Company contributions to open source

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.

About the author

James Falkner's picture
James Falkner - 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. Prior to Red Hat I spent 5 years at Liferay growing a large open source community, onboarding new contributors, meeting and engaging with beginners and experts, and championing open source as the de facto choice for...