Why invest in open source?

Tech giants aren’t philanthropies. There’s a reason they’re betting on open source: it’s good for business.

Tobie Langel
Sep 12, 2019 · 3 min read

Open source is everywhere. It’s in your phone and in your car. It’s flying satellites to orbit and helping cure diseases. It’s powering today’s economy. Latest survey finds it in 96% of code bases, in which it represents more than half of the lines of code.

And yet… whereas every company uses it, few contribute back.

And so we hear of resource-strapped projects, security concerns, maintainer burnout, and sustainability issues. There’s even a conference specifically about the latter.

But what initially seems like a tragedy of the commons is actually a gigantic opportunity. There is more to contributing to open source than “doing the right thing” or “paying it forward.”

Why do you think Microsoft spent $7.5B on GitHub, beating Google to the punch?

Or why did IBM buy Red Hat for $34B?

Contributing to open source has strategic benefits that tech giants are well aware of.

First, contributing to open source is critical to recruit, retain, and foster top engineering talent. Facebook claims that 75% of their new engineering recruits mention its open source program as a key reason to join the company. Similarly, a relatively modest investment in Webpack helped the hotel price comparison company Trivago position itself as “one of the most interesting companies to work for as a JavaScript developer,” and hire “a lot of really great engineers,” according to their Lead JavaScript Architect, Patrick Gotthardt.

Secondly, contributing to open source has proven to be a catalyst to attract developers to software platforms and services. Still wondering why Microsoft or IBM spent billions on companies based around open source? Wonder no longer. Both are hoping to capitalize on these to generate developer goodwill and onramp developers onto their paid offerings once they need scale and reliability. Even AWS is feeling the heat of this intense competition for developer mindshare and has started to up its open source contribution game. You might not be fighting for mindshare in the cloud wars, but if your offering includes anything developers might need to integrate, how you’re perceived in relation to open source might make or break your service offering.

Thirdly, it is increasingly demonstrated that teams that contribute to open source gain a net competitive advantage over teams that don’t.

At the individual level, engineers improve both their technical abilities and their soft skills. They build external networks they can tap into to help them solve work-related problems or recruit new team members. At the team level, this translates into increased efficiencies, with open source contributing teams twice(!) as efficient as freeloading ones, according to new research by Harvard Business School. And at the organisation level, this leads to better public perception, improved company culture, higher employee morale, and lower churn.

What’s not to like?

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