Cultivating Careers, Communities and Companies with Open Source

6 min read

The soft skills you need to succeed in open source.

I've had the privilege of working in open source for the last 20+ years. I started off as a volunteer, as most do in open source, attempting to learn something new. Even though I didn't fully understand what open source was at the time, I really involved myself in the community and got so much in return. While running small projects, I learned an incredible amount about the skills needed to succeed.

The reason I start out with this little story is because for the majority of open source users, this is a common start. And a powerful lesson. Almost everyone starts as a beginner, and there’s always someone with more experience than you. As a chess coach once said, “There will always be a 10-year-old that’ll beat you.” That’s one of the draws of open source — it’s a constant puzzle. You’ll always have something to learn, you’ll always be able to grow your skill set. Open source is the future, and grasping it now and growing with it — it’s a huge advantage.  

Soft skills for successful open source projects

Of course, hard technical skills play a part in open source, but I want to focus on must-have soft skills to succeed as a leader in open source:

  1. Scoping your open source project.
  2. Leveraging the common traits of successful open source projects.
  3. Applying personal soft skills to communities and companies.

Let’s get started.

Scoping your open source project

Open source is like adopting a free puppy; it’s not actually free because there are all these things you need to buy and appointments to pay for, plus you have the ultimate responsibility of taking care of that puppy. Such is the agreement in an open source community — you have a responsibility to maintain your project.

Before IBM, I was at a configuration management company, and I had the privilege of engaging with a large company that made printers. This company wanted to open source an internal project and the lead person asked me for advice. They thought they could “put it on GitHub, throw up a wiki, walk away and let the nerds take over.” That may have been a direct quote from them, now as I think about it.

Well, while talking with this person, I was distracted watching out my window as a bunch of people picked up trash in the park across the street. In Texas, you need a license and written plan to organize such an event; there are a lot of logistics — water, bathrooms, trash pickup, management, etc. And it dawned on me that this was a great way to describe an open source community.

People are willing to help pitch in (pick up trash, if you will), use the resources provided and improve things, but they don’t care about the logistics. You must. You shoulder the responsibility to maintain and advocate. That’s one of the hardest things for most companies to understand — nobody else cares about the logistics of your open source project. If you have an internal process to open source something, or you have specific IP rules to open source something, no one outside of your company cares. The logistics of getting something out there and maintaining it are your responsibility as the leader, and no one will do it other than you.

Remember, your goal is to take away the frustration of things around the project, so when people show up, they can just do their jobs and give back to the project y’all are building.

Leveraging the common traits of open source projects

If we stick with the park analogy, we can understand why it’s important for the organizer to operate with empathy and audience consideration. First, the very nature of the project is responding to an audience need or to “scratch an itch.” Then, those logistics address the needs of volunteers. You’re putting things in place for them to succeed, because if those volunteers succeed, the project succeeds. Open source projects and the communities in which they live require the same: empathy and audience consideration.

Tightly aligned to empathy and audience consideration is trust. You must earn it. If you drop the project, leave and break that community contract, no one will trust you, and this will follow you as a member of other open source communities. Your project will fail. Open source is a leap of faith, and to succeed requires trust from both sides.

The next trait is clear vision. This goes back to my point about scoping your project. You must be clear on what you’re doing, the goals, the logistics and the plan to maintain and to grow. You need to know why you are choosing open source and be clear on who it’s for, what it will do and the value it brings.

And if all else fails, you lean on the fifth trait: having an exit plan. Sure, that may sound counter-intuitive to success, but let me tell you that some of my greatest lessons were hard-learned in the pitfalls of painful, wasted cycles. Sometimes the best thing is to know when to move on, so you can come back better. In that there is growth.

Applying personal soft skills to communities and companies

How do you apply these skills more broadly? Well, first, understand that you must start small. There will be growing pains and you will fail. We all do. There is no shortcut. So, whether you are at a small startup or a global conglomerate, take the time to scope, plan, be clear and aligned and have a long-term plan for iterating and maintaining the project.

When you build with open source, you benefit from taking the best-in-breed that already exists. But to become the best of breed yourself, you also need to give back. This is where empathy, audience, and trust are vital. You must build and maintain bridges. It’s very much a two-way street. Again, there is no shortcut on this. If you are willing to take something from the community, you absolutely should give back — and sometimes it’s not what you expect. Being part of the communities and being a good citizen is a start, and you’ll be amazing at what you can give back to help build the trust and good faith. It's the only real way to build those bridges so that when you come to your next project or feature, the community knows you and trusts that you are there with the best intentions.

Why is open source worth it?

It’s a deceptively simple question: why? And in truth, it’s situational. Despite any hassles, it’s worth unlocking the value of open source, particularly alongside the growing cloud migration. We are in the cloud era — there’s no way around it. Yes, it’s complex and expensive, but that is where open source can shine. Why?

There are factors and standards in our industry where different software, standards and expectations exist. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel. OpenSSL is an example — it’s an understood standard. If you’re going to use it, you’re grabbing the open source project. Yes, you need experts who know how to use it, maintain it and troubleshoot it. But you don’t have to build from scratch, and that is a huge benefit of open source. You get to be an expert in a project  — not everything open source — and you work with the broader community to make it a success.

The flip side, of course, is that it’s not always worth it. You (or the business) must take a step back and assess the real value of it for your situation. Consider the money, logistics, the PR and the resources. 

In my 20+ years with open source, I’ve seen some flops. I’ve been part of plenty, myself. But I’ve seen some amazing successes too, where companies leapfrog their competition because they have something others don’t, and they are able to get it to market fast. They aren’t waiting months or years — it’s out there in weeks, sometimes even just hours. And then they keep improving it. Velocity is an enormous benefit, and open source allows for the velocity many companies need to win.

It just comes at a cost. It’s a cost not often acknowledged by the CIOs and CTOs of the world. Things come to a halt at first, because you need to start somewhere. A Board of Directors will hate it, employees hate it. But trust me because I’ve seen it — if you are willing to stop, take a beat, recognize what you're trying to do, invest correctly in the infrastructure and new processes and keep going on the path, you can beat your competition. It will be worth it. And once you really tap into the value of open source, the possibilities are endless.

Learn more about open source

The cloud is made possible by open source. Open source is maintaining and perhaps even strengthening its hold on institutional software use and development, even as some technical and business forces encourage the use of third-party cloud services.

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