More and more companies are not just using open source technologies, but are making it their primary directive. I have heard more than one enterprise executive say recently, “We are an ‘Open Source First’ company.”
Many people are surprised when I mention a few of the companies that contribute to open source projects like Cloud Foundry — IBM, SAP, GE, Comcast, and many more. Yes, these are enormous enterprise companies with strict regulations and a ton of oversight. But they understand the absolute necessity to create a collaborative culture and contribute to the open source project that so many of them are running on top of, or are providing as a service to others.
There are a number of reasons why these companies are choosing to use open source software in a more intentional way.
Inclusivity & Innovation
First, open source is a wellspring of innovation. When you have more people, across a wide range of companies and backgrounds, your aperture expands. You see the problem (or potential problem) from a variety of angles, but you also know how to solve the problems from different perspectives. Open source software encourages diverse participation — ideally. The broader the variety of people around the “table,” the more innovative the outcomes will be.
The Culture Shift
Second, in addition to fostering technical advancement, open source software is one of the forces pushing the cultural changes needed by organizations as they embark on their digital transformation journey.
Why is open source software a catalyst in this shift? Working in open source requires you to be an active participant in how the technology is created and evolved. Sure, you can just be a consumer, but ideally you are collaborating and contributing back to the open source software you are using in your organization. More on that later.
Open source software provides a template for collaboration across teams, across companies, and across industries. In open source, you are communicating and sharing ideas with other people from other companies, many of whom may actually be working for a competing company. This reinforces the value of collaboration, as well as how to work in a shared software development environment, and it encourages continuous delivery and conversation on the project.
Finally, using and, more importantly, contributing to open source software ensures that your organization is in control of the direction the technology takes, and how it evolves to address changing needs — in the industry, in the market, and with customers. Think of open source software as risk mitigation on a long-term bet.
What’s in it for me?
Companies whose teams participate in open source projects gain greater insight into how the technology is built, and where the technology is going (and why). If you are participating in one of the many cloud/cloud native open source projects then you also gain visibility into what the future of cloud and cloud native will be. When you contribute to open source software, you’re ensuring that you are part of the new tech landscape.
Contributors to open source also get the benefit of the project itself. As companies work together to build and expand the software, they are also able to evolve any proprietary software built on top of the open source foundation (no pun intended). Ensuring that the entire stack continues to evolve. A virtuous cycle, if you will.
This also means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel each and every time you create a new product. As the tech pushes innovation, the market comes to expect certain features, and a company’s differentiation happens on top of that. Take banking, for example. There was a time when having a mobile app at all was differentiating and interesting. Same with certain features, like fraud detection or being able to make a deposit by taking a photo of a check. Now all of those features are table stakes in banking. What matters to your customers is that you are able to offer those features, as well as something else that differentiates your bank.
And frankly, it’s a burn of precious development resources to build something that’s already readily available, and broadly used. Your team’s time is better spent developing and iterating on features that makes your company shine to your customers (both existing and new).
This kind of cycle is reflective of the time we’re in. One year, a new feature is innovative. Two years (sometimes less) after its release, that feature is simply expected by users. If you’re not able to include those features AND iterate on top, then your business is at risk of being left behind. The time between what’s innovative and what’s expected continues to shrink — and for many businesses, that’s a pretty scary equation. How do you compete?
I think this is partly why open source projects have become incredibly powerful, especially for the enterprise. If multiple companies can work together on an idea or a problem, they’ll both get to the solution more quickly and with a lot more creativity. It’s much easier (and faster and cheaper) to collectively work on the foundational tech, and build your differentiating value on top of it.
Bottom line, it’s a better use of time, money and resources to partner and share the load collaboratively. Urgency will remain, even as companies collaborate on new technology. You can bet there will still be a healthy sense of competition that continues to drive brilliant new tech.
But we can go further faster together than we can apart.