Companies: fostering or controlling communities? An interview with Kim Weins

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Kim Weins is the Senior VP of Marketing at OpenLogic. Kim spent three years as a principal in CMO Strategy Group and helped companies such as Atomz (acquired by WebSideStory), TuVox and
RedSeal to significantly accelerate their marketing efforts. Prior to CMO Strategy Group, she was at PeopleSoft where she was responsible for driving PeopleSoft’s CRM business strategy.

I had lunch with Kim Weins from OpenLogic. We had an interesting discussion about open source companies and how they can either dominate or foster communities. In addition, we also talked about what it’s like for an open source software developer to work for an open source company. She works with many open source developers on a contract basis as well as many open source companies on a partner basis. Her insights were interesting.

Kim, “open source companies” come in many types and flavors – how do you characterize them?

We see two main variations of open source companies – differentiated by the level of ownership and control over their IP. This level of control is important, because it tends to drive their business models.

The first type what I’ll call “IP owners”. These are companies that own and control all of the IP that goes into the open source product. This would include companies like MySQL, Alfresco, SugarCRM, etc. These companies typically have some variation of a dual licensing business model that requires that they control all of the IP in order to license an “enterprise version” of the product in the way they want – often not under an open source license. For these types of companies, typically only employees can commit changes to the project since the company wants to maintain control of the IP. In
some cases, the companies may allow contributions by outside committers, as long as the developer gives IP rights to the company.

The second type is what I’ll call “non IP owners”. This type of open source company typically builds up around an existing open source project that has many committers. The IP is owned by the open source developers or by a third party such as the Apache Foundation. Examples of this type of company would include Enterprise DB, Acquia, or Red Hat (around Linux). Since the company often does not own or control the core IP for the project, the business model changes. These companies typically either sell support and services around the project or create add on functionality that they can then license. Often the companies will hire some or all of the committers on the projects, but typically the projects are open to contributors and committers outside the company to participate. However, there are some cases where these companies try to gain control over the IP by hiring all of the committers so that they can determine the direction the project takes.

While it’s great that developers can get hired to work on their project, sometimes it seems like the open source company hires everyone in order to control the product. Can an open source company hire too much of the community?

When the developers working on a project are limited to people employed by one company, it eliminates a huge part of the value of open source development. The ability to build new capabilities is then limited to what can be funded by one
company – just like for proprietary software. Although some open source companies would argue that they help to support and fund the project in this way, the reality is that they also gain control. If their sole interest was in supporting and funding the project, they would open up to committers outside the company in order to improve the project more quickly.

Many open source software developers do quite a bit of contracting or consulting work, like for OpenLogic’s Expert Community. Does working for an open source company make that easier or harder
for them?

We work with the OpenLogic Expert Community on a contract basis. They are not employees of OpenLogic, but we pay them for the work they do to help support our customers. This allows them to continue to work on other projects (whether for pay or volunteer) as they see fit. However, in recruiting these open source developers, we find many cases where their employer, whether a proprietary or open source company, tries to limit their ability to work on open source (whether for pay or volunteer). Companies do this through employment agreements that specifically limit a developers ability to work on outside projects, either by requiring IP assignment of anything they develop to their employers or by explicitly forbidding certain kinds of outside work. These restrictions may make it harder for developers to participate in the open source community as they see fit.

Do companies often foster open source developers? i.e. if you want to get going working in open source software, is getting a job with an open source company a good way to get started?

In some cases, companies do foster open source developers. However, the companies that do so by trying to tie developers hands are doing a disservice to the developers, the open source community, and eventually themselves. When going to work for an open source or proprietary company, open source developers need to be careful to negotiate the freedoms that are important to them – such as having the right to work on other open source products and the ability to retain IP rights in the work they do.

As well as the ability to work on non-related open source software projects in their free time!

Can you give an example of a company that you think is doing a really good job of working with the community or maintaining an independent community?

I would cite two examples that represent how companies can be successful while maintaining an open community. The first would be RedHat around Linux development. Linux is not controlled by any one company – rather it is contributed to by multiple vendors as well as independent developers. Obviously full credit for this can’t go to RedHat, since they need to work within the constraints of how the Linux project is structured, but they have done a good job of demonstrating that you can make money and be  successful without controlling the IP.  It remains to be seen if that same model will be true for JBoss.

The second example would be Mozilla around Firefox. Mozilla has developed a business model that seems to work without limiting community involvement.

Many companies have open source products but not an external open source community, what benefits of open source software do you think they are missing out on?

There are several benefits of open source, but some of the most important benefits come from having a broad, diverse and open community. By doing so, there are economies of scale by sharing the development and maintenance efforts. There is also a breadth of requirements and a breadth of technical solutions that may be limited when all developers are internal to the company. Companies that don’t stay open to a community that extends beyond their employees will really be returning to some of the limitations of proprietary software.

Thanks, Kim.

Anybody else, thoughts to share on open source companies, communities and employment?

Disclaimers: I used to work at OpenLogic and I still occasionally do some writing and consulting for them. OpenLogic pays open source software community members to support open source software projects on an issue by issue basis for Global 2000 companies. I approached Kim about doing this interview.