Which side of the firewall are you on? If you are on the inside then you are on the wrong side.

This post is for folks who work for companies and large corporations that have a firewall, a wall that separates work within the firewall from work outside the firewall.

Just under a year ago some folks from IBM’s Corporate Community Relations (CCR) team came to the IBM group that manages IBM’s open-source activities, a group of which I am a part, with a simple idea:

How can we enlist IBMers with open-source skills to use those skills to help projects such as Sahana, an open-source project created in response to the 2004 Asian Tsunami to support disaster relief? This is a project where IBM’s Crisis Management Team helped on initial design, but can we do better?

I was absolutely blown away by this idea — it was that compelling –: using open-source technology to make the world better. Indeed, looking back, it set me on the course that will guide my voluntary open-source activities for the rest of my life, and also on a course where so long as I work for IBM I will try to encourage IBM to support such activities.

The single most striking fact of this suggestion is that it came not from IBM’s technical or business folks, but from the folks responsible for honoring IBM’s commitment to be a responsible corporation, a commitment first expressed by T.J. Watson almost a century ago.

I won’t go into all the history now, though if time permits I will provide more context in the future, but suffice it to say that a small group formed and that group worked entirely inside the IBM firewall until a month ago. Our great concern was that the idea was so compelling that if we asked IBMer’s to volunteer without adequate backing, then we would have squandered the opportunity, mainly because we knew IBM had hundreds (thousands?) of employeer with open-source skills, and that even a hint that IBM would encourage their volunteer efforts would result in a flood of volunteers we couldn’t properly handle.

By August I realized we weren’t making much progress, so I used IBM’s internal “Open Source Bazaar” (IIOSB) to create a mail list, and I also started a wiki to provide content.

This wasn’t very successful, and so just over a month ago I decided to venture outside the firewall, start blogging, and see what I could accomplish.

The results have been striking, if only to me. I have come to realize that to work on open-source you must work outside the firewall, as part of the open-source community. The experience has been invigorating, and most instructive. To work within the firewall is to work under corporate rules, and no matter how well-intentioned those rules are, you will miss the feedback from the world at large.

This is true in the context of blogging, even if you know you have almost no readers and thus are “laboring in obscurity.”For example, my wife Karin, noticing my intense blogging activity, asked why I was doing it. I said I found it useful even though at most ten or twenty folks were reading each new post. She suggested I wrote only for myself, saving my posts on the disk of my laptop.

However, to write in anonymity is not the same as writing on the internet. I have come to learn that even if you know only a handful of folks are reading your work, the knowledge that you don’t yet know these folks gives your an incentive, an edge that makes you want to offer your best, in a way that simply wouldn’t happen if you write in the knowledge that only you, and the folks you chose to invte into your circle, are aware of the writing.

I have also come to appreciate that blogging outside the firewall can be a very valuable experience. Even if no one reads your posts, you will learn something about yourself by your writing. To blog outside the firewall, if you take it seriously, is to take first steps in finding your own voice.

Finding your own voice is especially important if you are, as I am, someone who has a deep commitment to open-source while having a job inside a corporate firewall. The nature of my job is such that some may think I am speaking on behalf of IBM, but I have found that if you enage in intense writing, the kind of writing that reflects what you really think, then you can speak on your own, and in doing so can express opinions you think important.

It also helps if in your blogging you try to push the envelope, to write in a way so far-out that no one can think your writing reflects the views of your employer. You want to push the envelope so you can learn more about yourself; to be effective you must take risks in your writing, as only by doing so can you find your voice.

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