A short course in open-source and corporate communications

Here’s a short course on the lessons I’ve learned from my involvement in several major corporate announcements about open-source.

Don’t underestimate the communication folks. Their job is to explain technology, strategy and your company to the public. The good ones are very good at it. Don’t think your detailed knowledge of the technology gives you an edge, or that many folks really care that much about the technology. The announce is trying to paint a big picture, so you don’t want to get mired in detail.

These announcements are directed to reporters for major newspapers, industry-related web sites and industry analysts. Corporate communications folks are very good at this.

Thing is, open-source developers don’t follow the industry via these channels — they are too busy coding, reading e-mail and chatting on IRC. (Does anyone think Linus stays up at night worrying about Linux’s position in the Gartner Magic Quadrant?)

They key point is that to the open-source community it doesn’t really matter what you do say and long as you DO NOT SAY certain things.

However, word will quickly get around if you slip up, as the community is very good at smelling a rat, so here are the things you don’t want to say:

  • Anything that implies you seek to maintain control. You can’t allow even the perception that you still believe you own the code. It belongs to the community now, not to you. Things to avoid include such statements as:
    • Our developers look forward to directing the community to implement some of the good ideas they have come up with but haven’t yet had time to do.
    • We are still working on the governance model.
    • Our long experience in this area will now allow us to exert an even greater leadership position by working with the open-source community
  • Any attacks on competitors or other open-source projects. The purpose of the announce is to say what you hope to accomplish, not to attack others. It’s your party, so use it to your advantage. Things to avoid include:
    • With this announcement we hope to provide a more viable alternative to xxx
    • While name-that-competitor has only done this-or-that, we are now ready to do much better …
  • Self-aggrandizement and patting yourself on the back, especially the genre of locker-room phrases such as “my ?? is bigger than your ?? . Things to avoid here include:
    • This is the largest open-source contribution in … Avoid phrases such as “last decade” or “in the history of open-source” or “the history of the universe.” It’s not your code anymore, so who cares?
    • We continue by this contribution to demonstrate our leadership in the open-source arena …
  • Over-promotion of the code. It’s not your code anymore, it belongs to the community. Let them do the puffery going forth. Things to avoid include
    • This is the best damn … our company has even produced
    • This code is far superior to any other code in this area, especially that from …

If you can, try to arrange to have some real open-source folks around. It also helps if your own open-source folks can spread the word within the community.

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