Open Source and Corporate Culture.

by Gil Yehuda on September 12, 2011

in Open Source

An often overlooked benefit of open source is its impact on corporate culture. Open source helps corporations engender an ethos of openness which impacts more than code itself. At Yahoo! where I work, and elsewhere, I see three aspects of these changes:

  • Information abundance changes the economics of information management.
  • OSS can commoditize and standardize platforms, creating new competitive surfaces.
  • The dynamics of secrecy and information disclosure reverse, changing a company’s posture of openness.

We are taught that wealth comes from holding on to valuable goods. Companies hire the best talent and protect their information much like they would stockpile money. But information works differently: it gains power when shared. Rather than keeping information, talent, and source code inside my company, we create more value by sharing some of it outside the corporate walls. This enables us to leverage information from the outside to add value internally.

Creative Commons License Attribution: much like money, the abundance of information supply causes its devaluation. Stockpiling depleting assets is no path to success. Today’s information age provides an abundance of information resources on the public Internet. This further encourages companies to share more and participate in the open. It’s a more economical way to manage information assets. Wealth is no longer the reward of the hoarders, but of the engaged.

A large portion of the code running in any company is commodity code, performing rote tasks that don’t add unique value. Of course, some code expresses our unique competitive advantage that we protect and enhance. Engaging in open source projects forces us to get clarity about which is which. Companies have the incentive to commoditize low-value code and drive down their long-term maintenance costs by getting their peers to share the burden with them. We then implement our unique value-added technology onto the commodity platforms – resulting in greater profitability and competitive advantage.

The strategy that I’m working on in my company is to use standard, open source, commodity technology where we can, and to create defacto and open standards where none exist. We use open source code, contribute fixes where we can, and establish new projects to encourage their wide adoption. It’s sound business practice. And it also helps change our attitudes about code and community.

Traditional companies hire experts to create products in secrecy. But expertise is widely distributed. We can’t and don’t need to hire all the experts in our field. We can attract the contribution of experts, even those who work at competitors, by collaborating openly. As opposed to control and secrecy, we employ tactical transparency where there is mutual benefit. Then we compete in the space above the commodity technology where we have unique advantage.

At Yahoo!, we have applied this thinking to a number of projects and learned a lot in the process. One example is Apache Hadoop – an open source cloud computing data engine that Yahoo! invested considerable talent into creating with the open source community. When we first explored the ideas around Hadoop, we decided that it would be better for us and the industry to work with others to create a defacto standard rather than keep all the technology for ourselves. Not only did we benefit from contributions to the project, we drove down our long-term expenses. Our decision yielded many unanticipated benefits for us too – financially, culturally, and with the developer-community who sees Yahoo! as a technology-thought leader in the very hot tech space of Big Data. We run the largest Hadoop cluster in the world, and are a destination for great minds looking to get into the field of huge-scale data processing – one of the most promising areas for tomorrow’s tech careers.

We begin many new projects with the plan to open source some of the code – forcing us to consider how others would use it, and how to build it for more than just our needs. We approach peers in other companies with ideas about co-development projects in the open. In some cases if we shut down a project, we’ll open source the code so that it can live on elsewhere.

Open source causes us to think differently about the way we invest in the technologies vital to our success. Getting over the “not-invented-here” syndrome and working together, even with some of our fiercest competitors, allows us to create compelling products. And we believe that working in the open helps set us apart and gives us strength to be one of the most ubiquitous and relevant digital media companies on the Internet.

Note:  This is cross-posted on a new blog sponsored by Blackduck software, a well-known software and service provider in the Open Source space. Allowing them to post my thoughts is not an endorsement of their company per se. Nor do I imply a special corporate relationship between my employer and them. That said, I happen to think they know more than most about the business of Open Source and I personally have much to gain by sharing my thoughts and inviting your participation on their blog, or on this one.  I think you do too.

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