Open-Source Software: The Key to Our Past and Future

While rummaging through your Facebook timeline filled with GIFs, engagement announcements, and baby gender reveals, you likely don’t think about the type of software running the popular social media app. But what if you learned that Facebook’s software is not just operated in the confines of Silicon Valley and instead on a platform where anyone can access its software code?

“Right now open-source powers most of the internet: the Apache web server, WordPress, Drupal, the Linux kernel. These are all open source,” says Josh Wulf, who helped build the world's first billion-dollar open-source software engineering company, Red Hat. 

What exactly is open-source software (OSS)? In the simplest terms, OSS is free computer software made available to the public along with its code. The person or organization that creates the code makes it available under license to use, modify and distribute. This enables developers to improve the code. Those who actively work on different OSS platforms can look for loopholes in software that make it vulnerable to hacks.

Since the early 1950s, computer scientists have worked to develop and share software with the public. But OSS has only recently become more widely accepted by not only formerly closed-source software companies such as Microsoft, but also by Fortune 500 companies including Exxon Mobil Corp., Chase, and Wells Fargo, which have all created their own open-source platforms. 

Wulf is convinced the future of software development is open source. For this reason, it only makes sense that more companies are adopting OSS. “Companies simply cannot pay enough money to get the kind of attention that open source can get. With contributors working around the world around the clock, and able to create their own modified versions to experiment with new ideas, and build communities around them, open source leverages the power and passion of people in a way that closed source can't,” Wulf says.

With 78 percent of companies now running on OSS, up from 64 percent in 2014, demand for software developers with OSS expertise continues to increase — 74 percent of hiring managers are actively recruiting open-source developers.

Working in OSS 

From the outside looking in, the skills needed to develop software code in open-source spaces do not differ from closed source. 

The main difference is the attitude required to work in open source. Take the creation of the internet, for example. On April 30, 1993, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee released his WWW software code to the public by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Berners-Lee quickly enlisted volunteers — ranging from students, inventors, and computer scientists — to help write the code, and the World Wide Web became the foundation of the internet as we know it today.

Berners-Lee provided the code as a sense of duty and credits a fraternity of people. 

“Building the web, I didn't do it all myself. The really exciting thing about it is that it was done by lots and lots of people, connected with this tremendous spirit,” he said after winning the first Millennium Technology Prize in 2004.

This sense of greater commitment to community is what makes working in open source different.

“Because of the voluntary nature of participation, the dynamics of cooperation and collaboration are even more pronounced than they are in closed source.” Josh Wulf, Software Engineer.

“Because of the voluntary nature of participation, the dynamics of cooperation and collaboration are even more pronounced than they are in closed source,” Wulf says.

Likening it to a team sport, Wulf emphasizes that everyone plays an important role in the open-source community. 

“Just like football you need to have the technical skills down — like blocking and tackling and passing the ball and kicking it — but then it becomes about playing together with others as a team,” he said. “Recognizing others’ contributions, being able to give and receive feedback in an empowering way. These are all crucial skills.”

An Open Display of Talent

Beyond building a network of software developers, open source is also changing the way software developers find jobs. According to Professor Kevin Du at Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, hiring managers focus on who is developing OSS because it allows them to see how well someone can code.

“The reason why they [hiring managers] do this is that if it’s closed source, you won’t be able to see the code. The hiring manager wants to look at your code, and they want to learn your coding style, and want to learn your skills,” Du says.  

Wulf adds: “You have a record of your work, and your reputation is not locked up inside a corporation. You are able to build a wider professional network. As Marty Messer told me in 2004 when I joined Red Hat: ‘All your work will be in the open. In the future, Google will be your CV (curriculum vitae).’”

And software developers aren’t the only ones capitalizing on the open-source platform, according to Wulf.

“If you are a company, figuring out how to harness the power of open-source dynamics, open-source communities unlock potential that you couldn't have paid for,” he said. “If you allow your users to become passionate contributors, you gain skills, talent, passion, and time that would otherwise go elsewhere.” 

Growing Opportunity

While there are several open-source platforms that don’t pay developers, open-source developers can still make a living.

“Open-source software developers are not paid to develop software — they are paid while they develop software, to develop it for a particular company, or in a particular direction,” Wulf says.

Open-source companies like Red Hat and the Linux Foundation pay programmers to continue upgrading and fixing any patches within their software. In addition, some OSS developers get paid for their work by having their open-source projects sponsored by companies such as Intel, Microsoft, Oracle and Android. There are also Fortune 500 companies seeking to break into open source that have begun hiring more software developers. Samsung expanded its open-source team from one person to more than 30 developers, and Walmart hired developers to create open-source software under its tech division, @WalmartLabs.

Open-source developers can also make money providing maintenance services to users and companies to save them time and frustration. These services include installing and setting up the software or offering on-call support. And open-source developers can capitalize on their code by offering lectures and workshops to help individuals or companies better understand the software they are using. 

Underlying Motivation

Overall, there is an underlying satisfaction that comes from working in open source beyond any financial benefits. Those who work on code in their spare time are often looking at how their code can better serve the world.

Berners-Lee, the creator of the internet, did not make money from his code. “If I had tried to demand fees ... there would be no World Wide Web,” he said

Professor Du seems to agree. “I spent 15 years developing an open-source document, and I don’t receive money for it,” Du says.

However, the lack of financial reward is in part outweighed by the satisfaction a developer receives when their code is used by another company or person. 

“When they [developers] see their code get adopted by someone it brings a sense of achievement,” Du said. “A lot of open-source projects are driven by that kind of satisfaction. It’s definitely a different type of business model.”

As open-source software developers continue to carry the torch for technology, it is clear that open source is here to stay. 

“Open source is simply the best way to develop a certain class of infrastructure software, like web servers, frameworks, compilers, databases, and much more.” David Heinemeier Hansson, Founder of Basecamp and Ruby on Rails

“Open source is simply the best way to develop a certain class of infrastructure software, like web servers, frameworks, compilers, databases, and much more,” said David Heinemeier Hansson, who founded Basecamp and Ruby on Rails.

This point is reinforced by the fact that open source has dominated these areas for 20 years.

“Proprietary software never really had a strong foothold for the infrastructure that built the web, which is my platform of choice,” said Hansson. “So I’d say it’s safe for that to continue.”

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Citation for this content: Engineering@Syracuse’s online master in computer science from Syracuse University