Why Should Industries And Startups Go Open Source

Every company with any pretense at being involved with technology tends to lock up its code, and guard it jealously. With good reason – Intellectual properties were meant to be is precious, right?

However, considering the fact that there are always other potential employers on the prowl, waiting to snatch away your best engineers (more on this later), is it prudent to hide away all your code?

No, it isn’t. There are plenty of opportunities that you miss out on by safeguarding your codes and data. Let’s learn a little bit more about what you are missing out on.

Why You Should Go Open-Source?

1. To leverage the power of community:

Once your code attracts contributions from external users, then all of your work is bound to get done sooner, and at much lower expenses. This is just one scenario that challenges the adage “Too many cooks spoil the broth”. But, here, more users means more people scrutinizing your code and fixing it for issues and adding features, which ultimately means more robust code.

2. To build world-class teams:
  • What do global corporations have that your company doesn’t? Maybe, few million dollars in funding along with world-class talent. Since we can’t do much about the money part, let’s focus on the latter. When you open-source your code, there’s a high chance you’ll attract talented engineers curious to solve problems.
  • This makes the hiring process considerably simpler, seeing as you have a nice pool of really smart people working on your code, improving it, making it run better. Goodbye, technical interviews!
  • Finally, once you do hire the talent you need for your company, a great way to make sure you keep your employees is to remain committed to open-source code. Developers get to solve the problems your business is facing, and are incentivized to stick around because they get to create a portfolio for themselves, improving their profile. This solves the problem of those pesky recruiters waiting to steal your best engineers, and you get to see your code run better and better, as more people work on it.
3. For the glory:

When you open-source your code, you naturally get several hundreds of dollars’ worth of free advertising from all of the media outlets, forums, groups and coding geeks talking about your company. It translates into goodwill, and also gets you more brownie points for likeability.

If it’s so great, why aren’t more people doing it?

1. The proprietary reason:

Everyone is afraid of having their code stolen. Several large companies believe that open-sourcing their code and/or data will lead to a massive leak of information, and then they lose their competitive edge. This apprehension is true in some cases – the most obvious being federal bodies of law enforcement and national defense units, such as the NSA or the FBI. They certainly can’t afford to open-source anything.

2. Overheads:

For several companies, most notably tech startups that have just been funded, they have quite enough to do, paying out employees and other overheads. The financial implications of going open-source may not be feasible for companies just finding their feet, especially in the hyper-competitive kill-or-be-killed Silicon Valley ecosystem.

3. There’s no money in it:

While this is rather obvious (the whole point is that it’s free code), recently seventy-five startups convened in San Francisco to discuss the possibility of making money from open-source software. While the original idea of giving away software for free and then charging it has been working for few, it hasn’t produced great results. “Historically, every open-source company has paled in comparison to their proprietary counterpart,” said Peter Levine, general partner at the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

4. Everyone thinks someone will object:

Code Combat, a very interesting website that helps users learn code by playing games, wrote in a blog post that when they decided to open-source their code, they asked everyone involved with the company for their feedback. And here’s what happened: The advisors liked the idea, but wondered if the game developers would. The developers were all for it, but wondered about the investors. The investors loved it, but were worried about the lawyers. The lawyers said “Sure, just ask your advisors”. This applies especially to companies backed by funding or venture capital, where there are multiple people invested in the company in different ways. Don’t just assume someone somewhere will have a problem with it. Go out of your way to find out.

So who does this, really?

You’d be surprised. Here’s a list of five companies – I guarantee you’ll know their names – that have given large portions of their code to open source communities.

1. Google:

These guys don’t need an introduction, right? So I’ll just get down to facts. According to the Google Developers website, Google has contributed over 20 million lines of code to the open-source community, and over 900 projects. Android, their mobile operating system, is open source, Powering over 1.5 billion devices worldwide. Did I mention it’s open-source?

2. Facebook:

In 2013, Matt Asay of ReadWrite called Facebook the world’s largest open-source company. James Pearce, who runs Open Source at Facebook, had this to say: “It turns out that large percentages of our engineers will have known about our open-source projects before they will have joined and they will say that it contributed positively to their decision to join the company. It’s a great window into the world of the sorts of problems that we solve, and of course we’re hoping there are world-class engineers around the world who would relish those kinds of opportunities and when they see the problems we’re solving will feel the urge to take a look.”

Two other large projects that Facebook open-source are React Js, a JavaScript library for building user interfaces, and React Native, a framework for building native apps.

See? Facebook uses open-source to recruit. You should, too!

3. Twitter:

Heard of Bootstrap? That wonderful, open-source HTML, CSS and JavaScript framework you can use to beautify your site? Yeah, that belongs to Twitter. It’s one of several projects Twitter gifted to the open source community, and website facelifts have never been the same since. Just look at Start Bootstrap, Bootstrap Expo and Built with Bootstrap, to understand just how valuable this framework is.

4. LinkedIn:

LinkedIn has over 80 open source projects, and has contributed more than 500 thousand lines of code. They believe that in order to encourage excellence, it makes sense to do things out in the open. All of the tools that are used internally by LinkedIn can be accessed and worked on. LinkedIn’s Principal Staff Engineer, Jay Kreps, says that they prefer not to have everything be their “secret sauce”. Just as with Facebook, this strategy has worked well for them, helping attract prime talent.

5. Square:

This company has contributed over 250 thousand lines of code to the open source community, its most notable project being Picasso, which is “a powerful image downloading and caching library for Android”, to use their own definition. There are more than 60 open-source projects from Square. While this company is nowhere near as big as the others on the list, their Chief Technical Officer, Bob Lee, feels that this is exactly why an open-source strategy makes so much sense.

 

Besides these companies, there’s Linux, the open-source operating system developed by Linus Torvalds that’s used by hundreds of thousands of people in one form or another (Android is developed based on the Linux kernel), and the beloved go-to OS for developers around the world. It’s the largest existing open source project in the world.

So, there you have it” The reasons to go open-source”, It’s not only the massive companies that have (at least in part) done it but quite a few software companies such as Hadoop, Drupal and MongoDB, is open source. It helps improve code, and it provides the right platform for companies to learn from others who have set precedents.

Should You Go Open Source?

The answer depends on your line of business and what do you have to lose or gain by opening out your data and code as it’s the two main important ingredients that make your company unique. “The risk of open source is that you have no intellectual property,” says Nick Heudecker, a Gartner Research analyst.

However, keeping code proprietary is making less sense every day, with more and more companies adopting open-source strategies and finding ways to make it work. You need to understand how you can make it work for you, and fast.

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