The Fall Guy (or Representing Open Source in the Business)


The problem with being the developer who can write at an open source company is that you end up being enlisted into the whole “Please explain how open source works” discussion when the company hires non-technical managers.  You end up as the representative of this strange thing called “open source.” A VP (not yours) calls you up and says, “Hey, could you explain what open source is to our sales team?”

You seize upon this as an opportunity to spread the Gospel of FOSS. You prepare elaborate slides that speak of Cathedrals and Bazaars. You turn some Lessig into an inspirational dramatic monologue that will inspire these non-developers to start thinking of OSS as the heroic effort we are mounting to take back control from proprietary vendors and create an even larger sharing economy. You think that maybe it is appropriate to introduce some of the developers that work on the project that company is currently making money…

…and then you show up at the “Sales Kick-off” meeting and you realize that this is more of a Glengarry Glen Ross joke festival than it is an audience receptive to the idea of profiting from a sharing economy.  You quickly try to revise slides about “Free as in Beer”, because you realize that any mention of beer is going to get this crowd derailed pretty quickly. They scheduled you at the end of the day, after the VP of Sales gave a speech that involved football metaphors and after the regional sales director had a loud fight about territory with the sales team.  You realize that no one really wants to hear about OSS because they are all about to go out on some sales team-building exercise that involves a lot of drinking and more discussion of sports.

You are summoned to present with “…Ok, some hippy developer is going to tell us what this freeware @#$# is all about anyway. Go ahead show ’em how to ‘make it rain.'”

If this is your job, you’ll find yourself in a room full of people asking you questions like “Alright, so do you geeks have anything better to do with your weekend?” and “Why are my customers getting all worked up over open source? I don’t get no commission on this crap.”

Some things that you’ll notice in the reaction:

  • People with a background in business and sales have no idea why you’ve been participating in open source for years.  Not only do they not understand it, some of them discount the entire idea (even if the company was built atop an OSS foundation).
  • Even if you think you’ve explained open source, there’s a large portion of the audience that either wasn’t listening or refuses to admit that it could ever work. (Someone will make a joke about how you are a communist.  It will be unclear whether that person was really joking or not.)
  • Jokes will be made about open source being about “free love,”, “hippies,” and “unicorns.”
  • Invariably, someone from the 1980s will show up and talk about how they once made a lot of money selling business software.  This will be used as an attempt to show others that your generation just has it all wrong.

If just the right kind of manager is there, everything you say about the “possibilities of open source” will be dismissed as over-idealistic nonsense.  Even though you might have just delivered a presentation on how Hadoop has created billions of dollars in value and how organizations like the Apache Software Foundation act as foundries for innovations that drive computing, someone will invariably stand up right after you and say, “Ok, enough about this open source crap, how are we going to make money?”

You realize that your “open-source” stuff is just going to be used as a scapegoat for a sales team that has no idea what OSS is.  This is the reason why you see headlines about large companies canceling support for OSS projects and products.  It isn’t because they couldn’t find a way to “monetize” – no it was often because they refused to understand the gold mine they were sitting on.