4 Truths About Working on a Community Project Inside an Open Source Company


openSUSE summit 2013

I’ve worked at SUSE for just a hair over two years now. Before that time I had never seen the inner workings of an “Open Source Company”. Not in any real, in-depth way.

Like many Free Software and Linux enthusiasts, I had always been curious how things operated within companies like SUSE, Red Hat and Canonical. Companies that support, organize and drive such a significant amount of activity in the Free and Open Source world.  To me, they seemed somewhat mysterious. What really motivated them? How did they operate? What was it like to be a Linux user who actually worked in a Linux-focused company?

So I convinced Linux.com to let me write a series of articles looking at all of that.  For the first article in the series we’re going to look at something that seems to be a big unknown to many:  How does a company (in this case, SUSE) interact with the community project (openSUSE) and — specifically — what is it like to work on the community project from within the company?

Quick primer: openSUSE is a community project that builds, among other things, the openSUSE Linux distributions (Leap and Tumbleweed).  SUSE is a company which supports the openSUSE project — upon which its enterprise line (SUSE Linux Enterprise) is based.

Full disclaimer:  Just a few days ago I was elected, by the community, to a position on the openSUSE board.  Add to that the fact that I have worked for SUSE for some time… and it should come as no surprise that I have a bit of a bias.  With all of that in mind, I’m going to try to leave my own personal opinions out of this.

I reached out to three people, within SUSE, to get their thoughts on the topic:

Richard Brown — Senior QA Engineer at SUSE and Chairman of the openSUSE Board.

Douglas Demaio — Marketing and Public Relations for openSUSE.

Markus Feilner — Lead of the SUSE documentation team.

I asked all three of them a few simple questions.  Not a grueling interview, by any measure — just a good way to get them talking and, hopefully, give us a bit of a better idea of what things are like working on a community project when employed by a company sponsoring that project.

At the risk of sounding repetitive: What follows is entirely about SUSE.  Because that’s the company I understand the best.  And, being one of the oldest companies in the Open Source/Linux world (older than Red Hat, Canonical, etc.) it’s an interesting one to look at.  So, while this isn’t a “puff piece”… the word “SUSE” is certainly going to be used in a positive way.  A lot.

It should also be noted that I consider all three of these people to be friends.  Why is that important enough to mention?  Because none of them hold anything back with me.  I would consider all three of them to be honest almost to a fault.  If any of them have even the tiniest thing to complain about — I’ll hear about it.  In a rather grumpy way.

The responses they gave me were rather long winded — because these are some long-winded guys — so I’ve sorted them into a couple of key take-aways.

1. Companies must work hard to earn trust.

Richard Brown: “Being in an open source company, even one that gets open source as well as SUSE, can lead to your actions being interpreted as a result of corporate direction, and not honest, pure, natural contributions. I realise this problem probably stems from negative history between companies and communities, but it really holds things back when contributions from people working in companies are held to a different standard that those that aren’t.”

It’s difficult.  As a Linux and Open Source advocate I sometimes look at companies with skepticism.  I see some (not all) companies exerting excessive control over the community projects they support and that, in turn, causes me to be less trusting of all companies in general.  I think skepticism towards companies is not an uncommon thing in the Open Source world.

But, luckily, there are companies out there that really and truly “get” Open Source.  And that restores my faith in humanity. The whole open source community benefits when we treat all contributors as equal and evaluate contributions based on technical merit, not affiliation.

2. The company doesn’t – and can’t – dictate the project’s direction.

So how does the company-community relationship work within SUSE?  When the company wants the community project to go in a particular way… how does the company go about it?

Markus Feilner: “Unlike others, where a company simply tells developers what to do – be it through words, power or money – openSUSE really lives the bazaar style development – and it proves that this system is really more creative than all the others. Look at the numbers if you don’t believe that. However, from my enterprise point of view this makes it a delicate matter if you want the community to e.g. help in a matter. You have to convince, you can’t order, you have to motivate, you can’t command, you have to spark enthusiasm.”

3. The company is a peer within the community.

How do people, within SUSE, balance the needs of the company with the needs of the openSUSE community?  This question actually comes up quite a lot — and not just for SUSE.  All of the major companies in the Linux and Open Source world are asked a variation on that question at one time or another.

Richard Brown: “You only need to worry about ‘Balance’ if you see the needs of the company as something different from the community. For SUSE this isn’t the case. The company sees, and acts, as a bunch of peers within openSUSE and other communities. This way SUSE gets the benefits they need from the open source world, and the open source world benefits from all the awesome work we’re doing.”

Douglas Demaio: “Communication between SUSE and the community creates the conditions and expectations that allow us to find mutual interests and success with the openSUSE Project. The structure of the members and the board as well as the focus, support and advocacy from SUSE’s leaders have allowed the project to find a balance for innovating together. Donations to the project by SUSE and other companies like the recent donation of 64-bit ARM servers by Applied Micro provides a supporting infrastructure through our Open Build Service for community members and contributors.”

Markus Feilner: “I do not think there is much to ‘balance’. As far as I personally see it the goals are pretty close to each other – as for example in the (openSUSE) Leap Box – where we helped to create the printed booklet, including a KDE part – which is not included in any SUSE product, but documentation has been written for it.“

4. The makers attitude unites company and community.

A few sayings tend to come up quite a lot within both SUSE and openSUSE.  “Just do it” and “Have a lot of fun.” Find something that needs to be done, do it and have fun in the process.

Markus Feilner: “When you start working here, it’s not about marketing yourself, it’s not about boasting, posing or anything like that. ‘Just do the right thing’, and ‘have a lot of fun’, and first of all: ‘just do it’. ‘Who does things, is right’ – These are SUSE credos and I really like them – and that is why we have such incredible creative, efficient and lovely persons here, like I never have seen before in a company.“

Richard Brown: “SUSE is full of exceptional people, and I’ve lost count of the times that a discussion of a problem or a casual conversation has led to a magical solution or crazy idea that really changes stuff or finds solutions for problems we didn’t even realise we had yet.”

I’m going to let that all rest on it’s own.  No additional commentary from me on this.  (Though I would love to hear answers to similar questions/topics from my friends working for other Open Source companies — my guess is that there would be some noteworthy overlap.  With a few interesting differences here and there.)

Next up, I’m going to take a look at working within an Open Source company from a bit of a different angle…

Bryan Lunduke is Social Media Marketing Manager at SUSE, and a member of the OpenSUSE board of directors.