Full Public View

I’ve been working for several months as part of a small team within IBM investigating ways to enlist IBMers with open source skills to volunteer to make their skills available part-time — and on their own time — to work with educational and non-profit organizations to help improve the communities in which we all live and work.

Some folks on the team have a background in open source, others don’t. Indeed part of the fascination has been the mutual process of education that has gone on, and I plan to share some of the lessons we have learned in future posts.

But let me begin with one very important lesson. Last week I was copied on an e-mail thread about work being done by a small team that plans to engage in some open source activity by making a new donation to an existing project. This was being done as a private discussion.

While private discussions are normal within business, I believe they should never be the norm when doing open source business. Indeed, I sent the following note to our internal mail list.

I just spent more than an hour writing a note on the importance of doing all work in full public view when working on an open source project. I expect many of these thoughts apply to volunteer efforts with non-profit and educational institutions.

Here are some excerpts from the note, the parts that make the general point and don’t reveal the details that prompted my note.

I ran IBM’s first OSS project during its first year. It was a very educational experience. That is the good news. The bad news is that I had to learn all this while running the project, and looking back, the project suffered because I could have done more had I known more.I won’t bore you with all the details here, but the single most important thing I learned is the importance of carrying out all project discussions in full public view, via mail lists.

Because if existing or potential members of an open source project sense something is going on behind the scenes that they don’t know about, then you — and the project — will pay a price. Because they will know they are not part of a team, but one of the “outsiders” being directed by the “insiders.” That will be enough for some to leave, and for others to not even consider joining the project.

Here as in many areas perception is everything. You have to go out of your way to be public even though it’s more work. It is one of the prices you must pay to be effective in OSS.

…But If you take a look at the really successful OSS projects, you will find that *all* discussions are via mail lists. Linux, Apache, Eclipse. It worked — and is working — for them. It can work for us.

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