Free Software and Open Source Symposium Research Paper
Author: Stanley Tsang
FSOSS 2011 was the first time I had gone to any sort of software symposium or conference of any kind (well, that’s not entirely true; I had just gone to AndroidTO a day earlier, and that was my first software conference, but I was still very new to the whole thing!) In any case, I had no idea whatsoever what to expect from an event like this; I did not know whether the workshops and seminars would be interesting and relevant to me, a student still taking his first of many steps into the world of software development. Even if the topics were applicable to me, I remember asking myself, “What could I possibly learn from going to FSOSS?” Well, after attending workshops on Thursday and going to presentations on Friday, I can safely say that I wish I had the time to go to more presentations on Saturday! The learning experience, in my opinion, was far above and beyond what I was expecting.
In terms of presentations, I was able to attend four interesting presentations on Friday – the first was on Building a Commercial Game Using Processing.js for Cross-Platform Delivery; the second was titled “Site Building Extravaganza (using Drupal)”; the third was on Free and Open Source Strategy as Practice; the final presentation was on XB Pointstream and Rendering Point Clouds Using WebGL. While each presentation was an excellent experience, I found two of them to be particularly illuminating on the topic of open source in general: the presentation on Free and Open Source Strategy as Practice by Mekki MacAulay, and Site Building Extravaganza by Emma Jane Hogbin. I would like to take the opportunity to elaborate on my experiences with the two.
Free and Open Source Strategy as Practice: Participant Perspectives
To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this presentation. The subject matter I gathered from the description on the FSOSS website seemed highly relevant, but bordering on generic. To be even more brutally honest, the plan was to attend this presentation to pass the time until the next presentation I really wanted to go to, which was the one on XB Pointstream, which coincidentally was in the same room. What I ended up getting out of this presentation, however, was by far the most illuminating and fascinating open-ended discussion on open source communities and strategies out of everything I had attended!
The main focus of this presentation was a study performed by the presenter, Mekki MacAulay, a PhD candidate at the Schulich School of Business at York University, on the role of recursive and adaptive practices in enabling and disabling participation in open source communities. MacAulay had gathered data by interviewing open source participants of all kinds (experienced and inexperienced, core member vs. fringe contributor, etc.) on the topic of open source practices – with this data, he was able to paint a first picture on which practices seemed to enable and encourage contributions and which ones did not.
MacAulay concluded recursive practices were generally seen as disabling to contributors that were either new or otherwise on the outside of the core group – especially in open source projects that were still relatively new – as they found certain recursive practices existed only because “it’s the way it’s always been done, and that’s how we’ll continue to do it.” This attitude acted as an artificial and unnecessary barrier of entry to newcomers. On the flip side, however, contributors in the core group found that recursive practices were more enabling, for the exact same reason, at all stages of software development. Similarly for adaptive practices, the contributors on the outside found them more enabling to contributions (“we have new ideas on how things could be done, why don’t we try them here?”), especially at the onset of a project, while the more experienced core developers found adaptive practices to be disabling as it required constant and seemingly unnecessary change in tried-and-true practices.
While his findings were highly interesting and sparked many contributions of opinions from the audience which was comprised of both young and old open source community members, MacAulay acknowledged that this study was only the first step of many, and was unable to control for possible confounding factors such as the scale and complexity of the project, the prior project experience of both core and fringe contributors, amongst other variables that might not have been even identified yet. The sample size of his study was also adequate at best. He was not discouraged in any way however, and pledged to conduct even more studies into the subject, so that one day we can discover how to really enable open source communities to succeed.
Site Building Extravaganza
My principal motivation for attending this presentation was to capture a glimpse into the business of actually making real money from an open source product, in order to prove or disprove my gut feeling that trying to make money in the open source community was inherently more challenging than in other industries/markets. In this case, the open source product under scrutiny was Drupal, an open source Content Management System alternative to other CMS software like WordPress. The presenter was Emma Jane Hogbin, a self-described “web celebrity in the Drupal community” who used her master expertise in Drupal to earn a living.
Hogbin had initially started out as a freelance Drupal developer for various clients and developed some sort of renown in the Drupal community, and made decent but not outstanding earnings from it. Using her fame, she decided to move into teaching others on how to use Drupal to make money for themselves. Her first step was releasing textbooks on the subject matter, and promoting her textbooks at web blogging conferences. Despite her best efforts, and due to greedy publishers taking the lion’s share of sales profits leaving Hogbin with a paltry $2 per textbook sale, she quickly found that selling textbooks and workbooks was an insufficient means of making any significant amounts of money, and was simply not worth the time investment. Her next move then was to try an online training program for Drupal – she gave it the name “Site Building Extravaganza”. This online training program included step-by-step instructions on how to build 12 unique Drupal sites, one month at a time; additionally, included was unlimited free program-related Drupal support through IRC and email. In the first wave, at $500 per person, she was able to attract slightly over 100 students, earning her $50,000 in one instant. While this meant she was committed to the training program for the entire year, (not to mention that between writing 12 unique Drupal products and writing monthly tutorials/workbooks that often spanned 100 pages or more), these earnings had exceeded anything she had earned prior to that point. Shortly after the program launch, she also made the workbooks she wrote for the training program available separately to the general public for $40 each, licensed under the Creative Commons license.
Hogbin also made a point of stating why she thought her online training program was so much more financially successful than her textbook venture – with the textbooks, she was merely selling her expertise; with the training program, however, she was selling two things much more valuable than mere expertise: 12 fully developed Drupal websites available for any use with no restrictions, and most importantly, the opportunity to join a like-minded community of fellow Drupal developers! Students enrolled in the course wanted to be able to interact with other Drupal community members like themselves, and be able to learn with each other. Unfortunately, she found out that her group of students was broken down into two distinct categories: those who already had significant experience with Drupal, and those who had little to no prior experience with Drupal. Not only did she have to re-tailor her curriculum to match the needs of these two vastly different groups, but she also had to restructure the community forums she had set up for her students to separate the two groups; the less experienced group was actually becoming intimidated by the knowledge of the veteran group, which was a disabling factor in their education and involvement.
In the end, I found Hogbin’s presentation interesting because she dove so deeply into business aspect of an open source community. She provided real, exact financial figures of what she made doing what, giving me a good starting idea of what kind of products fetch $X amount of earnings at certain price points, and how to attract potential customers in an open source environment.
Analysis on Each Speaker’s View on Open Source
What I find particularly interesting when comparing these two speakers on their opinion of open source is what I believe to be their principal motivations for being involved with open source communities: Mekki MacAulay was much more interested in the study and betterment of the open source community, while Emma Hodkin was far more interested in making a profit off the open source community, with a side focus on community development. While in some ways I found Emma’s perspective on open source topics to be somewhat less humble than Mekki’s, both were equally valid.
Mekki saw open source as a highly fascinating and potentially limitless concept, but also understood the potentially fickle nature of what was the driving force behind the open source movement: the community itself. He knew that there existed many open source projects that were never completed and subsequently abandoned, and that there are also many open source projects that flourished wonderfully, such as Linux. He sought to find out the “magic secret” that determined if an open source project was destined to succeed or destined to flounder, and was able to reach some simple preliminary conclusions: that there was definite barrier and difference in beliefs between the core group of developers and the outside contributors, and these differences provided a major impediment for the latter group to really become involved. Only the groups that proved able to overcome this difficulty were the ones that were successful in the long run. That being said, it was also clear that he held a very optimistic view of the open source movement in general.
Emma had a much more pragmatic perspective on the open source movement, given her time spent “in the trenches”, so to speak. The fact that Drupal was an open source project really enabled her to become highly proficient with it; and with that proficiency she was able to forge an online presence and make a modest living for herself purely on it. Her experience with her community of students in her training program was especially telling and relatable to Mekki’s presentation; as described in Mekki's presentation, Emma encountered enabling and disabling practices between the two major groups in her class, the veteran group and the newbie group. The newbie group found the veteran group too intimidating, giving them feelings of inadequacy and making them question themselves whether or not they were truly capable of becoming good enough. In addition, her wildly variable financial performance within the open source community also told another very important point: that people aren’t always necessarily interested in contributing to open source projects purely for the sake of accomplishment or some sort of material reward, but rather contribute in order to join a community of like-minded individuals.
While neither presenter alluded to this key discovery directly in their presentations, the subtle implication was there in both: It is a combination of providing some meaningful contribution to a project, being recognized and appreciated for their efforts in the community, and a feeling of belonging in the community is what keeps open source contributors going!
My (newfound) Views on Open Source
With only half a semester of open source development exposure at the time of FSOSS, I admittedly only had a limited view of the open source movement based on my brief experiences. Listening to some seasoned contributors to the open source community had mixed effects on my views of open source; some things I heard were completely in line with my experiences so far, while other things were complete revelations. The discussions into the business aspect of open source during Emma Hogdin’s presentation revealed to me that the open source approach is a humble one; not every project will start off well in terms of accomplishment and financial return. An open source entrepreneur has to carefully analyze and measure the market, and be flexible and nimble to adopt new approaches in order to gain any measure of financial success.
I thought the presentation by Mekki MacAulay, particularly the part about enabling and disabling practices was spot on and fully in line with my experiences with the Popcorn.js and GameSaver projects. That is, I found the barrier to entry highly daunting at first, the established practices at both projects (whether it was organizational or programming practices) were somewhat intimidating and confusing, and help was only really there if you took the initiative for it. This was a radical departure from the relative “hand-holding” that I had received throughout my student career at Seneca. In the open source community, you have to work hard and participate often (something I don’t do enough of, admittedly) in order to get on the inside, and the more you invested into a project, the more you got out of it. But in an almost paradoxical way, anyone, as an individual, is still free to manage his or her own contributions to a project, and is able to approach the open source movement from any angle they wish.
FSOSS 2011 has proven to be a highly illuminating and thought-provoking event for me. It has given me a unique look at how the Open Source movement functions, the strengths and weakness of open source, and how it fares in real life. To date, I am still undecided between the allure of working for a company using proprietary technologies for the sole purpose of fame and profits, or the feeling of dedicating myself to the advancement of something I know to be good and true, albeit whilst being the underdog as well. Perhaps there is space for both in my future programming career. Only time will tell, but FSOSS has been a great choice that has genuinely got the debate rolling for me, bringing me one step closer to finding the answer.