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COSS Media

A Discussion of Open Source Culture

kevinsxu profile image Kevin Xu Updated on ・2 min read

DROdio (CEO at Armory) and Kate MacAleavey (Head of Culture and Leadership Development at Armory) recently had a fascinating discussion on YouTube with Joseph Jacks (founder of OSS Capital) about "open source culture", in the context of building a Commercial Open Source Software (COSS) company. Armory is a COSS company of the open source project, Spinnaker, which originated inside Netflix.

DEV Community, what do you think of this discussion and/or "open source culture" in general?

Here are some of my personal top takeaways from the conversation:

  • There's a lack of common vocabulary and language when it comes to talking about company culture broadly and culture specifically when building a COSS company. When rubber meets the road, company culture really comes down to the type of behaviors the company will put up with or not put up with. If you want an open culture, default to public discussion and don't use Slack DM (as an example) unless you have to. Be intentional about the details, because those actions will reflect what is and isn't important to your specific company culture than what you say about your culture. (Aside: this takeaway is very much reflected in Ben Horowitz's new book "What You Do Is Who You Are".)

  • It is important to build a sense of pride, agency, self-empowerment, resiliency, and openness (especially in the form of vulnerability) into your culture, if you want a can-do, start-to-start spirit to permeate the organization. That being said, freedom and agency can be terrifying, particularly for people who come from other organizations, where most organizations' default mode is "command and control". Thus, they have never felt "freedom" before, which can feel uncomfortable. Developing an effective process and mindset to self-select the people who embrace your culture is important. Not everyone likes the responsibility of having "ownership" or the power to act and experiment.

  • For top engineers of an open source project, e.g. maintainers or core committers, their reputations and skills "transfer" with the project, not the COSS company that is commercializing it. (Instead of being a Xoogler, you might be a X-Spinnaker-er...). This dynamic fundamentally changes how a COSS company treats engineers and builds an "open source culture", because the company and the project are decoupled. Thus, the "how" is an open question and new frontier.

  • Learning from mistakes ("how can we avoid mistake in the future?") instead of blaming the mistake-maker is key to building a "growth mindset" culture and a safe place for experimentation. This mentality, from a technical level, is codified as "Chaos Engineering" in Spinnaker, because the technology is made to empower application developer to deliver software faster and safer. The Armory culture embodies this characteristic, which requires a high level of ownership and agency, as well as the psychological safety that must come with constant experimentation and the failures that inevitably accompany experimentation.

(If you would like a transcript of this video, please see this post on COSS Media's website. Didn't want to make this post excessively long by copying/pasting the transcript here.)

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COSS Media

COSS Media is a community knowledge platform that provides actionable insight to help Commercial Open Source Software (COSS) founders build lasting companies, many of whom are open source project creators, maintainers and community leaders.


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