, Amazon, Microsoft, and even the UK government hire open source leaders and/or create open source programs. Having an open source strategy has become critical for businesses and even governments, and all organizations should be following in their footsteps.

How to start an open source program

Although each open source office will be customized to a specific organization’s needs, there are standard steps that every company goes through. These include:

  • Finding a leader: Identifying the right person to lead the open source program is the first step. The TODO Group maintains a list of sample job descriptions that may be helpful in finding candidates.
  • Deciding on the program structure: There are a variety of ways to fit an open source program office into an organization's existing structure, depending on its focus. Companies with large intellectual property portfolios may be most comfortable placing the office within the legal department. Engineering-driven organizations may choose to place the office in an engineering department, especially if the focus of the office is to improve developer productivity. Others may want the office to be within the marketing department to support sales of open source products. For inspiration, the TODO Group offers open source program case studies that can be useful.
  • Setting policies and processes: There needs to be a standardized method for implementing the organization’s open source strategy. The policies, which should require as little oversight as possible, lay out the requirements and rules for working with open source across the organization. They should be clearly defined, easily accessible, and even automated with tooling. Ideally, employees should be able to question policies and provide recommendations for improving or revising them. Numerous organizations active in open source, such as Google, publish their policies publicly, which can be a good place to start. The TODO Group offers examples of other open source policies organizations can use as resources.

A worthy step

Opening an open source program office is a big step for most organizations, especially if they are (or are transitioning into) a software company. The benefits to the organization are tremendous and will more than make up for the investment in the long run—not only in employee satisfaction but also in developer efficiency. There are many resources to help on the journey. The TODO Group guides How to Create an Open Source Program, Measuring Your Open Source Program's Success, and Tools for Managing Open Source Programs are great starting points.

Open source will truly be sustainable as more companies formalize programs to contribute back to these projects. I hope these resources are useful to you, and I wish you luck on your open source program journey.

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Chris Aniszczyk (@cra) is an open source executive and engineer by trade with a passion for building a better world through open collaboration. He's currently a VP at the Linux Foundation focused on developer relations and running the Open Container Initiative (OCI) / Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF).

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