This week, hundreds of members of the open source community will gather in Raleigh for the All Things Open Conference, an annual event structured to spread best practices from open source software development beyond the boundaries of computer software.
The open source way, as described by Jen Wike Huger, the content manager of opensource.com, is about applying the principles of open source software development beyond software.
“Open source communities have been around for many years, just like startup cultures have,” said Wike Huger, “They’ve even been growing up alongside each other.”
“The survival of both startups and open source communities depend heavily on their ability to evolve and adapt to their environment,” said Brandon Keepers, head of open source at GitHub. “Startups can learn lessons from open source on a wide range of topics like coordination, motivation, conflict resolution and decision making.”
Startup communities and open source communities share many values, said Wike Huger, and so do their leaders. The open source community holds dear the concepts of open exchange, participation, rapid prototyping, meritocracy and community, said Wike Huger. Also atop the list: transparency, participation and collaboration, said Keepers.
“When we talk about applying open source to other realms of society, like government and data,” said Keepers, “we’re talking bringing transparency to the processes that govern those realms, enabling people to participate in whatever way they can and giving them the tools and space to collaborate.”
Modern startup culture has become more and more reliant on these principles, Keepers and Wike Huger agree. There are more and more case study examples of startups that leverage open source principles to increase efficiency and maximize return on investment.
“There are a few places that people look to as models for open source policy and procedures,” said Jeff Luszcz, founder and CTO of Palamida Software. “The Apache Software Foundation, The Eclipse Foundation and the Debian Project all are great examples of open source organizations that have clear open source policies and procedures for their development teams.”
There are a lot of companies that are going one step further than leveraging open source principles within their design process, said Keepers. In addition, these organizations are open sourcing significant parts of their infrastructure. Consider, said Keepers, Epic Games in Cary, which open sourced their game engine. That decision enables anyone in the world to start building games for free. Ansible, recently acquired by Red Hat built their entire product around an open source project.
Entrepreneurs and startup leaders can learn quite a bit from the open source movement to put to work in their own growth plans, said Luszcz, “Seeing how these organizations work can be illustrative to startups who want to use open source and work with these communities.”
It’s not only about understanding the licensing models for open source technologies, said Luszcz, it’s about understanding “the philosophies behind the projects.”
Chris Aniszczyk, head of open source at Twitter, argues it goes even further than that, especially given the workforce issues that many startups in growth will face. “Developers leave companies,” said Aniszczyk. “Have a plan for the project when they do: staff it or give it to the community.”
While there is no silver bullet or magic beans that entrepreneurs can leverage to ensure open source adoption across their startups, successful open source startups typically share three primary qualities.
Good leadership is of the utmost importance to a successful organization. This is especially true of open source and startup organizations, said Wike Huger.
Leaders of both startups and open source communities “value that their small team is passionate and dedicated to the mission and project,” said Wike Huger. It is this type of leader who can both inspire and instruct.
“The CEO needs to put their stamp of approval on the open source process used at their company,” said Luszcz, “and needs to be aware of the places they may not have the proper amount of visibility.”
This type of leadership ensures that source code for products and projects is delivered through a clear process, whether that be open source or not. Luszcz estimated that nearly half of all projects within startups stem from open source code the company’s developers are leveraging in order to build their products.
Leaders need to learn how to use tools that promote better transference of knowledge, said Keepers. “Tools that inherently memorialize communication means people working toward shared goals have access to the information they need to do their job.”
With good leadership in place, said Luszcz, “developers and others in the company can make the case to use more open source by showing the amount they are already using.”
In the end, successful leaders understand that the most efficient teams are the most successful, said Wike Huger. Leaders that establish processes to increase efficiency and maximize return can be wildly successful in leveraging open source code and the principles of the open source movement.
Clear vision, mission, values, and processes
Startups and open source communities have three primary similarities, said Wike Huger. First, the people that work within them “are the ones who are the most passionate about the cause or the mission.”
Second, those that work within startups and open source communities spend a lot of free time to make the project successful, said Wike Huger, because they’re likely to have personal interest in making the project work.
Finally, members of both communities understand the risks involved and the sacrifices necessary in order to make progress, and ultimately, to make the project successful, said Wike Huger.
With a clear vision and mission, startup leaders can establish effective policies that are quickly and easily adopted by their development and management teams, said Luszcz.
“For startups one of the most important things that they can do is to educate their developers and management chain in the principles of open source licensing and have a clear policy for use,” said Luszcz.
He recommends setting up an Open Source Review Board (OSRB) containing technology leads, management leads and legal counsel, even if the group is small. “This team should be empowered to set and communicate effective policies and procedures,” said Luszcz.
Leaders need to articulate their vision and mission in such a way that they “make it clear that this is not a ‘nice to have,’” said Luszcz. “If you are going to use open source, you need to respect open source.”
Clearly established measures for success
“One ground rule I recommend to early-stage companies,” said Luszcz, “is to track all the open source you use.” Leaders can easily incorporate this into code reviews or stand-up meetings, said Luszcz, recommending that one of the required report-outs should be “all new third-party software added to the codebase since the last time we met.”
It’s also important to schedule regular check-ins with every team member, said Wike Huger.
Time spent with each contributor understanding why they want to be a part of the project can be vital to success of a project. Alternatively, in a larger startup, “small groups that can support and empower each other,” said Wike Huger, can drive successful innovation.
Of course, organized plans and goals to meet are only effective if there are key metrics being tracked, documented and reviewed by the project lead or the entire team. One of the keys to success, said Wike Huger, is to set up metrics that are reviewed and measured often.
What startups can learn from open source
There’s been a big change in the open source world because of the rise of startups, said Luszcz. Companies and individuals are doing a much better job “reaching out to technologists and developers around the world and building quickly using new technologies.”
This vastly reduces the development cycle, enabling companies to bring products to market quickly and with little waste.
“The time from hearing about a new technology and seeing many projects using it is getting shorter and shorter,” said Luszcz. This lean methodology is a classic startup process Luszcz said.
On the other hand, said Luszcz, “startups can definitely learn more about community building and sharing from the open source world.”
Much of the best work that commercial companies do is “under NDA,” said Luszcz, yet “opening up this work to a larger audience and giving away pieces to the community can greatly improve the core technology we all depend on.”
“Nearly every piece of software we interact with uses open source code and workflows at some level,” said Keepers, “nearly every startup is now built on open source. This is a huge shift in how companies are operating, and it is enabling startups – and their communities – to ramp up rapidly.
“Open source has commoditized the fundamental building blocks of software,” said Keepers. “The cost of starting a new company is almost zero.” This is the biggest lesson that startups can learn from the open source community: open source, done correctly, opens up a world of possibility for innovation, development and growth.