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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.

Reiser Case Proves Geeks No Different from Others

I, and many others, have long considered geeks to be quite different from the general populace. One of the ways this manifests itself, or so I thought, was in our ability to look at a situation objectively and divorce ourselves from pesky human emotions. I call this “geek exceptionalism” – that some things which apply to others simply don’t apply to us. We laughed at many a convicted felon’s family and friends who defended said convict’s innocence because, in our view, they simply weren’t able to look at the situation from a distance. We, or at least *I*, knew that I wouldn’t make that same mistake.

Unfortunately, the Reiser case has brought to the fore the fact that, at least in some ways, we’re really just like all the other numbskull humans on the planet, subject to the same emotions and biased points-of-view as everyone else. It’s painful to conclude that we’re really not all that exceptional, but as I recall those of us who defended Reiser and accused the jury of convicting someone without the necessary evidence, my main takeaway is that we really cannot place a higher value on our judgment over anyone else’s. Speaking only for myself, I didn’t think it was possible for someone as nerdy as Hans to harm anyone. The few times I met Hans, “prone to physical violence” was not a characteristic that came to mind.

With the apparent location and retrieval of Nina Reiser’s remains, mine and many others fears have been confirmed: Nina was in fact murdered, and it was at the hands of Hans. So whenever we need to make a judgment about something to which we have a personal attachment, we would do well to take into account the opinions of those who can truly provide an independent, unbiased point-of-view… even if they’re not a geek🙂

Today, my thoughts go out to Nina’s children and other family members. May they find health and happiness in the future.

Dear Dan Lyons: Open Source was Never ‘Counter Culture’

Day 10,274 of misunderstood musings on Open Source. Dan Lyons talks about Open Source being in “an identity crisis” likening it to some punk band from the 70’s that’s now playing stadiums and losing touch with its original ethos. This is wrong on many, many levels.

First off, Open Source was never counter culture. This has been a difficult lesson for many to learn, due to the casual conflation of Open Source with Free Software and the FSF. One could argue that there is a significant set of Open Source developers and users who believe very strongly in things like information rights, code reciprocity, and the like (I count myself in this group). But the real impetus behind the Open Source ecosystem has been decades-old economic trends which I outlined in this article.

However, I do have to give Dan Lyons credit for this bit when discussing Sun’s acquisition of MySQL:

“It’s a great publicity stunt, but how will giving away products Sun already owns, and spending $1 billion to acquire another free product, save Sun? Pixie dust would have to be at work here. It reminds me of a sketch from South Park where gnomes steal underpants as part of a three-phase business plan…”

For whatever reason, Sun has spent a great deal of time commoditizing both hardware and software. One wonders if they’re actually trying to back themselves into the services corner, because they seem to be headed in that direction.

So score one for the Fake Steve.

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