Monday, January 16, 2017

On open source - scratching the surface

At CodeChix, we have always been strong proponents of open source in all it's forms - software, hardware, design, photography etc. It's a fundamental requirement for all programs that we run (tech talks, hands-on workshops and hacking sessions) and our conference, DevPulseCon only accepts talks and workshops targeting open source projects.

Over the years, it's been an eye-opening experience for me that there are so many companies that tout open source support on their websites and marketing verbiage and, yet, when you look closely or instigate an open source project that might "compete" with a proprietary product at said company, all "open source goodwill" goes out of the window in a flash.

This happened to me when I was building the CodeChix team to work on the Open Networking Foundation's OpenFlow Controller international competition consisting of 4 fantastic women engineers from 3 different companies. One of the companies, a behemoth of networking software and hardware which proclaimed huge support for open source on their website etc., denied two of their women engineers (CodeChix members) on the team from working on this competition project. Their argument was it was a "competing" effort to their proprietary controllers and they would not allow these two women engineers to participate in this effort that was being run by CodeChix. Naturally, I pointed out the discrepancy between what they were touting on their website and what they were telling me. Which resulted in complete silence and I suspect my queries were relegated to the proverbial bitbucket.

So, I pinged the ONF Executive Director, Dan Pitt, about it and mentioned this dilemma - I couldn't build a team without these two engineers - they would be doing all the work in their spare time (nights and weekends) just like the rest of the team and I really needed them in order to meet all the submission criteria for the competition.

After several email threads with the ONF, myself and the legal department at the offending networking company, it was finally agreed that as long as CodeChix would open source all the work (of course, that was the whole point after all from my perspective), said networking company would be "OK" with the two women engineers working on this project. The whole process took about a month and half to get resolved. With a lot of angst and stress and juggling on my part. And the team took a big hit since we couldn't really be fully productive until both these team members had the green light to join and start their work.

The moral of the story being, never give up. And call out the industry when they try to ignore their own policies. I'm not saying this will always work - it helps to have a heavyweight organization to back your efforts. But open source is the future - for the women engineers who are truly dedicated, brilliant, persistent and resilient. It's not for everyone, I think. It requires a very different mindset and attitude from what traditional proprietary product development entails as far as processes, accountability, collaboration and effectiveness. In some cases, it's much more difficult to make a mark in open source and get recognition for it. It's not like you have a manager/boss who's watching you or assigning you tasks. You are your own boss and that can be a good thing or a burden - depends on your personality and motivation.

But, if it is in your DNA to run things, open source is a potential path to success as you choose to define it - whether it's for contributing to solving hard problems, improving the world or teaching/learning.