CTO of Getable, Mikeal Rogers, talks open source and the Github generation. What's the next big thing on the innovation horizon? And who's leading the charge? Find out in this interview.
Open source is everywhere. The digital native generation is growing up with devices, platforms, and systems that are running open source software behind the scenes and designed the open source way.
After reading an opinion post on Wired about the GitHub generation by Mikeal Rogers, I wanted to explore the idea of open source culture further and the trends that are influencing the open source movement.
Rogers is the CTO of Getable and the curator of NodeConf. We caught up with him to get his insights on open source technology, how open source is influencing start-ups, what innovations are going to break-through in 2013, and much more. See what Rogers has to say in this interview.
How are you seeing the principles of open source used beyond technology?
The concept of peer production through open collaboration isn't new to the world beyond open source. The biggest example is Wikipedia, but there are many smaller ones. Clay Shirky wrote an excellent book, Cognitive Surplus, that covers that pretty well.
What I think is different now, and what my article, The GitHub Generation: Why We’re All in Open Source Now, touched on. GitHub has created a platform for generic peer production and it reduced barriers to publishing and collaborating to the extent that it has become an attractive place for people to collaborate on more than just code. I suspect that this was mostly accidental, that they focused on reducing barriers to developers and users of libraries, and that they pulled at that thread so much that they eventually hit people who are casual developers (artists, home automation hobbyists) and by considering the needs of those users they broadened the potential of their product tremendously.
There's still room for more targeted peer production tools. LocalWiki is much better for collaborating about local regional knowledge than either Wikipedia or GitHub, but if someone wanted to begin publishing and collaborating about something new that didn't have a great tool they have a place to begin, GitHub.
What trends are you seeing, outside of open source, that are influencing the open source movement?
No technology is more useful than the technology you can take for granted. Any technology you can take for granted has likely been commoditized and most likely is open source.
Every year we push our way up the stack. We make things easier for more people with less knowledge of the technology that is beneath where they are solving their problems.
At this point we're starting to push so high up the stack that we're being consumed by people who aren't professional programmers. If your open source API is being used by as many artists as it is engineers, you're going to need to respond to those expectations. If you want your users to take your technology for granted you now have a much higher bar in terms of quality and simplicity and a very low tolerance for complexity being imposed on you by people who aren't programmers.
I think that this is a big reason why things are getting smaller. Smaller platforms, smaller APIs, smaller libraries. Big things are too hard to understand, and because GitHub has reduced the coordination cost of managing open source libraries we don't need big institutions or projects to manage the coordination.
And what are the cultural implications to those trends?
One thing I didn't spend enough time on in my article was the fact that while most people on GitHub contribute less than a dozen times a month, the majority of the total work is still done by a small margin that are clearly professional programmers.
All the barriers to entry we used to have meant that the people who are still doing most of the work were also the majority of people active in any project or community. They didn't actually hear from that many casual users of their software, those people weren't engaged in the project. Now they are, in fact the majority of people a professional developer interacts with on GitHub are not active developers at all.
This means that basic courtesy is a requirement for success. You can't get away with being a really good developer but a total dick to people like you used to. Like I said before, it means things have to get simpler, which usually means smaller.
Culture bends and forms more to people than individual contribution. Culture is not a meritocracy, you don't vote with your code, you vote with your presence.
As CTO of Getable, how has open source influenced your start-up?
Like most startups, 99% of our technology is open source, maybe more. Everything that enables us to build our product is open source, the only things that is proprietary is our application code which, when you really take an inventory, is usually less than 1% of the technology you use. It's easy to forget how much of what we use is open source because it's mostly things we take for granted, but it's there. And of course, any new technology we require to build our product which isn't the application logic itself will end up being an open source library at some point, there's no value in keeping it locked up.
What open source technology do you see making a break through in 2013?
Hardware innovations are a big one. I know a lot of people that have spent years trying to get through to a new generation of artists and young programmers through Processing and Arduino and haven't made the impact we all expected. Then, this last year or so, node.js started to become a viable platform to program hardware with and the whole space seemed to open up.
Johnny-Five made programming Arduino about as easy as learning jQuery, and we're seeing a lot of people coming from jQuery to j5. This is huge, because jQuery is primarily used by casual developers and is the most successful library in the world in terms of amateurization.
I think you're going to see a lot of impressive new stuff in this space built in a weekend by people you've never heard of.
What is an open source technology that people don't know about, but should?
My good friend and former co-founder, Max Ogden, along with local node.js legend, Substack, spent two weeks writing a Minecraft style voxel engine for the browser, voxeljs.com.
The most impressive thing to me is that they built out a great toolchain for producing and publishing new modules and functionality, something that we take for granted in the node.js world but is non-existent in game development. In just a few months over 60 modules have been created and published.
How do you use open source in your everyday life?
The one and only tab I have pinned in Firefox is my GitHub News Feed. I check it dozens of times a day.
Most days I'll get an Issue or Pull Request to one of my projects, usually request, and I'll comment on or accept that. Add to that all the mailing list traffic I casually comment on and a good portion of the code I write each day.
Most of my friends are from the community. Open source, and the work we all do, is really woven in the fabric of our daily lives. It's not a job or even what you could normally describe as a career, it's just the way we live. We rarely talk about open source to be honest, most of the things you can talk about related to ideology or licensing or community have been said, a previous generation figured most of that stuff out, it's our job to live here now and contribute what we can.