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Corporate Legacy and Open Source

I wrote about legacy and developers earlier today. I accidentally ended up having this pairing of words on there: Corporate Legacy

That's a pair that devs loathe by nature, but it made me think. Where was I coming from and what kind of legacy have I left? In this short time scale technology evolves, but humans don't. Certain patterns repeat.

I started by career at Icon Medialab, the worlds largest Internet consultancy at the time. This agency together with, Framfab and Razorfish (and even Satama, from Finland) were on the top - creating web sites, ecommerce sites and web applications for the most prestigeous brands in the world in tens of offices around the globe. Icon even paid the down payment for a plot for the Icon Medialab Tower in central London.

Looking back at that time, it's maybe clear that the new economy did not completely change the rules and realities kicked in. But the notable thing about the companies mentioned in the above paragraphs is that none of them exist any more in the form they used to. Icon merged, Framfab was merged too, Razorfish was bounced around (it was even a part of Microsoft at a point). People felt pity to the poor souls left there.

A digital empire is gone in in sixty seconds

In less than fifteen years these companies have gone from being top-notch to being totally forgotten by most. Digital business leaves very little trace - you are only as valid as your current references. During this the companies considered "boring" such as Accenture, Dentsu and Publicis are still rolling along fine. While they were not exact comparables, they were still similar.

Comparing the demise of Icon, Framfab and Razorfish to companies such as Enron or KPNQWest is interesting. While these companies went down in a big bang, they left a far more lasting legacy. Enron operated 38 power plants which continue to run regardless of the owner. In it's four year history KPNQwest built a 13,000 kilometer backbone network. Parts of Ebone are apparently still running and carrying traffic.

Information technology renders itself useless every five years or so, so don't bet on it if you're not willing to live with the times. Business practises and consulting are just as volatile, while certain themes prevail - such as making large companies work like small ones. Currently this task of turning sand to gold is tasked to Agile Alchemists.

Accept that the only lasting legacy in some businesses are connections to people. It's always been the case in advertising and other people businesses. The pace of degredation of accumulated prestige has increased compared to the fifties.

Open Source as Corporate Legacy

The most common model for having a company that backs Open Source technologies is:

  1. You create software
  2. Software gains popularity
  3. You see a business opportunity
  4. You create a company

There are countless examples of this, such as Acquia, Lakion and Varnish. This makes these companies a built-in way of being responsible open source citizens. There is limited room in this space, so most companies operate as integrators - using Open Source software to offer services to their customers.

Best of the integrator companies are also responsible and contribute back to the products they are using, but most are simply along for the free ride. The tendency of a certain piece of software to get more and more complex over time can lead to sustainability problems, leading to the so called tragedy of the commons, Drupal and WordPress are a few examples facing this challenge.

In the last five years or so there has been a significant rise in new kind contributions to web technologies. Microsoft, Oracle, Google, IBM and other corporations have done this for ages for the Linux Kernel and other business critical software components. The web has become important and large enough to warrant similar corporate sponsorship.

Many companies create tools for themselves internally and then release them as Open Source. Best examples of this are various pieces of the Facebook technology stack and the Twitter's Bootstrap UI framework. Bootstrap is now powering vast portions of the web and have proved to be resposible about it.

But we're not in the business of...

Some smaller startups like the Finnish Disqus alternative Muut are also open sourcing their products: Riot.js a lightweight React alternative. Some might say that giving out one of your key technologies is losing your competitive advantage. This may be, but then again - there are similar tools on the market. And this way there will be something in the public domain if the company goes belly up.

Open Sourcing internal tools does have returns in increased use and contributions, but it also gives the company good will and positive karma in the developer communities. Facebook is also very good at eating their own dogfood, shipping battle tested software on public beta launches. If Muut, Facebook and Twitter will go out of business they will have left a legacy on the web that will be traceable.

Having an empty company GitHub account is not much of a legacy, so try to push forward policies that will make code contributions natural. It will also make work more meaningful. Write public blog posts about small things, answer Stack Overflow on work time - maybe with a shared account, to collect karma, etc.

A lot of this you do anyway, so it's really not even a matter of cost. Try living by the Rihards Rule™ as a company as well as an individual:

Work hard. Don't be an asshole. Share what you know.

At the end of the day I've left no tangible legacy to date. But I like to think I have left somekind of print to people's working lives.

Written by Jani Tarvainen on Sunday September 6, 2015
Permalink - Tags: business, opensource, legacy

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