Why Professional Open Source Management is Critical for your Business

Gil Yehuda, Senior Director of Open Source and Technology Strategy, Yahoo
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In his Open Source Landscape keynote at LinuxCon Japan earlier this year, Jim Zemlin, Executive Director of the Linux Foundation said that the trend toward corporate-sponsored open source projects is one of the most important developments in the open source ecosystem. The jobs report released by the Linux Foundation earlier this year found that open source professionals are in high demand. The report was followed by the announcement that TODOGroup, a collaboration project for open source professionals who run corporate open source program offices, was joining the Linux Foundation. Open source is no longer exclusively a pursuit of the weekend hobbyist. Professional open source management is a growing field, and it’s critical to the success of your technology strategy.

Open Source Potential to Reality Gap

Open source has indeed proven itself to be a transformative and disruptive part of many companies’ technology strategies. But we know it’s hardly perfect and far from hassle-free. Many developers trust open source projects without carefully reviewing the code or understanding the license terms, thus inviting risk. Developers say they like to contribute to open source, but are not writing as much of it as they wish. By legal default, their code is not open source unless they make it so. Despite being touted as an engineering recruitment tool, developers don’t flock to companies who toss the words “open source” all over their tech blogs. They first check for serious corporate commitment to open source.

  ‚ÄčIf you want to take advantage of the value that open source offers, you’ll need someone on your team who understands open source pragmatics 

Open source offers potential to lower costs, keep up with standards, and make your developers more productive. Turning potential into practice requires open source professionals on your team to unlock the open source opportunity. They will steer you out of the legal and administrative challenges that open source brings, and help you create a voice in the open source communities that matter most to you. Real work goes into managing the strategy, policies, and processes that enable you to benefit from the open source promise. Hence the emerging trend of hiring professionals to run open source program offices at tech companies across the industry.

Getting the Program off the Ground

“Program office” sounds big. Actually, many companies staff these with as few as one or two people. Often the rest is a virtual team that includes someone from legal, PR, developer services, an architect, and a few others depending on your company. As a virtual team, each member helps address the areas they know best. Their shared mission is to provide an authoritative and supportive decision about all-things open source at your company. Ideally they are technical, respected, and lead with pragmatism – but what’s most important is that they all collaborate toward the same goal.

The primary goal of the open source program office is to steer the technology strategy toward success using the right open source projects and processes. But the day-to-day program role is to provide services to engineers. Engineers need to know when they can use other people’s code within the company’s codebase (to ‘inbound’ code), and when they can publish company code to other projects externally (to ‘outbound’ code). Practical answers require an understanding of engineering strategy, attention to legal issues surrounding licenses (copyright, patent, etc.), and familiarity with managing GitHub at scale.

New open source projects and foundations will attract (or distract) your attention. Engineers will ask about the projects they contribute to on their own time, but in areas your company does business. They seek to contribute to projects and publish new projects. Are there risks? Is it worth it? The questions and issues you deal with on a regular basis will help give you a greater appreciation for where open source truly works for you, and where process-neglect can get in the way of achieving your technology mission.

Will it Work?

I’ve been running the open source program office at Yahoo for over six years. We’ve been publishing and supporting industry-leading open source projects for AI, Big Data, Cloud, Datacenter, Edge, Front end, Mobile, all the way to Zookeeper. We’ve created foundational open source projects like Apache Hadoop and many of its related technologies. When we find promise in other projects, we support and help accelerate them too, like we did with OpenStack, Apache Storm and Spark. Our engineers support hundreds of our own projects, we contribute to thousands of outside projects, and developers around the world download and use our open source code millions of times per week! We are able to operate at scale and take advantage of the open source promise by providing our engineers with a lightweight process that enables them to succeed in open source.

You can do the same at your company. Open source professionals who run program offices at tech companies share openly – it comes with the territory. I publish answers about open source on Quora and I’m a member of TODOGroup, the collaboration project managed by the Linux Foundation for open source program directors. There, I share and learn from my peers who manage the open source programs at various tech companies.

Bottom line: If you want to take advantage of the value that open source offers, you’ll need someone on your team who understands open source pragmatics, who’s plugged into engineering initiative, and who’s empowered to make decisions. The good news is you are not alone and there’s help out there in the open source community.

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