Being a Free/Open Source Software Catalyst : Part I

Posted by PaulFerris on Jan 18, 2011 12:04 PM EDT
LXer Linux News; By Paul (Fericyde) Ferris
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LXer Feature: 18-Jan-2011

Having trouble convincing the Boss when it comes to FOSS? This article discusses common pitfalls that arise when advocating Free / Open Source software in your organization. This is part I of a series of articles focused upon being a part of FOSS culture change.

Catalyst: [1] A substance used in a chemical reaction that is part of a chain of events that result in the change, but are ultimately not consumed in the reaction itself.

Being a Free/Open Source Software Catalyst

Years of participation in the FOSS community have brought me into contact with a lot of dissatisfaction and discontent. A lot of organizations have indeed embraced FOSS -- but a larger landscape of proprietary software remains. This will be an article series for those of you in the trenches on the FOSS side of this battle. It will focus upon multiple aspects of the persuasion experience.

If there's a common theme among the discontent it's this: A lot of proprietary software is horribly bad in quality. Complicating matters is the fact that there is a perception (real or imagined) that there is nothing to be done about it. That you're powerless. That the choices have been made and that things are simply going to be this way forever (or for 5 years -- essentially the same time frame). That you're doomed to a life with no FOSS joy.

The choices that have been made often seem to saddle the company with a product that is expensive, buggy and insecure. Often in the same breath, the executives that seemly made these choices fire off initiatives asking the employees to help find ways to save money, improve quality and improve efficiency.

Let's talk about your role in all of this -- and let's do our best to leave out the role of "victim".

Answering the Boss when Opportunity Knocks -- Once.

Major decisions surrounding FOSS rarely happen in a vacuum. They often directly involve you and it's easy to miss the opportunity knocking at your door. For example: Did your boss recently come by your desk and ask how much time it would take to replace a proprietary product in your environment? Did you take the time to get back with him with a coherent answer?

Here's an example:

Boss: "How long would it take to replace our aging SunOne web server farm with IBM IHS?"

You or someone like you: [ Select one from the following common mistakes ]

  1. What's IHS? Why aren't we considering Apache or Lighttpd?
  2. No time at all -- I can do it in seconds!
  3. I'm busy, this backup job is running. Can you come back in a few hours?
  4. IHS? Why aren't we using Apache? It's the same thing!
  5. It's about damn time! I've been telling you guys to do this for years.


The correct answer isn't listed -- a conversation where the other party (mostly likely you) objectively discusses what kind of time-frame is realistic, the scope of the project, how much testing will be involved, what kind of potential staff augmentation will be available and so on. The dialog for this "right answer" will vary depending upon the size of the organization. The point I'm making here involves perspective -- I've been involved in these kinds of conversations for years, and I've seen all of the mistakes above.

Let's break down the problems with each one of the mistakes above.

What's IHS? Why aren't we considering Apache or Lighttpd?

You weren't prepared, and you didn't listen to the question. If you don't know what IBM IHS is, it's time to use Google and IBM's web site to find out. IHS is essentially the Apache web server with a big IBM sticker plastered over the feather logo.

The person responding with the answer above has blown it because the boss was coming to them with a question about Free/Open Source Software and they answered the question with another question -- and defensively at that.

No time at all -- I can do it in seconds!

The boss wasn't coming to you to be impressed with your m4d h4x0r sk1llz. He was stopping by to get a serious time estimate. If he's talking to you about it, he likely considers you the expert. He may be randomly picking bodies for this estimate out of the crowd, but the person in this context should be flattered regardless. You need to take the time to listen, because the Boss is asking this time-sensitive question for a reason: He's probably trying to budget something important -- time, resources, capital (like a Boss). Seriously, a question like the above is a golden ticket moment -- don't blow the opportunity by not answering with a serious answer.

Why is the boss asking about time? What time is he referring to (Yours? The team? The overall time?) People with little time to spare rarely come by to ask trivial questions on a whim. Take the time to respond with thoughtful answers -- you'll likely impress him or her as someone who's going to be part of a solution.

Besides, you can always kill a little time later defacing his personal IIS web server with metasploit (kidding!).

I'm busy, this backup job is running. Can you come back in a few hours?

Awesome -- you're busy. Check. You want the Boss to work on your time schedule. Check. Do you want someone else to answer this question? You want the Boss to simply decide to stay with a proprietary product?

Reality check -- most likely not -- but answer the question like this and you're going to have plenty of time to complain about crappy software or being the victim of bad estimating later.

IHS? Why aren't we using Apache? It's the same thing!

This is no time for Holy War. If you have a chance to switch to Apache, switch! Your Boss may not know it's Apache (I can't believe it's not butter!), or he may be fully aware. In either case, he's coming to you with a golden opportunity.

If you cloud the choices being offered with unimportant items, you're likely going to find the decision stalled -- or worse, the entire mission aborted. Organizations often choose supported FOSS components for a real reason -- in the case of IHS, they may be choosing it because it's part of a supported application stack (like WebSphere).

Make no assumptions -- listen first to the (often very real) questions and concerns and do your best to provide coherent, business oriented answers first. If there's time to diplomatically ask questions about the choices being made (often there is), do it with a disarming tone after you've done your best to provide all of the requisite answers. Provide these answers in the format requested, with deliberation and coherency.

Follow up with questions surrounding your answers. Were your answers adequate? If not, what can you do to make them more understandable?. Only after you've begun a serious dialog can you be taken seriously.

It's about damn time! I've been telling you guys to do this for years!

And they've been listening to you. Great time to rub it in. Why aren't you taking the next step and helping them implement the change you've been demanding? If they're coming to you and asking you questions about the choices you have been demanding, why not (you!) answer coherently?

Us Versus Them

A lot of confusion about bad choices in corporate life come from scenarios where people play the water cooler[2] game. (alternate title: "Look what they're doing to us now"). This is a social game between lowly corporate workers that centers on water cooler or coffee break conversations. In this game, the conversation is all about the dealings of a shadowy figure who holds all of the corporate cards -- a mysterious figure frequently referred to as "they".

Except that often times, there is no "they" -- there's you and a bunch of other people that really do in fact, hold the cards. You're by no means powerless in your corporate life -- although it can seem that way at times. Stop being the victim and work on changing your job and your FOSS experience in total.

This series will focus upon how to address these common pitfalls, how to be a part of the solution, how to diplomatically sway the opposition (when required) and how and when to retreat when appropriate.

This is part one of a series about being a Free/Open Source catalyst. The focus of this series will center upon being a part of change in your organization as it adopts FOSS.

Stay tuned for part II "Being the Solution" where I will discuss how to live an empowered Free / Open Source corporate life with real world examples.

I'm sure I've missed some common mistakes when it comes to answering the Boss -- use the comment area to enlighten me.

Part II "Being the Solution"

Part III "Tipping the Scales"

Part IV "Geek vs Suit Talk"


Paul (FeriCyde) Ferris is contributing editor to LXer. As a professional he makes his living as an Enterprise Linux Architect. He is also a husband, a father and more. You can find more of his opinions on his blog FeriCyde Chat and more about FOSS infrastructure on All Things Infrastructure.
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