Open source and dev rel


Simon Phipps

Simon Phipps

Ten years ago, people working with non-Microsoft developer communities almost always had a background in open source. Today, many dev rel professionals use open source software and build on it but they might not identify themselves as culturally part of the open source movement.

So, what’s changed? Let’s think back to 2008. The world really was different. Regarding open source, there were three important factors:

  • Nokia’s Symbian OS held 52.4% of the mobile market, with Blackberry a distant second at 16.6% and Android nowhere to be seen.
  • Microsoft was not only dominant but still at war with open source.
  • Amazon’s EC2 was just two years old, meaning that utility computing was a novelty and so its effect on how people perceive operating system value was yet to be felt.

That’s not to say that open source was entirely niche. One Gartner survey put enterprise adoption of some form of open source software at 85%. But we can learn quite a bit from the fact that an analyst firm considered that worthy of a press release. In 2008, open source was not the norm.

Today, open source software is at the heart of pretty much everything that we build. What once was the subject of a tech industry culture war is now, more or less, just a part of the landscape.

Perhaps as significantly, so much dev rel now happens around APIs and APIs are kinda’ hard to think about in terms of open source. While they have many of the same issues regarding lock-in as proprietary software, that’s easy to forget while we have healthy competition between providers. Google Maps jacking up prices? Use Mapbox instead. Can’t get Stripe in your country? Try a local provider.

Switching is harder where a company has a monopoly platform. But, as an industry, we’ve yet to come up with good answers to that problem.

Why should dev rel people care about open source?

If open source was yesterday’s battle, perhaps it’s good that dev rel people today are focusing their attention elsewhere.

To Simon Phipps, president of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), it’s still important to remember that we probably wouldn’t have an API economy and developer relations as we do today without open source.

“I very much believe that we wouldn’t be where we are today if the open source movement hadn’t been established,” he says.

Well, he would say that, you might be thinking. After all, Simon ran Sun’s open source office and was instrumental in the open sourcing of Java, not forgetting that he now heads the Open Source Initiative itself. He not only believes in open source but has been one of its main proponents over the past twenty years.

Nonetheless, he has a point.

“A great deal of what’s happened has been because people discovered they were free to stand on the shoulders of giants, rather than having to ask the giant’s permission and lease a ladder to get up there.

“It’s had a profound impact. Having permission ­–– in advance –– to innovate, without seeking further permission through your lawyer and your manager, has unlocked this tide of continual innovation.”

Common cause?

The balance of power between software creators and software users shifts easily. When developers are themselves also the users of software – such as a framework or infrastructure product – they too are subject to the whims of whoever owns the copyright to that particular code. And, although we don’t necessarily have a great answer to it yet, APIs are an even bigger risk in this regard.

It doesn’t take long to find examples. Twitter’s various API changes have, in some cases, made the software built on them unviable in their previous form. Redis Labs’ adoption of the Commons Clause –– essentially preventing people other than the copyright holder from making money from software subject to that clause ­­–– is seen by some as an existential threat to open source.

As people working in developer relations, this puts certain responsibilities on our shoulders:

  1. We must, at all times, be honest with our developer communities about the balance of power between them and the company we represent.
  2. When our employers have plans that will be harmful to developers, we must explain the nature of that harm to our colleagues; even if we believe our warnings will go unheeded.
  3. We should advocate generally for open source software because it enables developers to be more creative and more productive.

This does not mean that dev rel is incompatible with proprietary software. However, it does emphasise our need to be honest brokers.

Why should dev rel care about open source?

The Open Source Initiative gives us a shortcut to understanding which licences give developers freedom to build without seeking prior permission.

“The most important thing the OSI does is maintaining the canonical licence list. OSI crystallizes the discussion in the community about whether a given software licence meets the open source definition and delivers the software freedom that the GNU project talks about and which the Debian project celebrates in the Debian free software guidelines.

“Were we to wind up OSI, were we to forget about the concept of OSI approved licences, we would gradually drift back to a world where when you saw a piece of software you didn’t have any way of diagnosing whether the licence it was under gave you the freedom to proceed without further permission or whether it was a trap. And consequently, I think it’s crucially important that we keep on doing the licence approval, stewarding the open source definition, maintaining the canonical licence list.”

Now that we live in an open-source-positive world, it can be easy to dismiss discussion of licensing. So, why specifically should developer relations people care about open source?

Open source enables creativity

According to Simon, one reason is that developer relations would just be a lot less interesting without open source.

“Developer relations in many ways is the secular expression of being a community member. Developer relations is a role where you are trying to make sure that there is health in the community that results in more deployment, more contribution, and more improvement in the software and APIs that you’re dealing with.

“And the developers that you’re dealing with have the freedom to participate in your community because they have been given that freedom by something. And the freedom to participate is profoundly what open source licences give to a developer. If you’re dealing with a project which has an OSI approved licence, the reason you have developers there at all is because those developers have been given permission to participate, and don’t need to constantly check whether they are free to do so.

“If you’re a developer relations person working on a project that doesn’t have an OSI approved license, you will know that either your developers are constantly checking their freedoms, or your developers are exclusively people who are deploying purchased product, and they don’t contribute back on the whole, and they tend not to work outside the box. And so, unfortunately, your life as developer relations expert is rather boring because there’s very little random happening.”

“Actually, it’s in the random that all the interesting stuff happens. It’s when community members meet their own needs in unexpected and creative ways that you realize new opportunities for product growth and evolution, that you recognize new markets that your company can work in, that you understand the international dimension to your product set. All those things come from the freedom to participate that people get from OSI licences.”

We must protect our users from … us

If twenty years of open source has helped us to get to where we are today, then what does the future hold. Simon sees both good and bad in the near future.

“I’m both optimistic and pessimistic. At the technical level I’m very optimistic. I see a great deal of understanding of the need for individual developers to be empowered. And I do see companies believing that they can withdraw that empowerment from developers by seeking NDAs and seeking proprietary license agreements. And I see those companies being overtaken by other companies moving into the space who zoom past them.

“The place where I’m pessimistic is, I think that all this focus on technology and on developers has distracted us from the need to look at people and morality. And so we see many companies that are honestly struggling with knowing how to deal with ultra-right wing gaming of their systems.

“They’re wondering how to deal with international politics. They’re wondering how to deal with transnational regulation. And those are all human problems. And I think that as a technology industry as a whole we have not got our arms around having a moral and ethical basis for our business, or recognizing that the interests of our companies depend on getting those things right.

“So I’m very optimistic about open source, I think people understand the need for empowered developers, they understand the need to have people on their staff who empower developers for them, they understand that their future profitability is intimately linked with adoption, deployment, and developer satisfaction, and empowerment. And I really hope that in the process of doing all those things we wake up and we realize that we also have to protect our customers against the abuse of the systems we create.”

Simon will be speaking at DevRelCon London 2018 on the relationship between open source and developer relations.

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