How to talk to your boss about open source

Creative, exciting applications of open source software can be found worldwide, and who better to share the details of new use cases than the practitioners themselves. In this blog series we’ll feature guests who told their open source stories during Practical Open Source Information (POSI) 2021, an online conference hosted by OSI.

In her presentation at POSI 2021, Deborah Bryant, OSI Board Director, recalled that she was first introduced to open source when she ran a commercial ISP earlier in her career. It was there that a 19-year-old developer excitedly told her about Linux and got her permission to work on the open source project and become a contributor. Later, she moved on to serve as the Deputy CIO for the State of Oregon where she was tasked with explaining complex and expensive technical projects to the legislature. She shares a story of the House of Representatives receiving a bill requiring the state of Oregon to consider open source products in software bids. The bill didn’t pass but she learned a lot about open source in the government sector from that experience.

After her time working for the State of Oregon, she moved onto Open Source Lab at the University of Oregon. Today she does a lot of open source advocacy and work, on several boards including DemocracyLab, the Open Source Elections Technology Foundation, the Eclipse Foundation, and as leader of Red Hat’s Open Source Programs Office, and now in her final year on the board of the OSI.

With all this exposure to open source in various sectors, Deborah has a lot of advice to offer when talking to a decision maker about adopting open source. First, she explains that no matter who the audience is, it’s important to keep the following in mind:

  1. Understand your own motivation for having this conversation about open source.
  2. Understand the motivation of the person you’re talking with; what problems are they trying to solve?
  3. Accept that you may not be the one to gain the buy-in. The decision maker will likely go seek other experts to support them in making their decision.
  4. Use as much objective information as you can to support your cause, such as research data and use cases.

Deborah introduces us to a heuristic way of thinking known as Systems Thinking. The idea is that every technology project has three components: technical, financial, and political. All of these components should be considered when briginging an open source initiative to the table.

Here are the considerations Deborah suggests anyone take when approaching decision makers who may be unfamiliar with open source from four different industries:

Private Industry: in influencing a manager or peers in a company, one must ensure the open source project they’re proposing is aligned with a company’s business plan and/or technology roadmap. Figure out where open source may fit and enlist others to support the case. Some key reasons why companies work with open source include:

  • Innovation/digital transformation
  • Cost reduction/avoid lock-in
  • Developer happiness/talent (open source attracts great developers in this time of the great resignation)
  • Product strategy
  • Industry collaboration via standard

Offering statistics is always helpful, such as this one: “83% of IT executives in the software industry (of 1,300 surveyed) were more likely to select a vendor who contributes to the open source community.” (Source: Red Hat-funded research)

Non-profit: philanthropic organizations are using open source solutions frequently because:

  • They have shared values with the open source movement
  • They want to spend money on mission, not tools
  • People in the community can help with infrastructure, like helping them source replacement technology, as an example

Public Sector/Government

  • Objective data helps
  • Can help gain federal funding
  • Local community enhancement like career support for women reentering the workforce

Academia: students and faculty are interested in open source. She encourages identifying a strength or an enthusiastic program to build upon, finding a champion to work with, and making a case to perhaps refresh a stale program or offer something new to attract students. Examples of open source in the field of academia include:

  • Open Source Labs
  • Computer Science and Engineering programs
  • Social innovation through open source projects for students
  • Humanitarian open source projects (side note: human benefit in a project draws more women into engineering)

Deborah offers a lot of resources, a couple of which are Teaching Open Source (TOS) and Professor’s Open Source Summer Experience (POSSE). More can be seen in the video.

If you’re interested in watching the full video, which includes some interesting examples of open source projects in all these areas as well as conversation starters, you can watch it below:

The previous blog in this series, “The Business Impact of Open Source” ((add link)), came from the Google Open Source Programs Office. Click the link to read it, and come back to catch our next featured member from the Practical Open Source Information (POSI) 2021 in the coming weeks.