The Enterprise Committer: When Your Employee Develops Open-Source Code on the Company Payroll

One of your developers wants to extend an open-source application to solve a company problem, then contribute the code back to the community. That’s fine. But making that process work in enterprise terms involves more than getting the legal department to recover from its fainting fit.

By Esther Schindler
Wed, January 31, 2007

CIO — One of your best developers comes to you with a unique proposal. Instead of writing software from scratch, or begging for the budget to purchase an off-the-shelf solution that would need customization anyway—well, there’s an open-source application called Foobar that does nearly everything on the wish list. The developer suggests that she could extend Foobar’s feature set, and then contribute the enhancements back to the open-source community. This way, when the next Foobar version is released, it won’t need the custom changes made all over again. And the only cost is her salary.

You’re sold. It’s a good idea, technically and financially. But it’s your job to integrate this in-house open-source development project into an enterprise setting. Some challenges are obvious, such as the intellectual property concerns your legal department will raise. That’s a topic of an upcoming article.

But there are other things you should know before you blurt out, "Sure, go ahead and spend 20 hours a week working on Foobar!" In this article, several managers and developers who have learned these lessons—the hard way—share their experience.

This is not a theoretical exercise. According to Evans Data, nearly two-thirds of developers in North America use open-source modules in the applications they write. And sometimes, their involvement goes far beyond contributing bug fixes back to the community.

Small contributions may involve a single employee who, on his own initiative, changes an open-source tool to increase productivity for himself and his team. Or your firm may contemplate a corporate strategy built around moving major chunks of functionality into open source.

The Temporary Fix

Sander Marechal works for a large multinational corporation in a regional IT support position. After his company acquired a competitor, IT was a mess—just as you’d expect in a merger of two big companies with different architectures. According to Marechal, the merged IT departments didn’t have a central IT call registration system. While upper management was busy deciding on a vendor, the IT people were stuck with Excel spreadsheets. Says Marechal, "My boss knows I am pretty good at developing Web applications. I do the same thing in my free time. He asked me to design and develop a system that would bridge the 1.5-year gap until a commercial system was implemented. To do so, I brought in my homegrown basecode which was derived from phpBB 3.0 Alpha and thus under a GPL license. No problem, since the system would only be used in-house."

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