A press release hit my inbox today. Looks like we have a competitor, a brand new Open Source system integrator operating in one of our target markets. You’ll see why I’m not linking to them in a minute.
Competition is good, of course, and I’m seriously convinced that Open Source needs more dedicated players to thrive. Of course, as an entrepreneur, at a certain point I need to stop looking at the big picture, and consider how a specific competitor might be a threat. I did my homework and read the press release carefully: I skimmed through the usual self celebrating yadda-yadda, the ritual business mumbo-jumbo and the expected “so what?” moments, to try and understand who was behind the new kid on the block. I stumbled on the Managing Director name: didn’t ring any bell. Carried on to the Technical Director guy: never heard of him. Finished with the Sales Director, another Mr. Cellophane.
Oh well, Open Source is a big pond after all, and it would be arrogant to think I know each and every guy out there. But hey, Google is your friend, isn’t it? I went to my fellow browser and started looking for the guys: the managing director scores a whopping 25 page hits, with only two being relevant (a couple profiles on social network sites). The 879 page hits for the Technical Director seem to suggest we’re talking about a wedding pianist from Georgia. Their sales director hits 2 million pages, but most of them are devoted to a filmmaker and photojournalist who shares his (fairly common) name. Well, it all makes sense in the end: circulating a press release about an Open Source company in Microsoft Word format fits the picture just fine. I shouldn’t worry, after all, and you should see by now why I don’t even bother linking to my new “colleagues”.
Well, shouldn’t I, actually? Seeing how easy is for these guys to toot the Open Source horn when they are all talk and a press release is somehow making me consider we are missing a way to understand who might be a good and experienced partner and supplier of Open Source technologies instead of someone who has just been playing with Spring and Hibernate in the past few years. The good old proprietary software world had a few tools to perform an initial skimming through: certifications, partner programs and training qualification, which were able to provide System Integrators with nice badges for their reception desk and a logo for the site. Of course most commercial Open Source vendors have a training/certification/partner program, but is that enough to qualify a shop as Open Source savy?
I don’t think so. Open Source is so much more than just knowing a technology. Someone looking for Open Source help shouldn’t worry about technology alone, as the questions that need an answer are more relevant and broad, such as:
- will the guys I’m hiring be able to interact with the Open Source communities?
- if I need to patch an Open Source software, will my consultants know how to have it integrated in the next release?
- is my system integrator able to provide support with Open Source licenses?
- can my partner help me in software selection, perform a community evaluation, assess the legal status of a project and provide me with adequate risk management when it comes to building a solution?
- will the company I choose help me grab not just the low hanging fruits of Open Source, but also the strategic advantage built around lock-in mitigation, developer motivation and organic participation to the virtuous cycle of Open Source?
I’m strongly convinced all this is much more important than the “do the guys have JBoss experience?” question. Answering those questions isn’t easy and requires a strong experience in Open Source projects. A company, by definition, doesn’t participate as itself in communities, but employees do, and this is one of the most relevant metrics to consider when choosing an Open Source partner. The number of people involved in Open Source communities is a clear indicator of how a consulting shop is tied and committed to Open Source, and a definite source of legitimation to proposing Open Source based solutions. We care a lot about this, and we can proudly say we have a rich set of Open Source community members in the company. Yes, I’m fiercely trying to say we’re different and better, but I have a strong reason for that: considering Open Source is more and more a question of corporate strategy rather than just cost-saving tactics. Choosing the right partner is key, and that’s definitely someone with a lot of experience, coming from their developers of course, in the Open Source world. Ask for the track record!