Getting Your Company In Open Source Shape

by Guy Martin (Red Hat)

The holiday decorations are now (hopefully) put away, and fond memories of merriment from the past month or so are behind us.  All that remains now is the time-honored tradition of the New Year’s Resolution. This should not surprise most of you, but the perennial favorite is usually a combination of ‘lose weight, eat healthier, get in better shape.’  Pondering my own resolutions to continue on a healthier path got me thinking about what it means to get your company in ‘Open Source Shape.’

There are many parallels to successfully getting yourself in better physical shape and getting your company started on the right foot to more successful and productive use of open source.  Let’s take a look at a few of these examples below,  pulling some lessons from the exercise world that you can apply in your enterprise.

Running shoes

The need for a strong set of core muscles (abdomen, lower back, etc.) is well documented in various guides to getting in better shape or training for athletic competition. The core muscles form the basis for all of our daily activities as well as successful athletic pursuits.  The ‘core’ of your company’s open source efforts is rooted in two areas:

  • Strategy – the ‘why?’
  • Governance – the ‘how?’

Similar to strengthening your core before taking on more strenuous physical activity, it’s essential that your company deal with these core areas before you try to run that first open source marathon.  Neglecting this advice can lead, in both cases, to injuries and time on the sidelines.  Here are some of the areas that need to be addressed in the open source core:


  • What reason(s) do we have for utilizing open source?
  • Will we consume, collaborate, or create in open source (or a combination of these)?
  • What is our overall success goal?


  • How do we measure our success?
  • How is our open source process built/managed?
  • How do we provide a flexible framework for utilizing open source? 

It’s also important to note that maintaining a strong core is just as critical in your open source practice as in an exercise regimen. You can do this by consistently evaluating your progress and refining your strategy and governance to reflect changes in your organization and its open source maturity levels.

Once you’ve gotten your open source core in shape, it’s time to consider two other important factors – your form and motivation.


All athletic endeavors have a proper ‘form’ – the correct way to perform the exercise or activity.  In running, this includes stride length, foot strike position, gait, cadence, etc.  Serious athletes spend a lot of time, effort and money on determining the proper technique for their bodies because their form becomes the process they fall back on when they’re tired and just want to get through a tough event.

The same thing is true for your company’s open source form (process).  You don’t need to spend a huge amount of time building up a lengthy process, but you should consider what minimum amount of control you need in place to effectively run your open source efforts.  This can include such things as legal guidelines on licensing/contribution/adoption, governance models for how you’ll run or contribute to communities, and measurement goals for both the organization and individuals.

Once you have this in place, you can fall back on it during critical times when your company may be struggling with how to best implement open source practices. Be careful, though, that you don’t become too rigid with this form/process.  Even the best athletes in the world know that sometimes your technique needs to be modified to accommodate injury, or just a change in thought processes.


Dr. Jim Taylor from the University of San Francisco wrote an excellent article in 2009 on the importance of motivation in sports.  In part, he writes:

“Motivation in sports is so important because you must be willing to work hard in the face of fatigue, boredom, … and the desire to do other things.”

Anyone who has spent significant time in any corporate job knows that these factors also come into play at work, especially if the endeavor is something new to the company, such as open source utilization. In my experience as an open source consultant, this usually boils down to corporate culture.

Corporate culture can mean many things, but in the case of open source enablement, it usually involves rewards, as well as other intrinsic benefits to the participants. Surprisingly, or maybe not, money is generally not a huge component of the reward system that works in this case.  There are certainly individuals who will work harder for something if offered financial rewards, but those that really believe in open source and its benefits, will, like athletes in non-top-tier sports, work feverishly out of internal motivation to do a great job.

In this case, the company can best support them by breaking down barriers to collaboration and community involvement.  Also, consider ways of varying the rewards you do give (corporate recognition, ability to influence product/community direction, etc.)  Just as athletes vary their workout music/motivation, so should your organization try to keep its rewards system fresh.

Where to Start

All of this may sound a bit daunting, but there are some tangible steps you can take to get started:

  • Set goals (short, medium, long-term)

This seems very basic, but a lot of companies forget about this step – think about your utilization of open source and what you can realistically accomplish in 6-8 month chunks of time.  You can always re-evaluate as you go along and adjust your goals as necessary.

  • Pace yourself – no one runs a marathon on the first day of training

If you’ve set realistic goals, this should be easy.  However, there will be temptations (as there are in athletic training) to push yourself or try to take shortcuts.  Trust me, you don’t want to do that!  Just as on the running trail, soccer field, or track, attempting to do too much before your company is ready only leads to setbacks and time on the open source sidelines.  Put in the necessary time to get your company eased into an open source transition, and it will pay dividends in the long run.

  • Get some coaching

Athletes of all levels hire coaches (even if only for a short time) to help give them guidance, expertise, and an external perspective.  Finding appropriate coaching/consulting can also help jumpstart your company’s open source efforts.  Red Hat offers such consulting, via a team of consultants/coaches who can bring the open source experience of the company to your enterprise.

Finally, at the end of the day, there is no substitute for simply following the advice of the fine marketing folks at Nike – Just Do It!

That single phrase adequately captures the most important part of any New Year’s resolution – taking that first step.  Without the collective will to do that, no amount of planning or preparation will help.  Here’s hoping your 2013 is a stellar year on both the open source and personal fronts!

Guy Martin will be co-presenting a free webinar, “Inner-source Fundamentals: Egalitarianism, Meritocracy and Measuring Success,” on January 31. Learn more and register here.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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