☆ The Long Road To (Software) Freedom

George Street, Sydney - Empty!At the Community Leadership Summit in Portland back in July, I moderated a session called “The Death Star User Group”, aimed at community managers working for large corporations in the various stages of their journey towards software freedom. Community managers in that situation often have to deal with negative perceptions of their employer. I think having a model for the journey that a company is taking towards eventual embrace of software freedom is valuable.

The path to software freedom at Sun involved several steps that are common to corporations taking this journey (I think Sun was reaching stage 6 before it was taken over). Here’s a quick sketch of the seven steps I’ve seen in multiple corporate journeys towards software freedom. I hope over time to develop it into a more detailed description.

  1. Open source as enemyAttacking and ridiculing the idea of software freedom.
    A corporation in this state is largely beyond redemption. It does no good to counter like with like – corporations can’t generally be humiliated, or made to feel shame, as these are human emotions. While we suffer from a legal system that falsely recognises corporations as having most of the benefits in law of an individual without many of the responsibilities, this anthropormorphism doesn’t imbue humanity – a reptile remains a reptile even in a suit and crocodile shoes. There is some evidence that highlighting their hostility may have market effects, but in general ranting at a reptile makes you look stupid and does nothing to change the reptile.
  2. Damage containmentFraming isolated actions as proof of support for the idea while diminishing other projects.
    A corporation doing this is a long way from software freedom, viewing open source as purely a marketing issue. While they may have a few people who have embraced its ideals, the overall ethos in the corporation will snuff out any wider community consequences. When any part of the corporation has a business need that tramples all over the freedoms of developers or users, expect it to take priority over anything being done nominally as open source. Also expect open source projects to be forgotten when their project sponsors move on in their careers.
  3. Embrace and extendFraming larger strategies as proof of embrace while mapping the semantics to deal with inconvenient dissonance.
    By the time a corporation reaches this stage, there is someone in the leadership team who has spotted that open source may be a competitive issue rather than just a marketing issue and believes a broader strategy is required to contain it. Corporations in this state will come up with explanations of why they are, in fact, big fans of open source and why it’s in their blood. Extra points for finding a phrase with “open” in it that’s no-one has thought of before.
  4. A change of executive directionnew leadership or direction results in executive air-cover.
    At this point, a change in executive leadership means genuine change is possible in the rest of the corporation. This is the essential turning point; without it, I would not expect any corporation to move further on the journey. Corporations stuck with teh same leadership for years get stuck at stage 3 for years too, constantly cycling through new staff in the “head of open source” role, each struggling to find creative new sophistry to explain why their employer is really really keen on open source without actually seeking software freedom.
  5. Exploratory openingAs business units adapt models, practical barriers to community are removed.
    Products may not actually go open source at this stage, but the trend is firmly set and there’s regular news of improvement. Given new executive direction, business units in the company begin to explore new ways of doing business that support both profit and software freedom at the same time. This is a very difficult stage. It’s easy to believe the new direction you’re receiving from your management is just a fad that you can wait out. To progress to stage 6, a corporation will need to firmly insist that middle-management change or quit.
  6. General openingProjects are expected to switch to open source, exceptions need justifying.
    This stage is just short of a full embrace of software freedom, since the product portfolio will still be in a hybrid state. However, products that were holding out in stage 5 will now be having a hard time with executive management, and business units whose actions conflict with software freedom will find they are escalated to the CEO and instructed to get in line.
  7. Embrace of software freedomsoftware freedom is a core company philosophy expressed in all actions.

There are other journeys – this does not describe IBM’s journey well, for example. But this particular journey is one I’ve seen corporations follow, and one which many of the participants in the “Death Star User Group” session at CLS will recognise. I would be interested in your reflections, insights and experiences on this journey though.

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