Open Source and A Warm Fuzzy Feeling
The tech world is a mystery to a lot of people. Or was, until the HBO show Silicon Valley hit our living rooms. And while I will admit that the show makes me laugh out loud, it also reinforces the stereotypical tech scene as young, hipster, cutthroat, and male-centric. And... sometimes it is. But in tech are also some of the best examples of collaboration and teamwork. And at the forefront: the world of Open Source.
So, what is Open Source?
Open Source means available to the public to study, modify, enhance and distribute for any purpose. The point is not to find consensus amongst contributors, but rather to utilize the untapped potential of the masses. Nearly all the technology that enables us to build products effectively are from the open source community and sometimes concepted by the world's largest tech companies: Twitter made Bootstrap, Google open sourced Android, Apple released Swift. Some companies, like local RedHat, even pay some of their programmers solely to contribute to open source software.
Why, you might ask, would companies choose to NOT charge royalties on proprietary software? Why wouldn't they spend all of their time focusing on products that will make them money? A few reasons include:
- Promoting innovation through a free exchange of ideas to drive technological advancement
- Pooling resources on common problems so teams are freed up to build core products
- Building community and giving more users and developers access to tools
- Attracting talent by allowing developers to see every line of code a team has worked on
The Open Source Way is a code of conduct embracing open exchange, collaborative participation, transparency and community. Does that sound like the technologists we know and love (to stereotype)?
so wait... this is happening in tech?
Yes. And it is totally amazing. Imagine banks giving away money, master chefs sharing their recipes, pharmaceutical companies distributing secrets to their competitors, or Tesla giving away all their patents. (Ok, that last one happened and is another wonderful example of open source!)
And Open Source technology is also producing innovation in other industries. For example, Argentinean activist Pia Mancini helped to launch Democracy OS, a mobile platform that gave citizens the power to provide instant input on legislative bills. To bring attention to the app, she helped found a new political party that pledged to vote only as directed by the app's constituents. (Spoiler: the party did not win, but it did get about 2% of the population's votes!)
Or in medicine: The Open Hand Project is an open source initiative making robotic prosthetic hands more accessible. The project publishes all plans without patents, meaning that any individual or company can use these resources to produce and sell hands. Whereas patents may have heavily restricted distribution and import taxes may have blocked the hands reaching developing countries, the Open Hand Project harnesses open source to build as many hands as possible.
you (yes, you!) can participate
In a talk about contributing to Open Source, Brandon Mathis of Smashing Boxes said, "The price of joining the developer community is participation." I love the idea that I can use open source Ruby gems that others created, but I then have an obligation to give back. If you are similarly smitten by this idea, there are a few tiny ways to get started.
Code Triage is the best resource I've checked out so far. You search by language, find a project to contribute to, and start getting emails of bugs you can go fix. And if you're not ready, then you can:
- Diagnose, document, and report a bug
- Close a fixed bug
- Write a test
- Add a helpful comment
- Blog about your experience (even if it's unsuccessful) so you can help others just like you
And if you're not a developer, you can still play! Use your design skills to create a project logo or your writing chops to help the maintainer of the project with documentation.
A warm & fuzzy feeling
Now, I'm off to contribute to an open source project for the very first time! Until then...