Interview candidates with an Open Source background

I often say that there are two actions that define the line management role: one-on-ones and hiring people. This is specially true in growing organizations. If you nail these two actions, you have a good chance to truly influence, the ultimate goal, in my view, of any line manager.

One of the common strategies to speed up the journey from being an Open Source contributor to becoming a Good Open Source citizen is to hire talent with a solid Open Source background. The process of hiring such talent is different from what most organizations and recruiters are used to. That is so true that we have now companies specialized in hiring these profiles.

One key part of the hiring process is the interview, obviously.

This article is another one of those I have written the last couple of years about management topics, based on my experience working in Open Source as manager and consultant. More specifically, it is an attempt to describe some of the key points that hiring managers with little or no experience in hiring Open Source talent need to consider to increase their hit rate.

As usual, I would appreciate if you add in the comments section or to me directly your experience, criticisms or missing points. I would add them to this article as update.

Evaluate the candidate’s work in advance

If you only have room in your hard disk for one takeaway, it should be this point.

Most of your candidate’s work is public. Take the time to evaluate it or have somebody else doing it for you, before the interview. If the candidate have public talks, watch the videos or check the slides. If she has written articles, read them. If she has code available, study it, test it, install it… .

Having the candidate’s work in the open is a double edge sword. It is an advantage for the hiring organization because it can reduce significantly the hiring process, since you can evaluate in detail many of the candidate skills in advance, so the interview process can be reduced to a single interview, for instance (I strongly recommend this, by the way).

At the same time, if the hiring manager do not take the time to evaluate the candidate’s work or even worse, if the manager acts during the interview as if that work is not public, trying to technically evaluate the candidate prior or during the interview, for instance, the failure is almost guaranteed.

I always mention how wrong it is to ask a music group with published records or videos of their concerts available on the group’s website if they know how to sing. Or even worse, to request an audition during the hiring process for your birthday party. Who does that? Instead, watch their performances, skip the audition and go directly to negotiate other relevant points. Their work is public, did you check it?

By the way, the world is significantly larger than GitHub, thanks God. The candidate might have a strong Open Source background without having a great GitHub profile… or no profile at all.

Interview goal

The interview is not just an opportunity to evaluate if the candidate fits in your organization, it is a chance to attract that professional and her colleagues. Remember, the candidates code, processes followed, tooling used… are public. Your organization’s most likely not.

Who has more to inform about?

As result of this reality, the interview should look more like hiring a senior manager/expert than about hiring an engineer.

In summary, the goal of the interview shifts. It should be balanced between what both, the organization and the candidate looks for. This shift represents a challenge for hiring managers with limited experience in hiring senior talent.

Candidate’s future upstream participation

During the interview, be clear about the amount of time the candidate will have to invest in upstream work, specially if he candidate is working upstream already a significant amount of time.

There are plenty of developers who prefer to keep their work in the open as a personal activity. On the contrary, some others want to make a living out of their participation upstream. The best way to ensure a sustainable relation over time is to be transparent about the expectations related with the effort put in internal work vs work done in the open as well as in which projects.

If by working in your organization, the developer will have to reduce her current involvement in the open, specially in specific periods of time, say it clearly. If you cannot guarantee that the technologies the candidate works with in the open will be part of the company’s tools set, state it clearly. If your organization has plans to move towards Open Source and you bring the candidate to speed up that journey, make sure she understands the timelines and expectations.

No matter how experienced you are as hiring manager, there is always room for a candidate to surprise you about her motivations to participate in the interview and potentially join your organization. This is most likely true with professionals coming from an industry you might not be very familiar with.

Tooling, languages, technologies…

One of the great advantages of being an Open Source professional is that, because you use open source tooling, you can take them with you throughout your career, which makes you very efficient. Professionals with a solid Open Source background do not depend on certifications paid by their companies to learn how to use their tools, or having to change their base tool-set regularly, limited by commercial decisions. In other words, Open Source professionals have made their career supported in specific tooling and associated practices they have chosen and mastered. Often, they have even helped to develop or polish those tools. Some of them love to try new tooling on regular basis and some others love to focus their energy in other aspects, not in the tooling or associated processes, so they are conservatives.

In some cases, this specific point is so important for the candidate that using those tools and associated practices represents a requirement to join your organization.

You will need to consider and potentially embrace this reality. If you cannot or do not want to use those technologies or tools, make the point during the interview. But before you do, I recommend consider the following…

Are you open to reconsider such decisions if somebody prove there is something better? Is it something that can be reconsidered next year, when the current support contract for tool X expires? Do you have any specific department or project where you are willing to try new tools, processes, languages…? Are you open to assume that you might have made a mistake in such decision or that those decisions will not stand the test of time?

Many Open Source professionals, for instance, consider that, doing Open Source with Open Source tools is significantly better that using proprietary ones. Why?

At scale, adapting the tooling to the needs of the specific environment and integrate them with other tooling to improve the development experience is essential. Even more that to use a feature rich tool. To have full control of the tool’s evolution in your specific environment is another interesting point… there are many other strategic and practical reasons that leads to that mindset.

Learn from the candidate about those arguments during the interview.

Very often hiring managers see the candidate’s position in this front as religious or philosophical. Instead, I would take it as an opportunity to improve and innovate within their organizations. I suggest to embrace such experience the candidate can bring to your organization as starting point during the interview and take the conversation from there, instead of questioning her criteria and define this point as a no-go early in the interview or the overall process.

Recommendations and referrals

Open Source is about trust and networking, based on the work the potential candidate does within one or several communities. In many cases, the candidate recommendations and referrals come from peers from those communities.

If you are a hiring manager, take those recommendations as seriously as any traditional referral from a senior manager or a relevant figure in any big corporation. They are frequently equally valuable.

In Open Source, you are judged by your work and your influence, not by your position in a hierarchy of any organization.

Get help for the interview

If you have little or no experience with Open Source, bring somebody that do have it to the interview, in addition to a technical expert, specially if you are interviewing engineers. It is not relevant if such person is not an expert in the candidate’s knowledge area of expertise.

I am not a technical person and, when I join such interviews, the hiring manager often learn new things about the candidate because we both (candidate with solid Open Source background and myself) share a similar working culture. This is specially true when the candidate starts to ask questions to evaluate if the company is a good fit for her. In addition, it often plays in favor of the company to show to the candidate that there is Open Source knowledge internally and peers that feel comfortable working there.

Assume the candidate knows about your organization already

Do not underestimate how much candidates with solid Open Source background know about your company before the interview, even if your organization is not an Open Source contributor.

These kind of professionals might learn about your organization not just by interacting directly with your engineers or evaluating your products, but also by interacting with your suppliers and partners in the open, in some cases on regular basis. They might know about the hardware you use, the versions of specific software you ship, tools you use, release strategies you have, updates policies, etc. They might even point at clear deficiencies and strengths of your products and services as well.

I suggest to ask the candidates early during the interview what do they know about your organization and why do they want to join it. It is also interesting to ask about their evaluation/perception of your organization as a whole and your products/services compared to others.

It is not only about getting information from the candidate but also about informed perceptions. Such conversation might help hiring managers to tune the description about what the organization does and avoid providing superfluous information during the interview. It also helps to understand if the candidate is one of those who want to work in industry leaders or help you to become one, which is something I am always interested to learn about them.

Why do you need a CV?

Even today, I still come across former colleagues and great Open Source professionals who do not have a CV. I have helped several of them throughout the years to create one or update it.

For an Open Source professional, their work speak for themselves. It is a better presentation that any CV will ever be, in my view. It is the outdated business culture the one that should change and adapt to this “not so new” way of “filtering candidates”. It is simply better for all parties involved.

Many great Open Source professionals have a mediocre CVs or no CV at all because they never needed it. For some, this lack of CV is a way to filter organizations they do not want to work with. Their thinking goes in the line of… if you need my CV to filter me as candidate or evaluate my work, I am not interested in working with you. Check my work!

Instead of questioning the quality of their CV, take the opportunity to ask yourself why do you or your organization need a CV when the candidate’s work is publicly available. It might be a great introspective exercise. Maybe you end realizing that only a bunch of links and his contact information are really needed, instead of a formal CV.

Myth: Open Source developers are not good communicators

Open Source professionals, specially developers, are used to great levels of exposure to other professionals worldwide. In general, they need to become good communicators to succeed within their communities.

Open Source developers as people incapable to communicate is a myth. Such perception often depends on what you understand by communicating and to whom, but specially it is based on myopia often from people with a limited technical background.

It is true in my experience though that in general, many Open Source developers do not do great interviews. But that is mostly because they do very few of them. They do not go to 10 interviews with four different companies to get a job. They do not need to. And what is more important, throughout their careers, interviews are not used to evaluate them technically, again, because their work speak for themselves.

Evaluate the candidate’s written communication skills. Check the mails they send to dissent with others or describe their position, read the blog posts they write summarizing their latest work, check their presentations, their slides… Check how they interact with their users, code maintainers… You will soon realize they interact with profiles or groups of people on regular basis that many corporate engineers do not. And those interactions often face ore limitations that within any corporation, due to cultural differences.

When talking to managers unfamiliar with Open Source about this point I always ask them how many professionals they know that having done good interviews, are still incapable of standing behind their opinions in a meeting with senior colleagues or customers. Or how many people in their teams excel at describing complex ideas in simple words (in a 10 min presentation, for instance).

Public exposure to peers and users in Open Source projects are an outstanding learning environment for developing certain communication skills. Be careful with this myth.

English level

In Open Source, most of the communication among developers take place in written form. This is due to the distributed and asynchronous nature of the environment they work in (software development at scale). Most of those developers have a better level of written English than spoken.

I always recommend to be careful when evaluating the candidate English skills only through the interview. To have a full perspective of the candidate skills, I always recommend to check her written communications and articles. If they have videos of their talks available, review them. You might perceive noticeable differences between their written and spoken English levels.

When doing an interview, it is very hard to be quick and provide sharp answers without thinking when you do not speak English on daily basis. I have experienced this myself.

My point here is that you might evaluate her English skills as poor based on the interview when, in many cases, they have solid written skills, so they need little time to develop the minimum level required to work in English.

Agile fans tend to underestimate how important it is to have a good written level in English compared to the spoken/conversation level. In Open Source (develop software at scale), the trend is exactly the opposite… for good reasons.

Remote Work

Many professionals prefer to live by the beach, in a cheaper place, than to commute for an hour to go to the office in a big city. At the same time, when developing software at scale, it is unrealistic to think you will find the talent you need in a single location; even in two different locations. It should not come to a surprise that the market is moving towards developing software in distributed environments where remote workers are not the exception anymore.

The number of “remote first” and “remote friendly” companies is growing in number and size at a fast pace. Open Source is about highly distributed, asynchronous and high latency environments. Some of the larger software engineering projects has grown and mature with those characteristics by design.

The candidate has probably made a career out of mastering working on such environment.

Instead of questioning the efficiency of distributed teams during the interview (common practice among remote work detractors, like radical agilists and traditional managers), take the opportunity to learn about it.

If you think that co-located, synchronous and low latency environments are more efficient, ask about how current tasks at your company could be performed remotely, how ceremonies can be adapted, how testing can be performed remotely. Learn from the candidate about how to develop software at scale, how he has acquire such experience and levels of efficiency in such environment.

I have worked in organizations where testing was done remotely, in a heavily distributed environment, for instance. Technology and creativity have made Open Source projects the best environment for developing software at scale. Even if your organization is small, the candidate skills might become an asset.

The network effect

Working in the open provides any professional the possibility of building a large network. That interview might well be the first and only direct interaction that such professionals might have with your company. If the experience is not satisfactory, her network will know.

Would you recommend a person you trust or respect to apply to a company that did not provide you a good experience during the hiring process? And I am not talking about hiring them. I have had good experiences with companies that chose a different candidate during the process. We are grownups. We can take rejection.

By ignoring the point on this article (or others i skipped), you are not just simply making harder for your organization to hire Open Source talent. You are shouting with a speaker your deficiencies.

It is not a coincidence that some corporation with pedigree have such a hard time hiring good Open Source professionals while some others less popular are so successful. It is partly because of the networking effect.

Do it right a couple of times and more talent will come. On the contrary, fail badly and you will pay the prize for some time.

How to move the candidate out of her comfort zone

Part of any interview’s goal is to get from the candidate things she did not plan to show or surface.

People used to work in the open, with high levels of exposure, develop a great sense of correctness and politeness when expressing opinions. That does not mean they are not passionate about what they do or that they do not have “radikal opinions”. They are and you want to know them.

Ask the candidate for her opinions about tools, technologies, projects from your competitors or technologies that the community project they participate on are struggling with. I believe these kind of questions are a fair way to move the candidate out of her comfort zone and get their “essence”.

But when you do, be aware about the trends and debates the candidate and/or the community she participates on have had about such topics. Be careful with making statements that are a no-go for the candidate simply because you did not prepare the interview well enough.

Avoid the typical myths around Open Source, the stupid arguments about battles between communities, superfluous statements about Open Source business models and their feasibility, etc. Instead, ask about, for instance, how do they see their community project in five years, what are the challenges they are facing, what are the deficiencies they need to overcome, etc. Do your homework about Open Source and the specific community the developer is involved in before the interview. Nobody wants to work for a person that seems a fool or lazy.

Again, if you do not know about these topics or had no preparation time, bring somebody with knowledge to the interview or state your ignorance up front.

Summary

Radical exposure to peers and users, development of public code, knowledge share with professionals from different industries and global organizations, etc. are characteristics about the candidate that cannot and shouldn’t be ignored during the hiring process, specially during the interview.

Instead of applying the same template that has worked fine in the past for your organization, hiring managers will need to evolve it or even change it in order to attract people with solid Open Source background. This is yet another of those transformations and culture changes that any organization will need to go through to fully embrace Open Source.

To me is very simple, if you want to become a Good Open Source Citizen, you will need to hire people with a strong Open Source background if you intend to speed up the journey. Either you adapt your hiring processes, including the interviews, or you will most likely fail in such goal.

To adapt, hiring managers and experts need to develop new habits. That can only come if they question the current ones. This evolution will take place faster and with a smaller impact for their organizations if they get help.

I think this topic has gotten less attention that it deserves.

Software events in Málaga

In May, there has been two interesting conferences in Málaga that  I have attended to:

J On The Beach

Since I moved back to Málaga, I have been trying to attend to this conference and for one reason or another, I couldn’t, until this 2018 edition. J On The Beach is the most international software event that takes place in the south of Spain on regular basis and this year it was no exception. It is a very well organised event, with good speakers, up to date topics and participants from many different countries. The conference is in English.

My expectations were high and the event met them. I had the chance to listen for the very first time to M. Hashimoto, that provided the audience an overview of Terraform. It is always a pleasure to listen to those who create the code you use. In that regard, he is becoming very popular for tools like Vagrant or Terraform itself. I enjoyed the talk very much as I did with the talks from  H. Karau and J. Amstrong. By the way, M. Hashimoto will be speaking at OSSJ 2018 in a few days so I will have the chance to see him again, but this time in Tokyo.

J On The Beach is a 3 days long event where the first one is focused in workshops and training sessions while the other two are mostly talks. After the closure a party is organised with good music and plenty of drinks.

I recommend to my readers to pay attention to next year edition. Add this event to your list. Tickets are sold fast so subscribe and pay attention to the newsletter to find out when can you get one.

OpenSouthCode

OpenSouthCode is a general purpose FOSS event, very popular among students and local hackers. Last year I talked about the FOSS automotive platforms developed by AGL and GENIVI. This year I provided an overview of CIP, the work that we are currently doing and near future plans. Check the slides for more information.

OpenSouthCode in a two days event. The first one, on a Friday, is all about workshops, meetup and training activities while the second one, on a Saturday, is reserved for talks in Spanish.

If you live in the South of Spain or happen to be around when this event takes place, I totally recommend it.

Coming Events to Málaga

There are two additional software events in Málaga to pay attention to:

Gamepolis

There are more and more international software companies coming to Málaga and several of them are gaming companies,. There are also a few Spanish ones. If you are into games development or you are a avid gamer, this will be a great event for you.

PyConES 2018

Codethink sponsored PyConES 2017 and several of my colleagues attended together with me. One of them, Pedro Álvarez was part of the organization. It took place in Cáceres, Extremadura. This edition will take place in Málaga. I plan to attend again. This is a 400 people event packed of Python developers.

Further notes

I would like to see more international FOSS events coming to Málaga. It is a great place to organise a conference: it has a big airport with connections to all major hubs in Europe, direct flights to many European cities, fast train to both, Madrid and Barcelona, many accommodations from a wide range of prices and quality, a big congress palace and hotels to host events, good weather most of the year, the beach, Granada, Ronda, Antequera or Sevilla are close enough… and an increasing number of software companies opening offices in the area. It is nice to not having to travel to attend to a good conference once in a while.

Embrace Open Source culture: the 5 common transformations.

Article originally published at Linkedin on May 15th 2016.

This is a story of what I have lived or witnessed a few times so far. A story of an organization that used to consume, develop and ship proprietary software for many years. At some point in time, management took the decision of using Open Source. Like in most cases, the decision was forced by its customers, providers, competitors… and by numbers.

A painful but unavoidable transformation was required.

1.- Open Source consumer

Engineers had to learn a new system, adapt or re-write those features that used to made the organization unique, together with many other painful actions. It was expensive at the beginning but, due to the cost reduction in licenses and the change that Linux represented in the relation with providers, in a few years it was clearly worth it. And if it wasn’t, it didn’t matter since it was what the market demanded. There was no way back

Every software organization has gone through their unique journey, but the final sentence of the story has been the same for all of them: they became Open Source consumers.

2.- Open Source producer

This organization gained control over its production and, by consuming Open Source, it could focus many resources in differentiation, without changing the structure, development and delivery processes. At some point, it was shipping products that involved a significant percentage of generic software taken “from internet”.

It became an Open Source producer.

You can recognise such organizations because they frequently create a specific group, usually linked to R&D, in change of bringing all the innovation that is happening “in the Open Source community” into the organization.

Little by little this organisation realised that giving fast and satisfactory answers to their customer demands became more and more expensive. They got stuck in what rapidly became an old kernel or tool chain version…. Bringing innovation from “the community” required back-porting, solving complex integration issues, incompatibilities with what your provider brings, what your customer wants.

So they have to upgrade.

This organization will be able now to take advantage of all the common features and compatibility that the new kernel, the new tool chain… brings. But, guess what, forward porting all the differentiation features this organization has developed, all the bug fixes, is so much work and so complicated that the challenge put the organization at risk.

3.- Open Source contributors

The organization feels now the downsides of becoming a blind Open Source consumer and producer. Execs feels like when a bubble explodes and they are inside of it. They has less control than they thought, which turns out to be expensive, and what is worse, they lack the expertise within the organization to gain it….

But, after struggling for some time, this organization survived, which means that it has learned some lessons:

  • Upstream those features that are not differentiation factors any more.
  • Increase the investment in that reduced groups of rock-stars that are up to date of what’s going on “in the different communities”.
  • Invest in those Open Source projects that develop the key software you consume.
  • Even better, start your own Open Source project to promote your technologies and be perceived as a leader…
  • Reduce the upgrade cycle, so the “upgrade pain” is lower. As a side effect, the organization has the opportunity to increase the cash flow when doing two smaller upgrades instead of a big one. At the very end, the real profit comes with the first update, not with the new version, right?

This organization ended up upstreaming features when they could, normally very late, because “they do not have time”, frequently assigning that task to young inexperienced developers or, even “better”, subcontracting it, which is “cheaper”.

You can recognise that this organization has gone through the described process when attending to conferences given by any of its executives. They cannot stop talking about how much they contribute to this and that community, about how awesome the community is, how important it is to be open and share…. they are referring all the time to communities/upstream as “us” and “them”. They think they got it, they really do.

Most of them believe they are in the crest of the wave after going through this third transformation process. They are innovative, they has been able to reduce their time to market, they are gaining reputation within a variety of communities… They are not just Open Source consumers and producers any more. They are also contributors. Some of them even heavy and “successful” contributors.

But if you look closer, they have not adopted “the Open Source way”.

This organization keeps their traditional processes intact. It is managed in the same way. Decision processes are taken like when it was a proprietary company, it has not improved transparency significantly, it does not share code and practices among departments…. there is a totally different reality in front and behind its firewall, between production and R&D, between management, engineering, customer support, etc..

This organization face friction because of this reality. It still cannot move fast enough. Upgrading is still too expensive since now they have to do it more often than years ago, upstreaming goes so slow, when it happens. They cannot control the communities they are investing on…

So going through a forth transformation becomes unavoidable. Some refer to this transformation as “upstream first”.

4.- Upstream first or becoming a good Open Source citizen

This fourth transformation basically means that upstreaming is part of your development process, not an aside task. It also means that communities are part of your delivery strategy, not an after market topic, that R&D is a two way road where you do not just consume innovation created by others but you share yours, not just “promote it”. You really need to get involved.

This organization will learn that by becoming more open, their engineers learn more and faster, so the organization itself. It is at this stage where the organization really understand where the real value is in the software they produce compared to what is commodity…or that is what its executives and managers most likely believe, once again. 🙂

But open source (no capital letters any more) is not about being open, but about being transparent, which means that is not just about seeing what is behind the glass, but also understand it.

I believe the fictional organization I am talking about will have to take one more step, the fifth one. It will be about “becoming upstream”.

5.- Becoming upstream or being an open source organization

This is about understanding that, if you consume, produce and contribute Open Source, the smart thing to do is becoming an open source company. I think it is naive to pretend taking full advantage of  Open Source while keeping your traditional corporate culture, which collides with the one of those who produces most of the software you consume and ship, who are your “upstream”. You are building your business on top of them. Since you cannot control them, become “them”.

The smart thing to do is to surf the wave, not fight against it, generating friction. Any manager knows that friction is expensive, reduces focus and drives away talent.  It is bad for the business.

The required culture change to succeed in this fifth transformation involves thinking less about us (company and customers) and them (community), and more about us (ecosystem). It can’t be any more about upstream and downstream but about technology and service. It has to be less about upgrading and more about updating, less about “manage” and more about “lead” at every level of the organization, not just referred to execs and managers.

It is a transformation in which engineers are empowered, where management is more focused on collecting information for execs instead of producing it, and after decisions are taken, their key focus is alignment. A transformation in which execs get closer to where the real value is, to people, because they are the “masters”. A transformation in which engineers not just follow, they get exposed, they take responsibility and assume the consequences… getting paid for it.

An environment in which accessing to key information does not depend on your position within the organization chart, which means that power does not depend so much  on what others ignore, but decisions are taken based on shared knowledge. A culture in which transparency is the norm not the exception.

In summary, a transformation that leads to a stage in which the organization steers its ecosystem instead of driving it. So it leads it in a sustainable way.

A quimera?

I understand it might sound like a quimera, but:
  1. No more than it would have sounded 15 years ago any of the stories that so many CEOs or Open Source Program managers from leading corporations are telling nowadays in popular FOSS events about “their transformation”.
  2. I do not think the debate is if this fifth transformation will be needed, but about when and how to go through it.
  3. My +10 years of experience in Open Source and +17 as manager tells me that, waiting to face any of the first four transformation processes until you have no choice is an unnecessary risk. I suspect the same will apply to the fifth one.
So my message is,
  1. Consume, produce and contribute to open source being a good citizen.
  2. Embrace Open Source culture… better sooner than later.

 

Virtue of Necessity. Canary, sublime your company.

The past July 16th I participated in the Tenerife LAN Party, in its section Tenerife Innova, invited by the Free Software Office of La Laguna University, included in the track titled (free translation from Spanish) Open Source from the Canary Islands, stories told in First Person.

This Free Software Office is well known in Spain for managing the biggest KDE deployment in Spain with 3k computers spread in several computer labs, laboratories and libraries, among other internal projects.

My talk (20 min) had as title something like: Virtue of Necessity. Canary, sublime your company. You can find the slides (in Spanish) in my site or in my Slideshare account.

What was the talk about?

The natural growth path for a software company is creating a site, grow until it reaches a point in which, a second production site is needed. Meanwhile, departments like sales and technical support might grow distributed. As the company grows, the number of production sites grow  with it. The organization structure vary with the nature of the company, sometime production teams are replicated across different sites, sometimes different business units are divided per site and others a particular site host teams that take care of different products-(micro)services.

In general, if the company follows an “agile” approach, it will try to reduce the inter-sites communication needs by placing the team members together in a particular site. Based on my experience and how FOSS has been developed, depending on the market you are playing, turning your company into a distributed environment might be a smart move. 

Let’s start providing some context and definitions.

What do I mean by sublimation in this context?

Sublimation is a state change in which a substance transit from the solid state to the gas state without going through the liquid one.

What do I mean by a distributed environment?

In most agile literature, in fact in most software development management books, distributed environments are multi-site distribution. But in Open Source, we refer to a different environment. I have came out with the following (subjective) definition:

A distributed environment/organization:

  • Has no site with a significant number of employees (developers). Most of them work remotely.
  • Access most (if not all) corporate application though web, not through VPN, that is, are WAN environments, not LAN.
  • Uses chat-IRC (or equivalent) and video conferences as the default synchronous communication channel.
  • Employees spread across several time zones.
  • Multicultural environment, having English as the default language.
  • Organize regular face to face sprints (as we understand it in FOSS=hackathons), maybe even a corporate event where the whole company or business unit get together.
Open Source as distributed environment

Free/Open Source Software has a geographically distributed nature. As you know, most of the relevant communities, no matter which size are we talking about, are formed by developers located in many different countries, working from home or a company site. If we take a look at the most relevant ones, they are truly global. Every tool, every process, has been designed (intentionally or not) having in mind this distributed nature.

Now that Open Source is everywhere, more and more companies are embracing it, participating on its development, collaborating in global communities. from the process perspective, they are being influenced by the Open Source way, including its distributed nature.

Many of the companies that are embracing Open Source are understanding that adapting to this new environment makes collaboration easier. It reduces the friction between community and internal processes. There is a long way to go but I believe it is unstoppable for a variety of reasons (out of the scope of the talk). We are starting to see more and more organization that are fully distributed and start-ups that are born with such structure in mind.

Canary Islands, a fragmented market.

The Canary Islands is a group of 7 islands in the Atlantic sea, with two major ones (900k people each) and 5 smaller, for a total of 2.1 million people and 11 million tourists per year. Obviously tourism is the main industry, so there are 6 international airports, two national ones and 10 harbours, half of which regularly receive big ships/cruises.

Data connectivity has improved a lot the last 10 years but, due to the difficult geography, it is unequally distributed across the islands. Even within the main islands, Tenerife and Gran Canaria, there is a significant percentage of surface with zero internet coverage.

So it is a very fragmented market and, although with first class communication infrastructure, travel across the islands takes a significant amount of time, it is expensive and connectivity might be a challenge. In general, the transportation strategy has been designed to bring people from Europe not for internal mobility.

This means that, as a software company, consolidation/growth in such market is tough, very tough, even if you focus on tourism.

Software companies there expand following the “natural” approach, which is by creating a software production centre in one of the main islands, providing support from there to the other islands. Until you consolidate your position, software companies cannot afford to have developers/technical support in the second main island. If service/support is required in one of the small islands, you simply travel there. The limitations that software companies has to face due to the market conditions, rarely allow you to create a second software development centre in the Canary Islands.

There are very few Spanish cities with daily direct planes from/to Canary Islands throughout the year. Madrid and Barcelona are the biggest markets but also the most expensive cities. The flight takes 2:30 hours to Madrid and 3 hours to Barcelona, which is a lot for European standards. So opening a second development centre in the mainland keeping the headquarters in the Canary Islands is a real challenge.

In other words, if you want to scale your business, you need to assume bigger risks than companies based in the continent, despite being a cheaper place and having plenty of professional due to the existence of two Universities.

… but,

In my talk I tried to show that all those limitations can be turned into advantages if organizations, early in their consolidation process, or even from the very beginning, adopt a distributed approach. These constrains offer a first class laboratory to experiment with some of the key variables that need to be managed when scaling up your company, while leaving aside some of the most complicated ones, related to great extend with the internationalization of the organization.

I made a call to sublimate your company, going from an “on-site” to a fully distributed state, ignoring the multi-site state. Even better, create your software company as a distributed environment since the very beginning.

Why sublimating your company in the Canary Islands?

I summarized the advantages of sublimating your company if you are based in the Canary Islands, Spain, in the following statements:

  • Distributed environments adapt better to the Canary Islands environment.
  • It will prepare you earlier for the internationalization phase, keeping a smaller size.
  • Distributed environments adapt well to certain business models and support needs, that are becoming popular nowadays.
  • If your company want or is already heavily involved in Open Source communities, adapting your internal processes to those collaborative environment you participate on is easier.
  • Talent attraction is less difficult.
  • Some of your fixed costs turn into production costs, that is, you gain flexibility.
Which variables will be affected by subliming your company?
These are the most relevant variables to consider:
  • Cost per employee: reduction of fixed costs per employee. Increase of travel costs.
  • Organization chart: from vertical to horizontal
  • Human Resources policies: training, coaching, people management. From f2f to online.
  • Data privacy and security: adapt to a WAN environment.
  • Tools: adapted to distributed with higher latency environments
  • Schedule / availability: culture shift, from presence to availability
  • Development and support methodologies: from f2f conversations to remote synchronous/asynchronous channels. From agile to FOSS? Is FOSS agile?. From 8-10 hours or rotation to a higher daily production/availability window.
  • Costumers relation/engagement: from tradition account management to “community” engagement management. Engineers interface customers.
  • Transportation and connectivity: employees need to be connected and travelling demands will increase. Accountability/reimbursement processes will be more complex.
  • Business model: your business model might need to adapt to your new distributed nature.
  • Potential market: the presence of employees in new areas and the fact that your processes are adapted to distributed environments might change your target market and/or nature/size of potential customers.
  • Competitors: the influence of your new distributed nature might alter your positioning against competitors.
There are more but these ones are the ones that should be considered carefully before subliming your company in the Canary Islands. As you grow, internationalization will knock at your door very soon. There are other variables to consider in that case. They are not the scope of this talk:
  • Time zones
  • Multiculturalism
  • Language barrier
  • Retributions and incentives. Cost of living.
  • Fiscal and employment legislation differences
  • Travel and accommodation costs and reimbursements
  • Accountability and taxes
  • Many more…
Summary

The Canary Islands is a tougher market than the mainland of Spain. Adopting early in the software company life cycle a distributed nature allow you to adapt better and faster to this environment, preparing you better for later stages too, specially the internationalization phase. Sublimation provides you a competitive advantage, specially if you develop Open Source and participate in open collaborative environments.

There are a number of variables that should be carefully considered though. Managing them correctly is a requirement to succeed.

Apply agile methodologies to upstream development environments…. if you can.

 Introduction

When the Agile Manifesto became popular and based on them, agile methodologies like Scrum, XP or Kanban, upstream development was in its early stages as collaboration ecosystems of companies.
Only a few for profit organizations embraced developing upstream back then. Most of them were small and heavily influenced by FLOSS engineers vision. Free software communities were basically driven on personal basis or the very lucky ones, together with “sponsored developers”. In general, these ecosystem were not part of companies strategies.
Today, more and more companies are getting fully involved in community projects as stakeholders, not just consumers or simple contributors.
They frequently start as consumers, then, little by little they become “upstreamers”, that is, they share/publish their code with the goal to have it merged (upstream code). Not without effort, many of them become successful contributors.  After some time, some of them end up understanding that is “cheaper” to play by the project rules. In summary, they learn to become good citizens.
A subgroup of the above companies end up including these collaboration ecosystems as part of their own strategies, going from contributors to  key stakeholders. A necessary step to achieve this goal is to work upstream.
Walking this path present many challenges. One of the toughest ones is related with the differences in development methodologies used internally (mostly agile) and those used in the collaboration ecosystems.
There are two fundamental variables that, in my opinion, determine this challenge:
  1. Environment
  2. Culture

Challenges

1.- Environment

There are two dependent variables that were not taken into account (or just partially) when the agile methodologies were defined, that are relevant in upstream development:
  1. Community projects are global environments, that is, contributors are located in different “offices”, frequently in different time zones.
  2. Probably due to the original amateur condition of early contributors, together with the “distributed condition”, the development processes (so the tools) in most mature community projects, consider, manage and tolerate high levels  of latency.  “Real time” is restricted to IRC discussions and events/conferences.
These two factors has made open source what it is today. They have been “success factors”.
Agile methodologies do not embrace “distribution” environments. The widely accepted recommendation is that teams should share a physical space. It is way more than a recommendation. It is somehow a requirement.
The second case, “latency”, is considered by agile methodologies as a waste. It is not tolerated.

2.- Culture

Free Software was born as a reaction to a system that promoted corporation interests over developers, so users. The agile movement was a reaction to those methodologies that put process first, not people. Hence, it is obvious that both movements share a lot: people first
This is reflected by some when saying that FLOSS development is agile.
In my opinion, there is a big difference between what agile methodologies and what Open Source development propose in terms of principles.
Agile methodologies promotes a strong team culture. Open Source was born “based on champions”. FLOSS culture normally applies the meritocracy concept to individuals.  Open Source projects are organized around contributors, around specialists, not around teams, as we understand them in corporate environments.
This is no surprise since Agile was born in companies/corporations and Open Source was born as a viral movement, grown “by aggregation“.

The conflict

In my opinion, the more the industry embrace open source, and as result, open collaboration, the higher the conflict developers and managers will face due to the above challenges.  Companies are becoming more distributed environments and are working more and more upstream, instead of simply being consumers or occasional contributors.
In consequence, it would not surprise me if we hear more and more about  “corporate development methodologies” (a.k.a. agile) vs. “upstream development methodologies” (a.k.a. FLOSS).
Scrum, XP, Kanban -ish fans will need to face those challenges and find solutions in order to succeed in open collaboration environments. In the same way, based on the increasing influence that companies are gaining in these ecosystems, FLOSS methodologies in a few years will differ from what we knew 10 years ago.

This conflict will not be (is) about a R&D vs a product/service vision, it is not about creativity vs efficiency, it is not about micromanagement vs autonomy or teams of juniors vs specialists either. It is about methodologies applied to specific environments and its limitations. Maybe a simple update of the most successful agile methodologies will do the job…. or maybe we need to revisit some of the principles.

If you got here, maybe you want to take an extra step and answer these questions. I would appreciate it:

  1. Do you perceive this conflict as I do?
  2. Am I missing other key elements in the diagnosis?
  3. How do you think we can adapt agile methodologies so they can be adapted to FLOSS environments?
  4. I am interested in knowing how you adapt agile methodologies to overcome the above challenges. I plan to write about my experience these coming days.