Vendors and Customers Gettin’ Open Sourcey With It


I’ve written extensively how open source has leveled the playing field between technology vendors and their customers. I’ve also written about how “users” — aka, the customers of vendors — are now driving much of the software innovation in the world by leading several large open source ecosystems. If you’re a technology vendor, this development may frighten you, and for good reason — you grew up believing that you were the one true source of innovation. That is simply no longer the case.

This doesn’t mean that vendors don’t drive any innovation, but rather they must learn to collaborate with their customers and end users on innovation. The vendors that figure this out will run the world. As for those who don’t, well… we all remember what happened to the dinosaurs, right? Basically, if you’re a technology vendor right now, you have a fiduciary duty to work with your customers on open source collaboration. If they’re already open source savvy — great! Time to work with them. And if they’re not open source savvy, this is a great opportunity to enable their inner open source advocate and develop a working collaboration that will benefit both parties extensively. And that’s what I want to focus on in this article: open source enablement of your customers.

Basically, “open source enablement” seems to be about teaching customers how to embrace open source principles, both in terms of internal processes as well as external communities and ecosystems. As I’ve worked with many engineering and product teams over the years, I’ve seen many open source initiatives fail to reach their potential because of ingrained cultural obstacles that usually manifest in the form of corporate inertia that blocks forward progress.

This is where you, good vendor, can lend a hand — assuming you are also not blocked by the same internal obstacles. Open source enablement for customers has to focus on internal processes as much as or more than external participation and collaboration. In fact, I think a lot of companies miss the memo on internal processes because they are blinded by the “sexiness” of external projects and the success it engenders. Before you can run, you must learn to walk, and that means taking a good hard look at how your teams work together and ensuring that their processes are optimized for any kind of collaboration, whether internal or external. A good vendor will recognize this and see it for the opportunity that it is. For more on “innersource” principles, I highly recommend taking a good look at the fabulous innersource commons materials assembled and produced by Danese Cooper and her team at PayPal.

Strategically, there are three ways to look at this, all of mostly equal importance, although I might attach a hair of extra weight to #1, below:

1. Keep existing customers on your technology platforms so that they will be ready for a conversation about your broader vision when the time is right — that would be later. If you turn this conversation into one about direct sales, you will lose.  Of course, this is a much easier conversation to have if your platforms are open source. If you need to understand more about that, I’ve written extensively on that subject, as well. Many of your customers probably just use your standard technologies and platforms without understanding how they’re made, what open source components are already inside, and how they got there. They may not even understand what possibilities exist for them to benefit from open source-style collaboration on your platforms.

This is where you sell them on your broader open source vision that includes innersource principles as well as how embracing those principles opens up a gateway to collaborative innovation with you. Do this, and selling the rest of your technology vision becomes a whole lot easier. The win for the customer is that they get the benefits that come from fully embracing the open source way of collaborating and breaking down silos. You, the vendor, benefit because you’re their partner in such activities, opening the door to more and deeper solutions in the future. Go beyond just selling the product and sell the whole vision. This generally applies no matter what your occupation, but open source adds a few wrinkles in the equation that you would do well to master.

2. Expanding your customer base. If you execute fully on #1, above, then you can make a stronger case for adding new customers, in multiple directions. Those that have yet to embrace the open source way and still haven’t become your customers will perhaps have more reasons to adopt your solutions after you are able to demonstrate and document success from the other customers mentioned above. But there’s another group of potential customers: those that have adopted open source software for various workloads. If they already benefit from open source code, what is the benefit to them of buying from you? This is tricky because many of these shops have convinced themselves that they don’t need vendors and are perfectly happy with a “DIY” approach.

If you are able to execute on #1, above, and give those customers a chance to shine, they will become your best advocates to the rest of the world. Now, not only do you have a strong extended portfolio of open source solutions to sell (presumably, right?), but you can then add the idea of being a partner in IT transformation. Demonstrate real increases in productivity that you can point to, and suddenly those DIY-only shops will begin to understand that vendors can help, too. The key is not to pretend that you have all the answers, but rather that you’re a good partner who will help them find the right solution and not abandon the open source aspects of their existing infrastructure. This is what will allow you to expand your customer base to both open source-savvy and unsavvy customers, as well as transform more of the latter into the former.

3. Expanding your ecosystem and, by extension, your influence on the technology world. If you execute on #1 and #2, above, you can readily point to an expanding group of customers who not only buy into the open source way but who have documented their success on your platforms. This means that when they interact with the upstream projects and communities, which they all eventually will, they will do so from the perspective of being your customer and your platform adopters.

The more that your customers participate in the upstream world, the more likely that upstream communities will see your platforms as something they need to support for future releases. This would help to counteract any industry trends towards your competitors. After all, if your customers are helping the upstream developers see increased value by supporting your platforms, then you’ll ensure the long-term viability, at a minimum, of your platforms and hopefully accelerate their growth.

So, when I hear anyone talk about “open source enablement” of customers, I actually interpret that to be three related things from a customer’s point of view: open source principles of collaboration (innersourcing), devops and IT transformation, and open source evangelism. If you can be seen as the partner that helps companies execute on those three things, it opens a lot of new doors for you.