Loose ends, outsourcing and open source solutions

The buzz in Bablion:

Most organizations do not have mission statements that pledge themselves to support utopian open source development communities that can not even be wildly imagined as business partners. Should your competitors find out about your so-called innovations, the same community will provide solutions to your competitors- including customizations which you paid for. Yet too many CIOs are very comfortable writing such commitments into the mission statement with a secret pen – whose ink you can only see after the fire breaks out.

(Below) Oppenheimer reflects on the dawn of the atomic age.

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Super Cows

Maybe, you have a dream about realizing a killer app.

Take that dream and imagine it as a holy cow- or, even better, a super cow that will produce more milk than any other cow in the most ordinary dairy farm conditions. In other words, a cow that doesn’t die when it catches a cold and still produces more milk than yesterday’s best stock. Hold on to that dream. And forget all about open source.

Don’t believe me?

It took two generations of trying, a lot of mileage (taking sperm samples to the Cornel Agricultural School labs for testing), 70 or so years, and many Farynas to see that supercow become a reality. These days, anyone can get the same milk production out of steroids and elaborate set ups. Hey, what the consumer doesn’t know won’t hurt him-her, right?

It’s kind of like the open source story. What the customer doesn’t know won’t hurt them. As long as there are no back doors. Most of the time, there aren’t.

And if eight out of ten of your customer’s competitors are bringing similar innovations online because they can afford it and eight other companies are doing the same thing you are doing- what happened to the first mover advantages that you counted when you demonstrated the value of the innovation?

This seems more like a problem than a blessing.

Doom

Most programmers don’t see the big picture- even if they did, they would still love open source. Theoretically, it allows them to work less, read geeky online news and play more Doom.

Whenever they encounter a challenge, theoretically, all they have to do is IM a buddy and get the answer.

Do you remember helping a friend cheat on a high school exam?

“Pssst. Yo. 34?”

“d…”

“Pssst. Yo. 39?”

“a…”

“Pssst. Yo. 42?”

“d…”

“Pssst. Yo. 44?”

“a…”

This is what really gets a lot of young programmers excited about the open source thang. And it fits the mindset. If the great challenge in development is to find the shortest and quickest route to an elegant solution, most would be happy with taking the quickest route to the first solution that, theoretically, works. Especially if the debugging is done by someone else in another department. All of which means more time in DOOM.

Meanwhile, everyone is talking about Quakecon 2005 and the DOOM 3 Deathmatch Championship. At least, they are just talking about it in my office. I know other offices (open source places) where the so-called developers are still learning the ropes in DOOM 3. And the ropes take a lot of time, a lot of dying, and – yeah – project delay, lost value and, sometimes, project failure.

Open Source fanatics, deathmatches (not death marches), and DOOM – it all makes sense. Put those words together and you get Dorothy’s peek behind the great curtain.

Nightmares

In the late 90s, I had the misfortune of managing Russian open source projects until my leadership was co-opted and the project taken in other directions that remote (and unfortunately, charismatic) team members thought made sense to them- regardless of the client’s needs and timeline.

“This is ours and we don’t need no stupid customers. Roxor!”

I saw this in saved chat messages long after the event and project failure. Of course, it doesn’t matter that the so-called unneeded customer had paid their salaries for six months and we might not have a customer to pay our salary tomorrow.

Scroll to a few weeks later and the chat history reveals the real deal. The core team was getting a new message:

“SSOF. Ditch that guy! Get more cash, loot and untaxable cash under the table… cuz we got a sugar daddy that likes where we are going with the project…”

“So get with the program,” my guys in Moscow told me. “This is how we need to do business. This is how we can all get rich fast. It’s not illegal; this is open source. Do you think the customer cares why the software is so cheap? No, they care that it is cheaper than what anyone else can offer on the street.”

And, yes, they had a point – if all you care about is cold, hard cash.

It’s not what I’m about. It’s not what the movement is about.

Values

Open source gives great value when it’s about refining a completed project. However, it poses a lot of risk as a development path for proprietary innovation and competitive advantage. If open source is better now at fixing the old than making something from scratch- why do open source fanatics have to take such obvious wisdom as personal insult?

It’s not like I am questioning Linus’ law, the opportunity for creative synchronicity in open source projects, or even the effectiveness and efficiency of committee/democratic decision. Or am I?

The most obvious example of successful open source elaboration is Linux which is based on Unix. Last year, the Linux operating system finally started to make headway- especially in Europe and Africa. Although there is no license cost, there is a time cost. Europeans and others seem to mind this less than Americans.

It should be understood, however, that a powerful vision or revelation can be espoused by many, but such vision will derive its unity, coherence and force from the visionary leader and not committees. Mircea Eliade, the great Romanian historian of religions, seemed to suggest that the dissent and debates that occur after the passing of the prophet, teacher, reformer… inevitably evolve into rivalries, contests of truth, and contradictions.

Without a central authority to prioritize, filter and seamlessly integrate new insights and inspirations into tradition, values (read “features” for our anecdote), and rituals, any of these can become their own separate and urgent purposes. And they will struggle for both independence and dominance among peers.

Linux

Linux will make headway in enterprise and network solutions; it will reduce the cost of super computing and super clustering. However, it will not win over the personal PC anytime soon. Despite all the hype, it can’t make more than a foot hold in the next four years.

It is more important to understand that open source is bigger than Linux; Linux may be one of the best examples of an open source project out there, but it would be folly to think that open source projects should all work out as well as Linux.

Unlike most open source projects, the Linux project is held together with great discipline and project managers that do not loose focus on where they need to get– even if this is going to take a lot of time.

Nor will Microsoft stand still. Windows evolves more rapidly on many fronts. 10,000 or more 9-5er Indians under one roof can realize Linus’ law better than you could ever hope to find in the most exciting open source project. On the other hand, Microsoft is already experiencing the problems of coordinating and synchronizing vast work groups. Time will only make things worse for them.

Open Source Customers

The thrills of a low cost of acquisition inevitable result in IT project delays, budget crises and (sometimes) failure. The statistics are scary. Those statistics will get more scary for many years to come. Inexperienced Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and IT-phobe Chief Financial Officers (CFO) will get excited by the cheap thrills of a low cost of acquisition. At the same time, these same executives lack anticipation of the unavoidable high costs of customization, deployment, risk management and ongoing technical support.

The true measure of a CIO is whether they think within the immediate IT budget or if they actually can envision the longer range IT strategy (12 months or more). The former tend to be overpaid posers. In fact, there are many who know nothing about IT- beyond what they read in their CIO magazines. This seems to be especially true in government.

Obviously, the adoption of open source innovations on the basis of low cost of acquisition subverts and sabotages innovation in favor of philosophical contentions – contentions which often prove to be hasty and mistaken within the context of a business plan. The mindset that the role of IT is to save money – not make more money or value through innovation – often puts an organization at risk with a follow-up of unethical or risky behaviors to cover up the mistakes. I have known many CIOs who made these mistakes and compound such mistakes with questionable actions that put the entire organization at risk.

Loose-ends Outsourcing

In the next few years, good open source solutions will cost as much as closed source solutions. And it will be clearer to all that the only difference between the two is when you pay: upfront or , later, after implementation.

It will also be understood that an organization’s commitment to low acquisition cost open source solutions from garage-based development start ups is nothing less than a passionate, philosophical commitment to loose-ends outsourcing. In loose-ends outsourcing, the development community determines the nature of innovation according to their own independent interests and values. The customer is merely a subscribing fan.

If the customer is a fan; there is no need for the development community to consider customer service standards or develop a deeply consultative relationship. Don’t worry, it never entered into the minds of community members. Moreover, usability, business process, and business intelligence are not among the interests and values of said community.

Ironically, most organizations do not have mission statements that pledge themselves to support utopian development communities that would never make the cut as business partners.

Should your competitors find out about your so-called innovations, the same community will provide similar solutions to your competitors- including the customizations which you paid for. Do you really want to pay for your competitor to keep up with you?
Yet too many CIOs are very comfortable writing such commitments into the mission statement with a secret pen whose ink you can only see after the fire breaks out.

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Stan Faryna
November 25, 2005
Fairfax, Virginia

Stan Faryna is the founder and co-founder of several technology, design and communication companies in the United States and Europe including Faryna & Associates, Inc., Halo Interactive, and others.

His political, scholarly, social and technical opinions have appeared in The Chicago Defender, Jurnalul National, The Washington Times, Sagar, Saptamana Financiara, Social Justice Review, and other publications.

Mr. Faryna is editor-in-chief of Black and Right (Praeger Press, 1996), a landmark collection of socio-political essays by important American thinkers including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Copyright

Copyright 1996 to 2008 by Stan Faryna.

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3 Responses to Loose ends, outsourcing and open source solutions

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