Thursday 31 May 2007

Dancing with Professional Open Source

Software projects are unlike most, if not all, of other kinds of projects. The relationshipp between problem and solution is rarely clear at the start of the project, and successful outcomes are usually the result of a delicate dance between customer and vendor(s), user and provider. I believe many software projects fail because they are managed in the same way as the provision of more tangible objects. It isn't possible to mitigate against failure by including contractual penalty clauses because in general, once those penalties are invoked, the project is doomed. It's like deliberately stamping on the feet of your dancing partner.

I have long been an advocate of a form of "Vendor Relationship Management" that sometime runs contrary to the traditional hard-nosed business of software and system provision. I have watched on as cast-iron contracts are signed for cut-throat prices only to see the vendor subsequently reaching the end of his budget and fading into the background. Yes, it is possible to insist on the terms of the contract being met but I can't think of a single project I have ever worked on (as customer or vendor) where the contract includes everything eventually needed to deliver success. The goodwill of a vendor is crucial, and maintaining the goodwill creates a win/win scenario.

I recently came across a fantastic paper written by James Dixon of Pentaho discussing the concept of "Professional Open Source Software" or POSS (which I believe was originally coined by JBoss), and read it cover to cover. His analogy of POSS companies being "bee keepers" I thought extremely useful, and particularly his contrast of the "whole-product" development models in traditional commercial companies vs POSS companies.

But one observation really got my attention. In POSS projects (or even FLOSS projects), the end user (/customer) is engaged at a much earlier stage in the process, thereby ensuring that design defects and unexpected use cases are brought to surface before it is too late.

The dance begins.

What OSS (any variant) brings to the floor is an definition of what the style of the dance is, what the steps are and in what order, and importantly the means to ask one's prospective partner:

Q: Are you dancing?

A: Are you asking?

..... without fear of rejection.

The bee keeper analogy hits the spot & I would recommend the paper to anyone interested in OSS management and the gap between traditional OSS and "whole-product".

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