by Bernard Golden

I’m From IT and I’m Here to Help

Jul 24, 20063 mins

An actual conversation I had at a recent reception at a technology conference (edited slightly for length):

[Me]: Hi, my name is Bernard Golden. What do you do?

[Other person]: I work at (large state agency X). What do you do?

[Me]: I do open source consulting

[Other person (dismissively)]: That would never work for us. We’re doing a mainframe to Microsoft conversion.

[Me]: Oh, well (large state agency Y [NOTE: same large state]) is doing a lot of work with open source.

[Other person (condescendingly)]: They don’t count. They’re tiny. We’re the fifth largest state agency.

[Me (recognizing how this conversation is going to go)]: I think I need to freshen my drink.

The printed word does a poor job of conveying how hostile this person’s tone of voice was. It was one of the most unpleasant conversations I’ve had in a long time.

Three observations:

  1. Where do people learn their manners? I was taught that, when thrown together with a person in a casual social setting, you at least feign interest in their activities. Besides, who knows, you might learn something.
  2. Gee, where does IT get a reputation for being hidebound, unresponsive, and a roadblock to progress?
  3. Open source will have to be jammed down this person’s throat. Its passage will be made easier by the previous forced insertion of PCs, client/server, and the Internet.

It’s easy to laugh off this kind of hostility toward open source, but if you’re an IT organization, it’s no laughing matter. The PC revolution happened despite active resistance by many IT groups, groups that were bypassed by line users who were able to sneak a low budget item into operating budgets. As a result, IT organizations played catchup for years, trying to get a handle on the uncoordinated diffusion of these machines.

Open source, if uncountenanced by IT, poses the same type of threat. Since there is typically no purchase of a software license, the download of open source can bypass the institutional rules designed to ensure that any software coming into the company adheres to set standards or is chosen from an approved list. End users can hire an outside service firm to implement an open source-based system and, voila, you’ve got a new product running in your infrastructure.

In one respect, open source is even worse than the PC experience: PCs were pretty much standalone boxes, but software tends to ooze everywhere, as the desire to share data between systems causes integration requests to other systems to start happening. 

This is not to say that open source shouldn’t be used — far from it. It’s critical to the future success of IT organizations. But making a peremptory rejection of open source is a ticket to a boatload of headaches. Don’t make the mistake of believing that if you just wish hard enough, open source will go away.