Getting an inside track on open source

These companies swear by the strategic advantages gained when their IT workers contribute to open-source projects. But strict guidelines are paramount.

Project management teamork

Michael Bryzek saw open source playing a big role in his company's IT infrastructure, right from the start.

The CTO and co-founder of online retailer Gilt Groupe, Bryzek built the eight-year-old members-only shopping site using the Web framework Ruby on Rails, the Linux operating system and the object-relational database system PostgreSQL -- all open-source tools.

He says open source doesn't have the "friction" -- that is, sticking points like contractual limits -- that typically come with commercial products. He also says his engineers can be more creative and innovative with open source.

"We know open source works. It's super successful. So why not just adopt it?" he says.

Michael Bryzek, CTO and co-founder, Gilt Groupe [2015]

Michael Bryzek

But Bryzek isn't just a proponent of using open source; he supports contributions back to open-source projects, too. And he isn't just speaking as a techie interested in using open-source tools as a technical exercise; he's also speaking as an executive who sees corporate benefits in letting his employees participate in open-source communities.

"In the scientific community, sharing has always been a cornerstone. Open source is that [cornerstone] for the software community. So when we think about the people we want to attract and those most successful here, they're well-trained scientists and engineers," Bryzek says. "And we find that what motivates this group the most is the ability to make their own decisions, to see the results of their work, and to share their work. Open source is one expression of that."

Enterprise IT shops are increasingly using open source throughout their operations, and they're more willing to let their employees contribute to and participate in those communities. The 2014 Future of Open Source Survey found that more than 50% of all enterprises are expected to contribute to and adopt open source. Additionally, 30% of the respondents said they make it easy for employees to participate in or start their own open-source projects.

The 2014 Future of Open Source Survey, produced jointly by Black Duck Software and North Bridge Venture Partners, in collaboration with Forrester Research analyst Jeffrey Hammond, drew responses from 1,240 industry influencers. Of those, 42% were from vendor companies and 58% were from nonvendor organizations.

Like Bryzek, respondents said they see various benefits to having their workers engage in open-source communities. Among other things, they said doing so helps them cut costs, gain a competitive advantage, and recruit and retain top talent.

At Gilt, about 100 of the 1,000 employees are technologists who write code. Bryzek estimates that 80% to 90% of user-facing applications are based on open-source software, while 50% to 60% of back-office systems are open source. As part of the company's commitment to open source, Bryzek says his staffers are free to contribute patches to any open-source product, and they can make other contributions under certain conditions. For example, they can contribute material that is of value to the community but doesn't contain domain-specific information about Gilt.

Although coders make up just 10% of his workforce, Bryzek says Gilt does indeed benefit from those open-source contributions.

For one thing, contributions help ensure that software stays in working order and can continue to be maintained. And participating in an open-source project can improve an engineer's output in general: Because contributions are subject to broad peer review, the people who submit them generally aim to do high-quality work and prepare solid documentation, Bryzek says.

The mentality is, "I know teams will review my work, and I want to make sure I advance a project instead of causing harm," he explains.

Providing opportunities to work on open-source projects also helps Gilt recruit and retain talent, Bryzek says, noting that innovative people want to be in a culture that supports creativity and engagement.

"Open source is a way to help creative people express themselves, so it can only help with innovation," he says. "And innovation drives growth."

First steps into a contributor's role

Those kinds of benefits are enticing others to expand their roles in the open-source community.

Capital One is a case in point. George Brady, executive vice president of technology operations, says the McLean, Va.-based financial services company started using open-source software around 2000, when it shifted to Linux, and has expanded its use of open source over the years, because the tools free up engineers to do more creative work and help the company improve time to market.

"It's a strategic advantage for our business," Brady says.

George Brady, executive vice president of technology operations, Capital One [2015]

George Brady

Now Capital One is moving from just using open-source software to getting involved in the community. "[We're] picking our spots around projects and communities that are aligned with our interests," he says.

Although he stresses that Capital One is just beginning to venture into a contributor's role, he says the company's IT workers are already looking at how they can contribute bug fixes or new features and functions; they're even thinking about how they could eventually handle projects.

Why make the move? For starters, Brady, like others, says it's a draw for the engineers.

"The contributions they make are very visible. Inside the company and outside, too, others see their great work. This really is their résumé," he says. "It's certainly in the company's best interests to show up in those projects, because then we attract people who are passionate about that, too."

Although employee engagement is key for corporate success, Brady says Capital One leaders also believe contributions will help better align what's happening in the open-source world to what the company itself needs in order to grow. He says the company has "an interest in development going a certain way, which is why we have an interest in maybe owning projects."

Moreover, he says, "our company was founded on an information strategy, and when you look at evolution in [open-source technologies like] Hadoop, for example, that's very important in our business because of our focus on information and data. So it's in our interests to be active in this community."

A competitive advantage

Andy Mulholland, an analyst at Constellation Research, says companies also encourage contribution to open-source projects as a way to have their own workers "become familiar with the software as an aid to their own adoption and use." That can lead to more innovation from the workers "because it encourages them to realize that they can be more creative," he says.

Executives can certainly understand the value of better alignment, strong employee engagement and recruitment advantages as reasons for the IT shop to support open-source contributions. But there are still more to be gained.

IT leaders like Brady and Bryzek, along with analysts and other open-source proponents, say larger benefits of open-source contributions accrue from the openness of development activity, the requirements to share and the processes that support such interactions.

Specifically, IT leaders say because software is reviewed by peers and contributions come from multiple sources, many great minds (and not just the limited pool of people in one organization) are continually helping make products better.

"No one department or organization has cornered the market on great ideas," Brady says. "We know there are a lot of great engineers outside Capital One who can advance the projects we care about."

Additionally, IT leaders point out that the open-source approach to development can spill over into internal projects. And when in-house developers embrace open-source culture, they can deliver open-source-style innovation.

Public code, public benefit

At some organizations, the benefits can be greater still.

Sonny Hashmi, CIO for the U.S. General Services Administration, says using open-source software has yielded increased flexibility and cost savings, along with more robust and reliable platforms. He believes in the benefits of open source so strongly that last year he established a requirement for agency developers to consider open source before they look at commercial products.

He also expects developers to contribute back to the open-source community, not only for the reasons cited by other CIOs, but also because he believes it's the right thing to do as a government entity.

"The taxpayers pay for the work; the product should be owned by the taxpayers," he says, explaining that if the code is public, then taxpayers don't have to pay for developers in other agencies to create the same thing over and over again.

Although most CIOs don't have to worry about taxpayers, they do share Hashmi's sense of obligation when it comes to sharing.

So just as using open source is an accepted part of the equation for enterprise IT these days, so is giving back, says Hashmi. Because everyone benefits when all parties participate.

"Part of the real beauty of open source is if you develop a community around a problem you're trying to solve, you get the multiplier effect. Because no matter who you are, I think it's a fair bet that there are more smart people outside your organization than inside," he says. "And by contributing, we can tap into that."

This story, "Getting an inside track on open source" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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