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Alan Cooper: Open-Source is a Sign of Failure

In the keynote where Alan Cooper proclaimed that Agile processes are bad for developing quality software, he made another provoking statement: that Open-Source is ultimately a symptom of management failure. His point is that with the right enthusiasm and commitment to your products, why would anyone go and work in an Open-Source project on their spare time?

Well, there are plenty of good reasons for doing Open-Source pro bono work; it’s a great way to get experience and widen perspectives for instance, but still, Alan has a point. Many of us are not as content as we could be with our regular work. Instead we’re seeking satisfaction elsewhere.

So, what should our employers do to get our full attention? Here’s my list.

  • Creative freedom
    Give me a chance to contribute, to be innovative and creative. Let me spend a part of my time doing research and follow paths that interest and inspires me. Google is a great example of a company that understands the importance of this.
  • Personal Development
    As Ron Jeffries has said, “the river is moving, and if we don’t keep rowing, we are going to drift back downstream.” I think self improvement is a spice of life. If my company provides me with all the books I need (and want), and lets me attend courses and conferences of my choice, chances are I’ll stay with it for life.
  • Ownership
    People usually do a better job, are more careful and thorough, if they own the thing they’re working on. This is true for software as well. Make me a business partner and I’ll optimize my work according to your business goals.
  • Appreciation
    The human race seems to be immensely better at criticizing than at giving appreciation. Yet, this is what we all crave, and – it has a great impact on how we see our employers. A rewarding salary is one form of showing appreciation, but I also need the outspoken forms.
  • Closures
    No one can go on for ever without reaching a finish line. I want to work in a team that is long-term efficient and gets to get done often. Help me divide and I’ll conquer for you.

That was my list, what’s on yours?


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  1. April 28th, 2008 at 15:52 | #1

    For me, my chief complaint — particularly with large companies — has been that they assign me to a specific ‘role’. I came from a mixed background of small and large companies. I’m used to being able to do my own: analysis, admin, management, planning, design, support, productization, etc. I’ve been through the full process from concept, selling, building, and deploying software.

    It has become extremely hard for me to find jobs that even let me apply a fraction of that experience. Everybody just wants a project manager or a senior programmer or a business analyst or a pre-sales technical support person or etc. Mixing and matching is not allowed.


  2. April 29th, 2008 at 18:31 | #2

    I think that your average geek does it so they can spread their wings a bit. If I only worked on what work had me do, all I’d know is Java and Grails (at least I got to learn Grails) but I’d miss out on PHP, Python, Ruby, etc…

    How close minded these execs must be to assume all we want to do is the same boring thing day-in/day-out…being against that sort of thing will result in stagnant bored developers who rarely grown. Who wants those ppl lying around?

    • April 30th, 2008 at 08:15 | #3

      Exactly, that’s why Google is such a great example. They create a win-win situation. The employee gets happy, since he or she gets to set up personal projects that they can work on part-time (one day a week). In fact, it’s mandatory.
      Google wins big time since it’ll automatically get the best innovative ideas and turn them into products.
      Who can get bored in a company like that?

  3. Christopher
    April 29th, 2008 at 18:50 | #4

    I think “that Open-Source is ultimately a symptom of management failure” is a mental example of when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail.

    Mr. Cooper and you completely ignore the advantages and disadvantages of greed as a motivation, or the advantages and disadvantages of altruism as a motivation. Neither greed or altruism are good or bad, but as motivations they can and do produce different outcomes due to the internal logic that naturally develops in the process.

    • Ray
      April 29th, 2008 at 19:59 | #5

      Uuuuhhhh, read the article again. You’ve missed the point.

  4. May 9th, 2008 at 19:18 | #6

    I found myself agreeing with you once again!

    Your article also resonated with me in a non-computing sphere. I’ve worked extensively with charities in executive roles as a volunteer myself. One thing that often perplexed the employers of the volunteers that I was managing was the amount of energy, passion, commitment and sheer achievement their staff brought to bear on their voluntary work, in comparison to what they did in their employed 9am-5pm day job.

    I believe that businesses (especially those involved in knowledge work) have a great deal to learn from voluntary working environments. The economy is slowly shifting, as we all know, from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy, where the power will be in the hands of the knowledge worker rather than those that own the “factories”.

    • May 12th, 2008 at 13:40 | #7

      Insightful comment (as always). I guess open-source in many ways is related to volunteer work.

  5. May 12th, 2008 at 14:02 | #8

    I think open source work certainly is related to volunteer work because people engage in it without expecting the traditional rewards such as a salary. They become involved in it because it aligns with their own interests, aspirations and ideals; and are often extremely committed to the voluntary work they do.

    I believe many businesses fail to harness their employees’ enthusiasm, skills and passion, so they look for outlets elsewhere.

    This seems to be borne out by some of the other comments here.

    To that extent, I think Alan Cooper is right to highlight it as a management failure issue.

    • May 12th, 2008 at 14:30 | #9

      Exactly, but it’s important to point out that the thesis of management failure could only be valid for a (small?) subset of open source work. A lot of work done in open source projects these days are in fact made by companies who are actively using the open source code in their own products.
      That is not a sign of management failure but rather a sign of success for the open source idea.

  6. May 12th, 2008 at 15:14 | #10

    I’m assuming that the failure is that of the managements who employ those who work on open source work in their own time. Any management that improves their product with little cost is clearly onto a good thing…

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