How to Convince Your Manager to Use Open Source Software

Developers and IT staff love open source software, but when they try to use open source at work they often find that their manager, or their manager's manager, has a lot of concerns. In this article we'll outline strategies you can use to convince your manager to use open source software, along with tips on how to make those strategies effective.

You know who loves open source software? Developers love open source software. Developers, and IT staff. If open source was a band, these guys would be the biggest fans. They've downloaded it, they've used it, they know it works — and they know it saves them loads of both time and money. They tend to use open source software whenever it makes sense to do so.

But when open source fans try to use open source software at work they often find that their manager, or their manager's manager, has a lot of concerns. After trying to battle them, they usually end up bringing in an outside expert to talk their manager into it; or they simply abandon their plan altogether. It's just too much work to convince management that it's okay to use open source.

Now, we don't want to point any fingers, but you know what often happens next. Authority is questioned, quiet revolutions happen and the next thing you know, open source software is being used — discreetly, unofficially — just to prove that it works! There's got to be a better way. Well, fortunately there is. In this article we'll outline some strategies you can use to convince your manager to use open source software, along with tips on how to make those strategies effective.

  • Make sure you understand how proprietary software is acquired.
  • Find out what your manager thinks about open source.
  • Address all of management's questions and concerns … preferably in advance.
  • Bust the prevailing myths about open source software use.
  • Create infrastructure.
  • Take a shortcut or two (at your own risk!).
  • Build your plan.

Make Sure You Understand How Proprietary Software is Acquired

Often, developers don't really know how their company acquires software. They need something; so they tell their manager and a piece of software somehow gets purchased and shows up on their desk. (Or, probably more likely, they are told what software they need to use and they just download it from a central repository.) At most large companies, there's a whole software procurement process. 

Many have tried simply adding open source software to the existing process. Although open source doesn't usually fit the existing process perfectly, it's best to try to use as much of that process as you can — while simply adding steps to address the issues that are unique to open source software. So, while it's unlikely that you'll be able to fit open source software into your procurement process without making any changes at all, being able to discuss how you've addressed all the issues your company cares about concerning the procurement of software will certainly help your case. Examples of things that a procurement process normally covers are:

  • Price. Both up front and on-going costs are at issue. This includes the price of acquiring the software, installing and integrating it, and providing maintenance and support. It's best to address each of these potential costs, even if your company's particular use of open source software may not involve them all.
  • Source Code Escrow. The procurement process usually addresses what will happen if the software company goes out of business. Often there's a clause stating that the customer will get a copy of the source code, along with the right to continue using the product. While this isn't usually an issue for open source software, it is worth pointing out what you'll do if your contract with a provider of open source software ends or if the company goes out of business.
  • Support. Who is going to support this software? With the proprietary software procurement model, it's often obvious who is responsible for support; which means this issue is really more about the terms of support: 24x7, work hours, numbers to call, etc.

Find Out What Your Manager Thinks about Open Source

Don't assume that you know how your manager feels about open source software. There's a chance they know all about open source software and use it all the time at home. There's also a chance that they've fallen for every myth. Your manager:

  • may be a big open source fan. In which case the problem may be your manager's manager.
  • may not know anything about open source software and be afraid to admit it. In this case, provide lots of information in a non-threatening way.
  • may think open source is bad or threatening. Right or wrong, your manager may have already decided open source software is bad. If you can, try to figure out why they've reached this conclusion. Maybe someone they know has had a bad experience or maybe they read an article with misinformation.
  • may believe every myth you've ever heard, and some you haven't, about open source software. Be sure to address all the myths, not just the ones that are anti-open source. Addressing all of them, even the ones that would help your cause, makes you look knowledgeable (and impartial) about open source software — which will ultimately help your cause.

Outside sources can also be helpful in addressing management's concerns about using open source software. Depending on your manager's learning style, you might point them to online resources like Wazi or to books like the Cathedral and the Bazaar (you can find a list of books here) or to conferences like OSBC. You could even pull in an outside expert to speak to them — perhaps on the phone to start with.

Address Management's Questions and Concerns... Preferably In Advance

If your manager (or their manager) is not familiar with open source software, they're going to have a lot of questions. Be sure to anticipate and answer them before you make your proposal. Note that open source software is generally considered more secure than proprietary software for a number of reasons, including: many, many more people reviewing the code, many people testing and submitting bugs and more frequent releases to address any issues.

Here are some questions and concerns that managers often have about open source software.

Why Are These People Doing This for Free?

One of the things that often baffles management is why these people (i.e., developers) are working on open source software for free. They aren't necessarily worried that you get what you pay for. They are more suspicious that developers may have ulterior motives and, without understanding those motives, they can't evaluate whether or not open source software is free.

Open source software developers write open source software:

  • to "scratch an itch". The most common reason people start writing open source software is because they want something. For example, they want their screen to flash instead of beeping when they get new mail because they can't hear or they spend lots of time in meetings. They want the weather to show up on their desktop. They want to be able to share their files with their friends.
  • to fix a problem they've had or a problem they've seen. This is an extension of scratching your own itch. Once people discover they can solve their own problems and they release their software, they discover that others find the software useful as well, and will submit bug fixes and ideas for features.
  • for recognition. One of the most powerful forces behind open source software is one that is often not recognized. Open source software is a meritocracy and individuals are recognized for the strength of their code. Being known as someone who writes good code and maintaining your reputation is a strong motivator.
  • because they enjoy writing software. You may want to leave this reason out, as it's really hard to convince people that don't write software that it is true. People who write code really enjoy writing code. Coding is often not only fun but very addictive.

Where Does It Come From?

This is closely related to the "why do they write it" question, but with a slightly different spin. When a manager asks this, it's like they're saying: who are these people? The answer is, they are software developers. They're professionals who write software for pay during the day, and write open source software during their free time or for their employer (see addiction & itch-scratching, above). You can find several studies with more information on the web, but here are some rough stats:

  • 40% of open source software developers are paid to work on open source software. The rest are volunteers.
  • It's easy to tell if an open source software project relies mainly on the work of one company.
  • Most open source software developers are men (less than 2% are women).
  • Most have families and full time jobs.
  • Most are employed as full time software developers.
  • Open source developers are a very international group. (Red Hat recently created an open source activity map that shows where open source software developers live worldwide.)

There's No Support

Support in the open source software world looks a little different than support in the world of proprietary software. Naturally, this often leads people to conclude that there is no support for open source software. It's not true! There are often even more support options for open source software than there are for proprietary— at least for the more popular projects. In the proprietary software world, it's obvious that if you buy AIX from IBM, you are going to buy your support from IBM. In the open source software world, you may get Linux from a random website and then purchase support from any number of vendors.

It's a Security Risk

Because open source software is written by individuals spread out across the world instead of by large companies, and because all of the source code is visible, people often initially assume that it's a security risk. The open source community has successfully shown this isn't true. Today open source software is viewed as at least as secure as proprietary software.

It's a Legal Risk

There's been a lot of fear created around open source software and legal risks. The truth is that any business action carries some legal risks. The legal risks of open source software are just different from the risks of using traditional proprietary software. A good policy can help address and mitigate the legal complications your company might face. See Best Practices for Creating an Open Source Policy for more information.

You'll Give Away Our IP

Many people are very fearful of the copyleft nature of the GNU General Public License (GPL) under which a lot of open source is released. They are afraid that if they use GPL-licensed software, they will have to give away all of their software. Often they allow the use of open source software, with the exception of any licensed under the GPL. Clearly, if you want to make sure your company doesn't prohibit software licensed under the GPL, you should address tis one early. There are many ways to make sure you don't accidentally copyleft your software. They range from not copying any GPL-licensed software into your code base, to not linking to any GPL software from your code, to not distributing any GPL-licensed software (or anything derived from it.)

Bust Prevailing Myths

Here are some of the more common myths concerning open source software. Address both the "good" myths and the "bad" myths. It will help in the long run if your management really understands open source software.

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