4 words to avoid when negotiating the use of open source at your job

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Z: The open source generation


If you work in an organization that isn’t focused on development, where computer systems are used to support other core business functions, getting management buy-in for the use of open source can be tricky. Here's how I negotiated with my boss and my team to get them to accept and try open source software.

I work in an academic library and use open source for:

In my field, upper management are not technologists. My immediate managers are librarians, and their bosses are academics and accountants. So, an agreement with them to try out using open source software came down to a series of discussions between myself, the library director, and various members of the university's administration.

Invariably, the first question that was asked was: "Who’s the vendor?" It's a reasonable question considering that every other aspect of the university is managed by a vendor whenever a third party service is required. So, it is important to understand thier perspective and the way they are looking at making decisions. Many times, upper management's primary concern is budgeting, and almost all issues are seen through the prism of finance.

By choosing my words carefully and avoiding these four words, I successfully brought open source to our team.

Open source

Open source to many outside of the tech industry brings to mind thoughts of high risk and low security. So, when talking about "open source," I made a point to include the words "software" and "tools."

When I explained to them that other organizations like Google and Whitehouse.gov use open source software and open source tools, they relaxed a little. Management might not get a great grasp on the technology, but they will understand the value of a reference. It also helped them to know that there were vendors to fall back on; in their mind this helped mitigate some risk.


I naively thought using the words "free software," would immediately appeal to the budget-oriented mindset of upper management, but I was terribly wrong. To people who are used to buying services, the word "free" is a synonym for "junk." The comment of the day in that meeting was: "You get what you paid for." To many, a high sticker price testifies to high quality. So, to these decision-makers, software that cost nothing was an immediate red flag.

If you get asked, "Why does this software costs nothing?," a good response is to talk about how there are businesses that thrive by supporting open source technology. One is Equinox Software that provides support for the Evergreen Library system. Examples that relate to your field, like this one for libraries in my field, have a calming effect. For people familiar with vendors, it is reassuring to know that vendors exist in the open source world, and it helped dispel the myth that our key systems had nothing more behind them than a collection of teenage "hackers" working away in their moms' basements.


When I explained the concept of a community of contributors working on and producing open source software, I was asked many questions, like:

  • "Are we on the hook for a certain amount of work per month?"
  • "How is this going to be managed?"
  • "Will it interfere with my other work responsibilities?"

The concern was that they pay my salary, not the community. So, why would they let me use their time to work on the community's project?

To me, contributing to the community is about making the software better for everyone, including us. So, in other words, contributions are a form of shared maintenance. We aren't just contributing; we are doing maintenance.

This idea of "maintenance" was easy to understand and sell because everything requires maintenance, including our Microsoft-based public network. So rather than talk about communities and contributing, I framed the time spent working on the open source software or tool as the "routine maintenance" we would perform for any system.


When I used the term "development," it was met with the response: "We’re not in the software business." Fair enough, we may not be, but the problem here is the meaning of the word. When it is used in fields and industries outside of the tech and software world, "development" might imply to upper management that you want to help build software from scratch.

 So, I started talking about "agility" and explained that, "open source would speed our ability to respond to feature requests from our staff and administration."

I reinforced this with simple demonstrations of the flexibility of the software. One useful trick was showing management how I could change the entire look and feel of a whole website by simply clicking on a theme. If you work in the technology world, that’s no big deal, but to others, it can be pure magic.


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Robin Isard | Robin started his library career working at the Washington DC public library as Head of Intranet Development. Following that, he lived many years overseas, primarily in West Africa building IT infrastructure in The Republic of the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Guinea Conakry.


Great article!!

Words you should use: "Firefox" and "Apache." Point out that most people use open source technology on a daily basis without realizing it.

In reply to by Aseem Sharma

I work in a sector even further removed from technology but your article has got me to thinking again that maybe I can change some mindsets. Thanks.

In my experience, showing a side-by-side demonstration of performance followed by the price will get your foot in the door. From then on, deliver and keep foot out of mouth. The low cost of setting up a demonstration of FLOSS makes this fairly simple with no need for a line-item on any budget.

For instance, in one school, I discovered the paid ILS was not working two years after it had been bought. The supplier just didn't bother to fix the problems. I installed KOHA in 15 minutes and showed it to the librarian. Within days, the supplier of the paid system made its stuff work. Several years later, that same supplier was doing the same with another school. It's software would not accept the supplied "key" after weeks of discussion. I installed a FLOSS ILS and in short order the paid supplier fixed its problem. The sad thing is that both schools paid $thousands more to get similar performance to a FLOSS application that didn't let closure of the source code or anything else get in the way of performance. It's just so much simpler to use FLOSS from one end to the other.

In another school, the CD that bore the "key" was missing/lost and an expensive bit of software could not be made to run and the supplier would not bend. He wanted to be paid again for the same performance. We replaced the OS and the application with GNU/Linux and Moodle and several other FLOSS applications and had better and more agile IT thereafter. FLOSS is the right way to do IT for education. We are in the business of educating, not making monopolists rich. We don't owe them an extravagant living.

Indeed. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it is difficult to get people to understand something when their paychecks depend upon their not understanding it.

Some years back, I had install a thin-client K12Linux (formerly K12LTSP) in a school's computer lab, with the principal's approval. It worked great for about a year and a half, and the kids loved it. But then the MCSE's at Central Office got scared of "that Linux thing", went into that school, and ripped it out, with the backing of one of their Directors.

Fortunately, I did have a similar situation as Robert Pogson (above) a few years later. F5, our load balancing vendor, was giving us very shoddy support. Not only were the techs clueless, they could barely speak English. Turns out the F5 rep was going to show up later that week to talk with my boss and sell us more stuff. So...one of my guys and I decided we'd give our boss some "ammo". We replicated F5's BigIP load balancer using two desktop PC's and CentOS 5, with complete failover, just in time for the F5 rep's visit. My boss casually showed the rep our working setup. Within a week our account was assigned to a different support team, and the support was much, much better from that point forward. Funny how that worked, ain't it? :-)

Ya gotta love Free Software. Even when you have to call it Open Source for political reasons. :-D


After reading this article, I am still searching for the "four words" to avoid. That is how poorly written this article is. Author, clarify please.

Wow, if you're in technology, you need to quit.

wow, you're a funny guy

I am not sure if you are trolling, but the four words to avoid were section headings:
1 - 'open source', be sure to include the words software or tools every time.
2 - 'free', because it implies junk or shoddy to people outside of the FLOSS community.
3 - 'contribute', instead term it as routine maintenance.
4 - 'development', instead term it as agility to better provide for staff needs/wants.

Agreed. And it's 5 words, not 4...

After reading this article, I am still searching for the "four words" to avoid. That is how poorly written this article is. Author, clarify please.

@Leading Edge Boomer: do you see how those FOUR paragraphs all have BOLD titles? That might end your search...

but these 4 words are the core concept and charming things in open source.

To a technology/programmer, yes.
And I agree, these are good things.

Managers, on the other hand, think differently, so they need explanations in a different context - whats in it for their KPIs.

Great article Robin, I bet you'd have an interesting perspective to contribute to this: https://github.com/nickdesaulniers/What-Open-Source-Means-To-Me

While the link references a lot of technologist viewpoints on open source, this article complements those views with how to overcome management roadblocks to leveraging open source and thus achieve outcomes.

Great article Robin, I bet you'd have an interesting perspective to contribute to this: https://github.com/nickdesaulniers/What-Open-Source-Means-To-Me

From my experience, 4 words to use:
* cross-platform availability (as most OSS software is available on Win, Mac, Lin)
* responsiveness of OSS developers (quick work-around for bugs or providing fixes)
* the employees can use the same software at home or on the notebook/tablet/smartphone which they bring to work.
* no license-hazzle (sometimes, teams using a particular software are dynamic adding and removing people and always causing license hazzle)

What struck me as most interesting was the insightful analysis of the organisation that led to understanding how to talk to the decision makers. It this initial perception that is crucial in making progress amid risk averse types in all fields.

One thing though: I didn't see how the four words were avoided so much as explained away. I was hoping for a mitt full of synonyms to use.

Overall, though, this has great truths to be pocketed for future use. I spent time at a university that spent exorbitantly on licences in the belief that it was the only way to ensure stability. This was after being trapped for years in homegrown tools. I don't know if it even occurred to them to consider FOSS.

As Robin's University Librarian, I can attest to how he helped to overcome our institution's fear of FOSS. From my perspective, the biggest word/ concept not in the article is "hire"; that is to say, make the right hire so that you have a staff with the right skill-sets to prove that your FOSS strategies will work -- and work well. Our projects have been recognized by our peers, which has increased the positive "can-do" reputation of our department within the larger organization.

This author is a geinus and we should listen to him. All to rarely do we look at the psycology and reality delusion; that MOST folks are under, about clearly better GNU/Linux. This may be the only way it is not marginalized. Our certain ability to survive does not mean we can't be compleatly marinalized. Follow this idea please. Don't just hear truly good things. Also do them. Lead by example. You matter. No ocean exists without its drops. Be the wave. We are the overcomers. The Light is truly greater than the darkness. Share.

3 minutes wasted

<blockquote><em>3 minutes wasted</em></blockquote>
And yet you "wasted" even more time to comment!

Goodness, so much waste. Whatever should we do?

In reply to by Sania (not verified)

The funny thing is that library people are actually well positioned to understand open source. After all, a library is something very much in tune with the open source mindset. A library is about sharing information as widely as possible, and the idea that it is a fundamentally good thing, will benefit everyone, if people are given the opportunity to learn and gain knowledge. A library is a social good, given to the citizens for free in the confidence that the fruits of this, the contributions these people enabled by knowledge and creativity, will ultimately benefit society.

So what's open source? It's a very similar social good contributed to and made available to all in a very similar spirit with a similar confidence.

If a library manager in particular asks how open source software can be worth anything if it's free, consider asking him whether library services are worth anything. They are, after all, also free--should the library users be suspecting something dodgy or shoddy about libraries, then?

What strikes me about the article is not the "sales pitch" so much as insight into how the implementation of FOSS will actually work in the given professional environment. My brother spent a multi-decade career at a large corporation on an IT team making mainly IBM products work for its specific and complex business environment. Generally there was a one way flow of IBM products and the local IT team customized them as best they could for whatever (changing) purposes.

For this writer, the actual onsite practice would seem to revolve around his own role as both a) customizing ("maintaining") the open source software for his library, but also b) the feedback loop in which what he does also "contributes" to development of the larger FOSS project. The library is potentially getting its customized software at a discount, the offset being that their salaried employee is developing for the software project on "company time".

That's wonderful as long as the library has a talented "IT Guy" like the writer on staff. It raises the question of how FOSS will work or can work in other circumstances, e.g. where library staff are not developers and will need a reliable vendor to implement either a FOSS or proprietary system.

<blockquote><em>When I used the term "development," it was met with the response: "We’re not in the software business." </em></blockquote>

...said <b>every clueless manager</b>, ever.

<li>How do they interact with customers without email? (Let your fingers do the walking?)
<li>How come they don't have a web site? (Or are they still advertising in the Newspaper/Yellow Pages?)
<li>How do they keep track of their customers? (Or are they still using paper stuffed in folders?)
<li>How do they manage inventory? (Or is it a FFA?)
<li>Do they keep the books in actual leather-bound "books"? (Maybe the green bars makes it easy to add the numbers with the 10-key hand-cranker)
... etc.

You can use a lot of words, it depends in the context of use and how much know how you have about projects, procedures / processes, programming, etc. I work in an open source environment (our company contributes crucially to OTRS project and develops additional modules) and I have often contact to some open source enthusiast and closed source enthusiasts. I think we should know both sides to be able to communicate freely, and we should also see the integration and motivational potencial between both "worlds".

Hi Robin,

interesting article. Thanks for sharing :)
One small qn. to you and to PurpleLibraryGuy: So like Library Open source is for social good, understood. However in Library the books are to purchased by the library owner as the authors of the books they sell thier books in exchange of money. Library may charge us fees for using books which they have in exhange of the knowledge we gain by reading those books. In case if the library is run by trust or govt. it may be free. As we all know books once read can be read as many time as one wants and thus could be re-used by other readers. Similar to our current OSS. So now Library is sort of not-for-profit or less profit if their membership goes high. The authors of the books are anyways going to earn when their books are purchased either by buyers or individual readers. So I want to know that here in FOSS community, how come developers gets any benefit ? or do they even get any monetary benefits or their contribution of time and skills is just for their interest and passion for programming or helping the society to advance...? If yes, then we never know the intent on how the FOSS s/w could be used by anyone...!

Maybe above may sound bit confusing but if anyone understood my qn, kindly throw some light so i get the big picture.

Thanks in advance :)

Pratik Mehta

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