Penguins are human too

by Matthew Langham

A couple of days ago, I wrote a weblog article on the power of communities. Tim O'Reilly and Adam Turoff picked up and continued the discussion.

In adding something to their excellent analysis, I would like to just add a few observations made over the past couple of years when it comes to companies getting involved in open source communities (and also forming their own).

Your mileage may vary.

* Corporations fear (are scared of) open source communities

Companies that want to get involved in open source projects (as users or committers) are often overwhelmed by the community they are trying to enter. Often they just do not understand how the community "works" and what technologies are employed so that they do work. We have several (large) customers who use open source software but are "afraid" to ask questions on the mailing-lists or join in the community. So they will often resort to trying to fix the problems themselves.

It takes some time to get used to the way open source communities work and corporations often make the mistake of either treating the community as a "company" providing the software or as a new marketplace where they can trade their wares.


If you are a corporation thinking of getting involved in an open source project, then join - introduce yourself - and lurk. Spend some time just reading the emails going around the community and try to read between the lines. Even though it may not appear so at first - the community has a structure. And you need to know what that structure is before jumping in too deeply.


Once you join an open source community, you are just as responsible for the software as anyone else in that community. So if you think something needs fixing, then chances are you will have to fix it yourself. There is no free lunch.

* Start building communities inside your corporation

Look inside large corporations and you will see that there are (often) no communities inside either. My experience (large banking or telcos) is that "information hiding" is commonplace inside. Community means openness - and this is something that many employees fear also - because it means giving away the cake. Getting rid of the "not invented here" syndrome is an important step when establishing communities inside corporations.

* Corporations need faces

People want to know people. This makes conventions like OSCON so interesting, because you can actually meet the faces behind the code. The same thing happened when the Apache Cocoon project had it's first GetTogether in Gent, Belgium last year. The open source community actually became stronger because we were able to put faces to the names. The first step for corporations wanting to form communities should be that they "bring out their people" and put faces to the code. Weblogs will speed this process up hopefully.

My current play is to tell corporations interested in getting involved with open source is that "Penguins are human too" and hopefully lower the barriers between the two worlds. Companies have to understand open source better (not just the software but - perhaps even more so - the community) if they want to profit.

Lots here to expand on and discuss.

Send me your thoughts on the Penguins


2003-04-09 10:33:29
Communities are people too
Some very good points about open source, corporations, and the concept of community.

However, *everyone* involved should realize that it is good social interaction, not simply code, that ultimately makes open source communities successful. This means a degree of civility among "community" members - and toward potential new members (the difference between "disagreeing" and being "disagreeable"). Successful open source communities also have leaders who posess both these skills and the ability to promote this sense of community among its members. Contributing to such a community is more than just submitting code (as perhaps some would wish) but implicitedly includes being part of this community and the social contract such membership implies.

2003-04-09 12:29:39
Communities are people too
Good points and well put. However communities are also not anonymous - so a pity you didn't put your name :-).


2003-04-09 15:57:29
ComputerWorld article,10801,80053,00.html

"In the Linux loop"

Using open-source software like Linux is a no-brainer for many companies. It's stable and can be fixed easily if bugs appear, and you can't beat the price. But some companies and government organizations are taking their commitment to open source a step further by actively participating in the open-source community ...

2003-04-12 10:58:43
The mileage does vary
Hi Matthew

"Your mileage may vary" is important. I have had pleasantly different experiences in the corporations I've worked at over the past few years, both in England and in Germany. In many cases, and to a very large extent in the company where I work at present (in London) open source
plays a significant role. Admittedly, that's down to (ahem) characters with strong opinions, nevertheless it's fact.

But I'm curious: you talk of corporations and OS communities as though they're two separate things. It's the people on the ground who make up (the technical content of) those corporations that are or are not involved in OS projects as users or contributors. For the most part, individuals, not corporations, 'get involved' in OS communities. And that works well.

Where there are sticking points, I suspect it's sometimes because of a top-down approach to tech management. "Thou shalt use only the tools in our tech-set". But the problem is that a corporate tech-set is determined by people less likely to be close to the OS community 'interface', and also perhaps (intentionally) rigid (leading to staleness), which doesn't always gel with OS technologies and their progress and evolution.

Anyway, there's my thoughts for now. FWIW, we use Perl, Python, AxKit, Apache (with mod_perl), RSS, HTTP, REST-based design, SOAP, MySQL, OpenLDAP, to name some of the OS technologies and approaches orbiting our SAP R/3 based core business processing engine.