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I work in a large company which makes use of a lot of open source software and employees a fair number of software developers but does not consider itself to be a software development firm. I believe the company needs to have a clearer policy on open source. However, I'm having trouble getting the organisation to think about it.

I realise this is not a straight forward question to answer but what are tried and tested ways of getting the company to start this discussion and influencing it to be "open source positive"?

As a mere developer why should I care?

  • I want to be able to patch code that is buggy rather than workaround it
  • I want to be free to use other people's code and not reinvent the wheel.
  • I would like there to be a path to open source some code I wrote.

For example there are questions on here about getting the company you work for to open source some code including:

In my case I have been unable to find anyone willing to even say yes or no.

However, the situation gets more complex when you consider your own use of and contributions back to an existing project.

Consider use of an LGPL library. We are legally obliged to contribute any patches we apply ourselves (if we distribute binaries externally). This leads to several policy options:

  • We only use unpatched open source software regardless of bugs
  • We submit patches etc.
  • We avoid LGPL licenced code altogether

It could be argued that an employee should not upload any changes without an explicit waiver.

Developers will typically be pro open source at the grass roots level. Talking to the legal team might force consideration but they may think more in terms of risks and cost. The conversion needs to happen at the CTO and CIO level but those kind of people tend to be 'very busy' with 'more important things'.

  • Someone suggested a tag of "business" but that tag has no description so I rejected the edit. – Bruce Adams Jan 6 at 18:44
  • So the situation you find yourself in is common. However, I'm not clear on what your exact question is? – Josh Berkus Jan 31 at 21:33
  • I'm not sure how I could make it clearer. Its not a technical question but how you influence an organisation, especially one with a lot of inertia. Part of the problem might be developers being bottom of the tree when these kinds of polcy decision must be taken higher up. Various management levels in between have nothing to gain themselves and no power to change anything and thus little incentive to respond to a request to have a discussion. – Bruce Adams Feb 1 at 13:49
  • Ah, thanks for bolding the question. So you want to know ways that you, as a developer low on the corporate heirarchy, can influence the company towards having an OSS policy? – Josh Berkus Feb 1 at 17:40
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    The first line of the question says "I work in a large company which makes use of a lot of open source software" – Bruce Adams Feb 4 at 8:07
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Here's my advice to you as a low-level developer who wants the company to contribute more to OSS: you need to influence by example.

Because you have no opportunity to discuss community policy in a way that you would be listened to, you need to focus narrowly on the specific things you want to do and request permission for just those things. For example, take a bugfix you've written for an upstream project, package it as a diff, and ask your boss for permission to submit it. Be patient with this! If it's new to your company, it will take time as your higher-ups need to even determine who can make a decision.

You should also be prepared to justify this in terms that the business actually cares about (being a good OSS citizen probably isn't one of them). Examples of justifications that most businesses care about are:

  • Lowering cost of maintenance and deployment delays by making it unnecessary to maintain independant patchsets from the upstream project.
  • Improving the company's PR in open source projects and on Github, leading to an easier time getting technical assistance and hiring new experienced developers

The book Forge Your Future with Open Source goes over other examples of justifying contributions. Which justifications are going to work is going to depend a lot on the nature of your company and its politics. Generally, it's best that you introduce your first contribution proposal in a 1-on-1 meeting with your boss; if he/she can understand what you want to do and why, it's going to be a lot easier to push it further up the pyramid.

It might take more than one attempt, but eventually you'll get a contribution approved. After that, you want to get more of them approved, and if you do enough of these, you may cause your company to decide to make policy around upstream contributions, just so that they're not dealing with ad-hoc requests every week. This will work better if you can get one or two of your coworkers to do it as well.

And if you get nothing approved, and your company makes its new policy "no contributions", then you've learned something else valuable about your employment situation.

  • Good answer. The actual situation I face with this question was no answer at all. I've asked the question of many people. Some failed to answer. Some said it was good in principle but not part of their remit. Some said they don't have authority to answer the question and failed to pass it up the management chain. I feel sure the answer would not be "no contributions" but the barrier to entry/discussion is frustrating high. Its simply not important enough to anyone else. – Bruce Adams Feb 5 at 10:59
  • Any luck with a 1:1 with your boss? – Josh Berkus Feb 5 at 21:24
  • No. I've had 1:1s about this several over the years. They are in the "good in principle but not part of my remit" camp. There is also an aspect of well you've solved your problem by creating these things (the list of candidates for open sourcing grows steadily) why create a new job when we have so many things to do already that doesn't solve any current problem we have. – Bruce Adams Feb 6 at 11:06
  • Well, I'd say that you've at least learned something about your employment situation. Programmer hiring is at an historic high, FWIW. – Josh Berkus Feb 6 at 15:54

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