Why your company should contribute to open source

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After almost three decades of development, open source software has firmly crossed over into mainstream use. Companies understand the unique value derived from software developed through open communities and are welcoming its use in mission critical settings throughout the enterprise.

Companies that adopt open source are in a prime position to contribute back to the open source communities on which they depend. For example, most of the Linux kernel is developed and maintained by employees from companies like IBM and RedHat. However, corporate culture in many companies (and particularly in small businesses) tends to lean strictly toward consumption of open source and away from contribution. For example, in a recent survey of the Liferay community we discovered almost 75% of companies that responded do not reward or encourage open source contribution.

Anecdotal evidence from our community suggests there are two key reasons why companies do not actively engage in the open source communities on which they depend. First, companies believe time spent contributing to open source is time spent away from contributing to the company’s goals. Secondly, there is a fear that open source participation means giving away competitive intellectual property.

These concerns quickly evaporate in the unique atmosphere created by collaborative open source software, and here’s why:

Open source participation = free on-the-job training

After responding to the boss' complaint about the website being slow and implementing the grand supplier chain portal redesign, computing staff do not have a lot of spare time for what employers may consider "pet projects" that must be done "off the clock." 

What these companies fail to realize is that open source participation is a form of free on-the-job training. Sure, it takes time to fix a bug or implement a new feature, test it, prepare a code commit, and work with the core development team to incorporate the change into the codebase. The good news is that in doing these tasks, employees are learning about sound software engineering practices, quality assurance, leadership, communication skills, and teamwork (often across geographic and cultural boundaries)—a classic win-win for the company and its staff.

In addition, each successful contribution is one less thing that the company has to support during future upgrades. Finally, as staff develop expertise through participation, they become much more efficient in using the software, and reduce the cost of incremental feature development and future maintenance. Companies can sell that expertise through value added services related to the project.

Nobody wants your intellectual property

News Flash: Your competitors would rather fail than acknowledge your expertise and follow in your footsteps using your intellectual property. They don’t want your IP because it’s worthless, and they are sure of it. So, contributing that new feature that is so important to your business is likely going to create zero buzz at your competitor’s HQ, yet still give you the benefits discussed above.

In addition, the open source project as a whole will better understand your business, and is likely to find innovative improvements you’ve never considered.

Of course, a clear company policy about participating in and contributing to open source is a must, particularly if the company is related to the public sector. These should be developed with the core goals of the company in mind, but a little common sense and consideration of the indirect benefits of contribution can go a long way toward attracting and retaining passionate staff that are willing to take the extra step to give a little back.

Open source participation impresses potential customers and employees

Companies decide whether to enter into business with other companies based on more than just the bottom line. Forming a deep relationship with the open source communities on which you depend sends a strong signal to your current and potential customers that you are willing to invest in the mutual benefits of open source, and you’d be just as likely to do so with them. Highly skilled job seekers also participate heavily in open source projects and seek out companies with an active presence as potential employers, so it pays to become ingrained in core communities associated with your business.

So how can companies start making their marks in open source communities? Companies don’t have to go all-in on open source contributions (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with that!). Traditional means such as bug reports, forums, patches, features, documentation, and translations are great. But there are other significant ways in which companies can contribute:

  • Blog about open source adoption and contribution (e.g. Netflix).
  • Partner with an open source project for a case study.
  • Speak at a technical conference.
  • Offer to host meet-ups for the project.
  • Donate to or participate in foundations associated with projects (e.g. OSI, OuterCurve, Eclipse Foundation, and others).

It doesn’t take a lot of effort, but encouraging a culture of open source participation will have lasting positive effects on the company, its staff, and the open source communities to which it contributes.

James Falkner's picture
Technology evangelist, teacher, learner, author, dedicated to open source and open computing. I work at Red Hat as a technical evangelist for Red Hat's portfolio of open source products and love what we do and learning from others, and occasionally teaching at conferences.


I totally agree on this article. More and more companies are beginning to look a open source to know what to do with their products. Also companies look if employee participates in Open Source projects to hire. In this way they will know if future employees are committed and self-empowered.

Nobody wants your intellectual property: This is the most correct point of all this article. Myself are the contributor of two projects GaiaEHR an (Electronic Medical Record) and Matcha an (bi-directional microORM for Sencha) this two projects are Open Sourced, and we don't even look at other proprietary products to tell us what to do with ours, most often we take ideas from the community (potential users). This is the obvious path to choose, some times we analyze those ideas and make a choice in what it will be implemented and what not. This path will always surpass the proprietary ones, and the reason is logical they have a vision and, often that vision is shortened by this centric vision by the one that give them.

Open source participation impresses potential customers and employees: And yes, it impress a lot and it's also a great PR (Public Relations).

Even so, this is NATURE! Humans are meant to be creative and create new things. Don't you think?
There are more ways to do one thing, right?

These are not very compelling arguments.

The idea that working on open source software is "free on the job training" is nonsense. First of all, it's far from free, since the employee is using company time and resources to do work not related to the company's needs. Second, much better "on the job training" would be to work on the company's own software, which is what the employee is presumably "training" to do, rather than on some unrelated software. This is not only "on the job training", it contributes directly to the company's benefit.

Here's an analogy: Say I work in an auto repair shop. There are a few other shops in the neighborhood. Sometimes I like to walk over and do some work in the other guys' shops during work hours. I don't understand why my boss objects; after all, it's "free on the job training". I learn about sound auto repair practices, learn communication skills, teamwork, etc.

"Nobody wants your intellectual property" -- it's true that most companies won't bother studying open source code released by a competitor. More important is that consumers themselves will then have access to the code, which allows hackers (who have no existing software and no vested interests) to build a _free_ competitive product.

I've worked in the computer industry for over 30 years, and I've never seen any evidence that open-source contribution impresses anyone, except maybe some new college grads who have little experience with the real world. I've probably interviewed over 100 candidates for engineering positions in my career, and not once has the topic of open source participation been raised. And the idea that company A is going to be more likely to work with company B because company A participates in open source is ludicrous. Companies work together when it is in their best interest, not because of ideologies.

Great article, I share the same sentiments as Gino Rivera on this subject.

I am part the development team at Clinovo behind ClinCapture®, the open-source Electronic Data Capture system, the system is forked from OpenClinica. Our system is positioned as an alternative to costly proprietary systems or inefficient error prone paper-based solutions for conducting clinical trials. We see the open-sourcing of ClinCapture® as one of the best ways to improve the overall quality of the code base due to the vast number of people reviewing and working on it.

Our community members all have the ability (and are encouraged) to submit code. The patches are reviewed by fellow developers, who then commit the code to the repository if they feel that it is of the required standard and does not break existing functionality. Anyone can request features, log tickets for bugs or suggest enhancements and all committed code is organized into a milestone, which is usually time-boxed to two week culminating into a bi-weekly release schedule. Our community is also geared towards users, as Gino states, we take our ideas from our community of users and potential users.

In the case of ClinCapture®, I would hesitate to call it 'free on the job training'. Moreover, we attract many developers who may wish to use the system for their current company and are suggesting changes, improving features or fixing bugs. In this sense, they save their employer money while still contributing to the greater good of the system.

On a side note, if anyone is interested in taking a look at our community, feel free to do so by visiting: http://www.clinovo.com/clincapture/community

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