My open source journey from user to contributor to CTO

The possibilities are endless for anyone thinking about a career in open source. Here's my story.
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When people ask me what I love most about open source, my answer is simple: It's the openness. With open source, the work that community developers and contributors do is in the public domain for all to see and benefit from. I couldn't love that philosophy more.

How many people can say that about the fruits of their labor? How many, perhaps 50 years from now, can look back and say, "Check out the code I wrote that day that hundreds/thousands/tens of thousands benefited from." I find that infinitely more exciting than working on software that's hidden from most of the world.

I'm fortunate that my job puts me in the middle of an interesting area where open source and enterprise meet. Today, I'm Chief Technology Officer of The OpenNMS Group, the company that maintains the OpenNMS project. OpenNMS is a leading open source network monitoring and management platform.

While my current role has me firmly rooted in open source, I started as a user and contributor.

In 2007, I got my first real tech job as a network analyst at Datavalet Technologies, a Montreal, Canada-based telecommunications service provider. Within five years, I expanded to a solutions architect role, where I was tasked with helping to select a network management solution for the organization. We chose OpenNMS, and it was through that experience that I realized the true power of open source.

While onboarding the platform, we identified some missing features that would help optimize our experience. A representative from The OpenNMS Group was on site to help us with the deployment and suggested I attend the community's upcoming DevJam to work with the core developers on building the capabilities that we needed.

During that DevJam, I quickly settled in alongside the team and community. We rolled up our sleeves and started coding to create the enhancements Datavalet needed. Within days, the additional features were ready. It was amazing and transformative—this experience really opened my eyes to the power of open source.

I left my job a year later to study math full-time at Concordia University. It was there that I once again had the opportunity to collaborate with The OpenNMS Group, this time on a project for that year's Google Summer of Code. In this annual program, participants aim to successfully complete open source software development projects.

Summer of Code turned out to be a career-changing experience for me—two of the organization's leaders attended our project demo, and a year later, The OpenNMS Group team asked me to come on board as a full-stack developer.

I worked hard, quickly rose through the ranks, and was named CTO in 2015. I consider this a personal achievement and another validation of what makes the open source world so special—if you enjoy working with the community and love what you do, your contributions are quickly recognized.

The open source ethos also informed my evolution from individual contributor to CTO, where I now lead a product development organization of more than 50 people. The community is inherently egalitarian, and my experience working with community contributors has taught me to lead with context rather than control.

I've had an amazing open source ride, from user to contributor to an executive at an open source company. The open source approach goes beyond the tech, as the barriers to entry and growth often found in proprietary development environments can be overcome through collaboration, transparency, and community. For that reason, the possibilities are endless for anyone thinking about a career in open source. I'm proof of that.

We live in a time when people are deeply examining their lives and the impact they have on the world. Working in an open source company is especially rewarding because I can interact directly with and influence the user community. The typical guardrails between the end user and developer are broken down, and I can see exactly how my work can change someone's daily life or inspire someone to contribute to a project. Building community through a mutual love for a project creates connections that can last a lifetime.

I know this has all been true for me, and it's why I am so passionate about my work. I'm an open source geek to the core and proud of it.

What to read next
Jesse White is CTO and Head of R&D at The OpenNMS Group, providers of OpenNMS, a leading open source network monitoring and management platform. Prior to that, he was a Full Stack Developer. He’s crazy about open source.

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