The Business of Open Source

As the Gluster Community Lead, I deal with quite a number of moving parts on a daily basis: mailing lists, web sites, groups of volunteers, workshop schedules, budgets and team members. As we go through our community restructuring (more detail on that Real Soon Now), it occurred to me that managing a large open source community looks a lot like any other upper level management or executive role. I am ultimately responsible for determining strategic direction, writing a business plan that marshalls the resources in pursuit of that strategic direction, winning over support and resources to implement said strategy, and then executing on a plan to reach the strategic goals. It’s part sales job, part taskmaster, part cheerleader, and part captain of the ship.

Gone are the days when managing a community meant taking a low-risk job with low expectations. These days, leading a community comes with deliverables and a ton of responsibility, as well as the sense that you are directly responsible for future revenue and sales. Hey, no pressure! And if you screw it up, your employer and/or the community you represent takes a public hit to the face, sometimes at the hands of an angry mob. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade this job for the world. I’m not complaining, just cognizant of how important community leadership has become over the years. Really, it’s very much in line with running a startup, except without having to deal with VCs.

It didn’t used to be that way. For most companies, the community guy was an afterthought, some guy you paid less than your other people to look after some forums and keep the web site running. And even then, there was a good chance that executives above you didn’t see the point of your existence, not understanding why they couldn’t just toss the code over the wall and “let the community take care of it.” If you were lucky, you got a small budget for web site design or maybe to buy some adwords keywords. Now, those executives who didn’t get it are usually no longer with the company, or if they are, they’re not so far removed from you in the org chart. And chances are, there are enough people around who understand what you’re doing without your having to explain it to them over and over again. Now, we have budgets that rival many other departments – all because of one thing: if a company invests in an open source community, it is strategically important. Now, there are many more companies who understand the leverage game, as in, if you have the leading technology in a given area, your leverage increases significantly. And one of the best ways to win leverage? Show leadership in an open source community.

Look around you – open source communities are used by companies to make a statement and put themselves on the map. Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, and many others use open source participation as a means to several ends, including recruiting, employee retention, industry disruption and coalition building (frenemies FTW!)

This is the way business is conducted now, and it’s a far cry from when I started. While the risks are greater, it’s especially gratifying to be an equal at the adult table.


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