I originally published this article on SD Times, republishing it to keep it around for posterity…
If you’re looking at embracing open source today, you might be a bit late to the game. Using open-source software is mainstream now, and being involved in open-source projects is nothing to write home about either. Everybody does it, we know how it works, its value is proven.
But what’s next? Sharing source code openly is a given in open-source projects, but in the end it’s only about sharing lines of text. The real long-term power of successful open-source projects lies in how their communities operate, and that’s where open development comes in.
Shared communications channels. Meritocracy. Commit early, commit often. Back your work by issues in a shared tracker. Archive all discussions, decisions and issues about your project, and make that searchable. All simple principles that, when combined, make a huge difference to the efficiency of our corporate projects.
But, of course, the chaotic meritocracies of open-source projects won’t work for corporate teams, right? Such teams require a chain of command with strictly defined roles. Corporate meritocracy? You must be kidding.
I’m not kidding, actually: Open development works very well in corporate settings, and from my experience in both very small and fairly large organizations, much better than old-fashioned top-to-bottom chains of command and information segregation principles. Empower your engineers, trust them, make everything transparent so that mistakes can be caught early, and make sure the project’s flow of information is continuous and archived. Big rewards are just around the corner—if you dive in, that is.
What’s open development?
Open development starts by using shared digital channels to communicate between project members, as opposed to one-to-one e-mails and meetings. If your team’s e-mail clients are their knowledge base, that will go away with them when they leave, and it’s impossible for new project members to acquire that knowledge easily.
A centralized channel, like a mailing list, allows team members to be aware of everything that’s going on. A busy mailing list requires discipline, but the rewards are huge in terms of spreading knowledge around, avoiding duplicate work and providing a way for newcomers to get a feel for the project by reviewing the discussion archives. At the Apache Software Foundation, we even declare that “If it didn’t happen on the dev list, it didn’t happen,” which is a way of saying that whatever is worth saying must be made available to all team members. No more discrepancies in what information team members get; it’s all in there.
The next step is sharing all your code openly, all the time, with all stakeholders. Not just in a static way, but as a continuous flow of commits that can tell you how fast your software is evolving and where it’s going, in real time.
Software developers will sometimes tell you that they cannot show their code because it’s not finished. But code is never finished, and it’s not always beautiful, so who cares? Sharing code early and continuously brings huge benefits in terms of peer reviews, learning from others, and creating a sense of belonging among team members. It’s not “my” code anymore, it’s “our” code. I’m happy when someone sees a way to improve it and just does it, sometimes without even asking for permission, because the fix is obvious. One less bug, quality goes up, and “shared neurons in the air” as we sometimes say: all big benefits to a team’s efficiency and cohesion.
Openly sharing the descriptions and resolutions of issues is equally important and helps optimize usage of a team’s skills, especially in a crisis. As in a well-managed open-source project, every code change is backed by an issue in the tracker, so you end up with one Web page per issue, which tells the full history of why the change was made, how, when, and by whom. Invaluable information when you need to revisit the issue later, maybe much later when whoever wrote that code is gone.
Corporate projects too often skip this step because their developers are co-located and can just ask their colleague next door directly. By doing that, they lose an easy opportunity to create a living knowledgebase of their projects, without much effort from the developers. It’s not much work to write a few lines of explanation in an issue tracker when an issue is resolved, and, with good integration, rich links will be created between the issue tracker and the corresponding source code, creating a web of valuable information.
The dreaded “When can we ship?” question is also much easier to answer based on a dynamic list of specific issues and corresponding metadata than by asking around the office, or worse, having boring status meetings.
The last critical tool in our open development setup is in self-service archives of all that information. Archived mailing lists, resolved issues that stay around in the tracker, source-code control history, and log messages, once made searchable, make project knowledge available in self-service to all team members. Here as well, forget about access control and leave everything open. You want your engineers to be curious when they need to, and to find at least basic information about everything that’s going on by themselves, without having to bother their colleagues with meetings or tons of questions. Given sufficient self-service information, adding more competent people to a project does increase productivity, as people can largely get up to speed on their own.
While all this openness may seem chaotic and noisy to the corporate managers of yesterday, that’s how open-source projects work. The simple fact that loose groups of software developers with no common boss consistently produce some of the best software around should open your eyes. This works.