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Rizèl Scarlett for GitHub

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How to Convince Your Boss to Open Source a Project

Changing your company's culture can be difficult, especially if you are persuading your boss, company, or leadership team to open source a project. The hard truth is that businesses care about finances, specifically how to acquire and retain money. Their concerns are valid. Without financial stability and growth, the company is at risk of coming to a halt, which affects its employees and customers. The goal of a business is to stay in business. Perhaps, you understand that, and you see that open sourcing a project will help the company thrive more, but you're unsure how to help your employer recognize the value in open sourcing a project.

Here are four concerns your boss may have and responses you can use to alleviate their worries:

1. I’m afraid of the legal, copyright, and security risks.

Your response: Licensing is confusing, but we don't have to try to understand it alone. We can work with an Open Source Program Office (OSPO). The goal of an Open Source Office Program Office consists of individuals with expertise in open source strategy. Their goal is to oversee open source software management and strategy. OSPOs handle:

  • Licensing
  • Security vulnerabilities
  • Open source business partnerships
  • Tracking metrics
  • Distribution
  • Supporting communication between external and internal contributors

Many companies, including Spotify, BMW, and Netflix, lean on an OSPO to manage their open source strategy. See the exhaustive list of companies with OSPOs here.

You can learn more in detail about the responsibilities and benefits of an OSPO at the resources below:

2. Open sourcing our repository will reduce our code quality.

Your response: Our code quality will increase! In this article, Why the Best Companies and Developers Give Away Almost Everything They Do, Yevgeniy Brikman states, “When is your home cleanest? My guess is that you do the most cleaning just before guests arrive. The same is true of anything that you share with others. One of the unexpected benefits of open sourcing your code is that the mere act of preparing the code for open source often leads to higher-quality code because you know that "guests" will be looking at it. You'll probably take the time to clean up the code, add tests, write documentation, and generally make the project more presentable to the rest of the world." Additionally, more contributors can mean you'll have more users reporting bugs and more developers fixing them quickly.

3. Will open sourcing our projects hurt our reputation and our relevance in the industry? Enterprise organizations aren’t going open source.

Your response: As we've seen, on the list of companies that have OSPOs, enterprise companies such as Google, Facebook, and Goldman Sachs are heavily involved in open source. Many of these companies recognize that open sourcing a project improves the organization's reputation. Open sourcing a project can help us with:

  • Marketing - Users who love our product will feel more compelled and excited to help us make our product better. Contributing will fuel their passion even more, and they will start encouraging those in their network to use and/or contribute to our project. Some contributors may even talk about our project at conferences, on Twitch livestreams, in blog posts, and in YouTube tutorials. That's free marketing to help the organization acquire customers and developers!
  • Hiring - Developers admire companies that are transparent about their technological growth and processes. As contributors increase awareness of our product and our own company documents its journey, we will attract highly-skilled, community-driven, empathetic developers.
  • Longevity - With increased collaboration, our organization will gain access to developers with varied technological experiences. They can help keep our project up to date with the latest technological tools, and contributors can help to add integrations at a faster pace. For example, before the rise of container orchestration, both Spotify and Google developed their own systems called Helios and Kubernetes. Google chose to open source Kubernetes, while Spotify kept Helios as an internal project. Unfortunately, Spotify didn't have enough capacity to continue the project internally. Over the past seven years, Kubernetes has been a top choice for container orchestration; even Spotify migrated their containerization to Kubernetes.

4. How will we make money if we open source our code?

Your response: Open source software doesn't always mean free. Some open source companies such as MongoDB, Elastic, and HashiCorp have multi-billion dollar valuations. This is another opportunity for the experts of an OSPO to advise us. We can choose to embrace an open source model that works for us.

If your employer is still hesitant about open sourcing a project, the methods below can help your company gradually embrace the open source community:

  • Suggest open source products that can help improve your team's workflow
  • Create awareness of the open source tools your company currently uses
  • Contribute to existing open source projects
  • Motivate your teammates to contribute to open source
  • Sponsor an open source project
  • Encourage your company to sponsor a project that's beneficial to the company

If you found this helpful or you've convinced your company to adopt an open source model, share your experience below!

Top comments (8)

darkwiiplayer profile image
𒎏Wii 🏳️‍⚧️

I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but...

All your boss will hear:

1. "If we spend money, time and manpower, it won't be a problem"

2. "We will feel better about our code but it won't make more money"

3. "It works for google, so it must also work for our 50-employee company"

4. "See point 1. about spending money"

blackgirlbytes profile image
Rizèl Scarlett

Great feedback! Thank you.
Here’s my perspective: Sometimes to make money, you got to spend a little. Also, I’ve been at startups and small companies that literally have said x works for Google, so we will try it out.
I did suggest other options like just generally contributing to open source and encouraging your teammates to do so. That option is free to your company.

What are better approaches that you would take to convince your boss?

darkwiiplayer profile image
𒎏Wii 🏳️‍⚧️

What are better approaches that you would take to convince your boss?

That depends very strongly on what the company even does. When your main product isn't the software itself, your boss might mostly be worried about giving away a valuable technological advantage to competitors; which they could then adapt for themselves without sharing these changes. There might be a good counter-argument, but I can't really think of anything; giving away your code really is just that.

But there's also the question of potentially selling said software in the future, which no sane business person will give up, unlikely as it may be. If there's a 1% chance that you might want to sell your software to your competitors in the future, making it open source would reduce that chance to 0%.

And last but not least, making software open-source would be a time-sink. It might not be too bad, but somebody will have to interact with potential contributors and users, unless there are none, in which case, neither would there be any benefit for the company other than giving away work.

Things might look different if software was the actual product of the company; in that case, the business model is the most important factor. If you sell copies of your program, making it open source would obviously require completely changing this.

If the software is provided as a service, or most of the money actually comes from maintenance, then a switch to OS might be a lot easier to sell to your boss. But even then, the most important question you'll have to answer is "Why won't customers just make a copy of our software and self-host it without paying us anything?".

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blackgirlbytes profile image
Rizèl Scarlett


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abcsxyz profile image

The answer definitively change depending on the situation, but for this exemple your business who don't use the software as core business could mutualise the production if it would be used by mutliple companies, which could also allocate internal ressources too to support it.

If the benefit of the software is important for multiple companies, they might find an interest. And more the culture can move in this direction more base will be available to start with, or reuse someone else software to earn some time. It can be a way to participite in something who may benefit more in the future.

You're right, open source might be time consuming. It shouldn't be done in this idea of saving ressources, but as an investment to get benefit from open source development.

In the case of SaaS, other people will be able to deploy it, but to do so it need times and knowledge about the software, which you have. It's where you can make money. Other companies may provide, deploy your software, but it can be a way to provide service to a big enough demand that you can share.
Until FAANG do not reuse your software in a predatory manner...

Companies which lives by selling closed source software is not an appropriate model for open source. It's a matter of time before it change, some actors will have to reinvent themself. Business models are switching, a transition is necessary. How long windows will survive ? Bet are open !

If your closed source solution is having an high demand, it can be a matter of time to have an open source alternatives, right ? And where those application would be in 5, 10 years, when they will be efficient enough ? Pervasiveness of open source is something to consider.

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blackgirlbytes profile image
Rizèl Scarlett

Thank you!!

xowap profile image
Rémy 🤖

I guess it's a good moment to mention Simon Wardley's views on open source as a weapon.

blackgirlbytes profile image
Rizèl Scarlett

helpful resource! Thank you!