How does open source affect company culture?

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Marketing openness: Does sharing have a stigma?

An open source company is naturally a company that produces open source code for others to consume. But how does the notion of producing software code in the open affect company culture?

Download Free eBookI believe that an organization cannot produce open source code if it is not generally open itself. By this I mean having culture of transparency and of openly sharing information and ideas. The same basic environment that is often found in open source development–a sense of open community, where everyone is welcome to share their opinions and ideas–is often present in open source companies as well.

But a company is different from an open source community in a key way: in every commercial entity, there is information that cannot or should not be shared with everyone. How does an organization hold a balance between being culturally open and maintaining the level of professional discretion required by its customers, its board of directors and others? How do employees know when to act open and when to keep closed?

During my eight-year tenure as CEO of MySQL, we believed that openness, both in our product and our company culture, would lead to greatness. As a result, there was a daily vibration around the topics of open and closed. For example, it was vital to keep information we received from customers confidential, but it was also important to make every new piece of the server code open. Knowing what should remain undisclosed and what could be openly shared was a skill that we wanted every employee to master. This kind of deliberation is less of a factor in a traditional corporate environment, in which the default environment is generally closed. At MySQL, each employee had to be empowered and enlightened to know when to be open and when not to.

Within this balancing act of open and closed, we followed a principle of being open as much as we could. That's a good and beautiful principle, but knowing exactly how to apply it requires fine-tuned judgment. As noted, we kept customer information and minutes from board meetings confidential. We did not share personal information such as salaries and performance evaluations. But we really tried to make everything else open: bug database, work lists, design documents, and so on. We also tried to keep business information open. We were open about our business model, our partners and our downloads. And we agreed that in our public communication, we should disclose as much information as possible.

Internally we tried to be open, too. We informed everyone of board resolutions. We discussed difficult strategic choices on  company-wide conference calls and in broad management  meetings. We encouraged everyone to have an opinion of  everything. This radical openness did not come free of charge,  however. MySQL AB was known as a company whose staff could debate topics endlessly. Some of our employees and managers were frustrated with the long decision-making cycles. Sometimes openness became the priority rather than a means to an end.

But in retrospect, it is difficult to regret the way we operated. Although the principle of openness may have at times taken a toll on our productivity, it also helped foster employees who were brilliant spokespersons for the company and brilliant decision makers on their own, all the while being amazingly passionate about their jobs and the mission of MySQL.

Today, three years after MySQL was acquired by Sun, I can still easily detect the MySQL spirit in my past colleagues when I meet them here and there. There is an assumption that information will be shared. There is a conviction that debate is useful. What we all know is that inclusiveness and openness of open source communities, when injected into a company culture, can create something special.

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Marten Mickos is the head of the Cloud business unit of Hewlett Packard. In this role Marten leads the work of building out the HP Helion portfolio which is based on OpenStack and other open source technologies. Prior to HP, Marten Mickos was CEO of Eucalyptus Systems, provider of the only AWS-compatible open source cloud computing platform.


We are born in this world with little to no assumptions on how things work. As we grow up, we learn what works and what doesn't work. When we do something, and it fails, we adjust our understanding.

You're saying the people that worked in MySQL kept their openness ideals despite that in the end MySQL had to sell itself to Sun in the end. I detect failure to learn.

Also, you probably know of WebKit. The top browser engine on all mobile platforms, and powering Chrome/Safari. It's open source, by Apple. Would you call their culture sharing and open? BTW, they heavily discuss things internally as well, but always ship on time.

So in brief. Don't redefine "open", and don't use "open" as an excuse of why your company doesn't exist. It looks bad.

Open IS about a lot more than source code. Look at the statistics of any open source company and you will see that most users don't ever actually access the open source code. For companies that launch Open Source offerings, most of their community users AND customers state that they work with Open Source companies because of the open culture of that company and that it is very different than non Open Source companies. The open source code is only perhaps 10% of the value.
On the topic of success, many people will define success for a company differently and may see selling to another company as either success or failure. A better definition of success is more visionary - what impact did the software/technology have in the world. This is measured by number of users, where it is used and installed. At 70,000 downloads a day and a very big part of the internet world using MySQL, MySQL is a great success and has made a real difference in the world. Totally irrespective of whether you liked the sale of the company.

It seems as though when you invest in people and enable them to be informed decision-makers then they can be strong stewards of your culture and your future. Why? Because you're trusting them to make decisions based on a framework or an understanding of why things are as they are and progress as they progress. The alternative yields a didactic, "say/do this not that," top-down approach that doesn't enable people to grow or understand an overall direction at the same rate. Completely unsustainable. The only thing that approach would be good for would be ensuring the need for more managers to "manage" people's decisions for them. LONG LIVE OPEN!

Openness is a means to an end, not the end in of itself. I like that thought.

Nice piece, thanks for sharing! -F2

Building anything - including empowered, aware employees - takes time. It's easy to define that time as wasted, but investing that time is what makes an open company great.

This helps explain why many companies use open source software yet few contribute back to the community. What are they worried about? While there are some business activities that should be protected, most are routine, predictable and commonplace.

Attitudes seem to be slowly changing but some firms like Apple and Oracle will never change (as long as their founders are around, anyway).

MySQL was a great place to work. Everyone was motivated to make the product and the company better. There was a spirit that flowed through everyone that constant drove them onward.

Dave: bingo. Everyone knew why they got up in the morning.

Generally this may be orthogonal to open source. It's near impossible to have a closed culture in this field but possible to be open in others.

Locally, open source as a model and culture was the cure for the particular problem MySQL was trying to (and did, I believe) solve.

Great article Marten.

The other interesting observation at MySQL is that all departments operated on an open basis. People knew what Marketing was up to, what Support was dealing with etc. Rather than it being corporate silos of information with people hoarding information and trying to control everything. Maybe big companies would be more effective if there was more openness internally...

Although the article didn't add by way of insight all was redeemed with this one line - "Although the principle of openness may have at times taken a toll on our productivity, it also helped foster employees who were brilliant spokespersons for the company and brilliant decision makers on their own, all the while being amazingly passionate about their jobs and the mission of MySQL."

A strong compass on transparency and openness builds trust. That's a vital and mostly overlooked ingredient in keeping teams, projects and products going.

One of the more mundane and practical things that will always stick with me from my time working with MySQL is the internal IRC server. Altough one would have to apply some common sense on picking the right time, channel, and topic, it literally enabled everyone to connect with everybody inside the company. This allowed me to have all kinds of discussions and gain lots of insights, with topics ranging from open source licences and businessmodels, to database server implementation. In addition it was a great and highly effective way to have meetings *and* keep notes.

kind regards,

I have only recently adopted the "open" way but I have been fortunate to brush shoulders with a handful of (ex)MySQL AB employees and wow do I feel like I joined the party moments too late. I would have loved some professional direction at MySQL AB. Those guys I am referring to were always passionate, informed and open with their expertise. I hope to give my colleagues and customers alike a good rendition of the MySQL manners I was exposed to.

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