What can all managers learn from Free, Open Source Software?

The 2010 edition of the Free/Open Source Software in Academia Conference (fOSSa) was an interesting event (here’s my final report about fOSSa2010). In this page I intend to present something I found in common among several fOSSa talks. Something that is relevant for everybody who cares about effective business and human resources management in any sector, not just in the software industry.


Big Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) development projects have much less coordination requirements than projects of the same size in traditional companies. They don’t happen by magic, though: lots of planning and coordination, that is good management, are needed to make them succeed. Speaking on this subject at fOSSa Martin Michlmayr pointed out, among other things, that:

  1. essential qualities of a good FOSS Project Manager are leadership, coordination, organization, planning, people motivation: for Martin, the last point includes making sure that project members feel that they helping other people outside the project community, to solve REAL problems they have
  2. in order to succeed, a FOSS project or community manager must:
    • quickly get rid of trolls or people who are either incompetent or inactive because already too busy. No Peter’s Principle here, thank you very much
    • (care to) engage in direct contact with project members, building direct, “face to face” relationships (even they’re virtual) with the people that can actually help the community and are interested in the success of the project
  3. developers considering whether they should start or join a project should first of all ask themselves whether it is actually necessary to start or support that project

Here are, in the same order my instintive thoughts when I heard each point:

  1. Motivation:
    • How many problems and needs for which corporations sell “solutions” aren’t real, and how much does this awareness impact motivation?
    • Corporations procedures and structures are too rigid to make the majority of their employees feel free, which is part of both motivation and happyness. I’d also assume that corporate software developers paid by their company to contribute to FOSS projects are on average happier also/just because working on FOSS gives them social interaction, visibility and recognition outside the company. How much could this principle be applied in other fields?
  2. Isn’t he saying “in order to be successful, FOSS managers must do all things a corporate executive can’t do because some regulation or unwritten interest forbid it”?
  3. How many people can afford to ask themselves such question when applying for a job? What would the world be like if actual jobs interviews could follow the same procedure? “Let’s assume I am real good at this job: please explain in 100 words or less why this thing you’d pay me to do is good for people…”


In another talk Dave Neary described Community anti-patterns, that is “best practices run amok” and all the social (not technical!) problems they create. One of them I’ve personally experienced is the Bikeshed discussion or Parkinson’s law: the amount of time spent to approve any given item in a budget is inversely proportional to the amount of money involved. Why? Because executives may approve spending millions on things they don’t understand (e.g. 500 million dollars for a nuclear power plant) , just to not look ignorant, but then prove that they are competent and paying attention by discussing every detail of almost irrelevant related issue (e.g. the color of a bikeshed for the technicians of the nuclear plant).

Finally Ross Gardler, VP of the Apache Software Foundation explained how Apache projects produce quality software because (among other things, of course) every working on the product has a voice and a vote.

Conclusion? People and purpose come before products

I’ve worked several years in a big corporation, in a department whose mission was not to develop software. Still, while listening to Martin, Dave and Ross, it really felt like they where talking about the problems of that department.

Sure, there are lots of things that cannot be exported from FOSS development to many other fields. Doctors or janitors, just to name two of a billion examples, can’t really work where and when they prefer, could they now? Still, the talks I mentioned above are all examples of why, today, (Free) software discussions can be very relevant even for people who would never program!

Many traditional businesses and other large organizations (starting from Public Administrations) I’ve met in my life could and should really learn a trick or two from FOSS community and project management. Besides, as I recently said at a sociologists congress, software hackers and the rest of the world should really talk more to each other. Studying FOSS processes inside Business and Management schools may be a good way to get started. Because convincing corporations and Public Administrations to adopt some FOSS-like openness and pragmatism may be more important and urgent than getting them to use FOSS.


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4 thoughts on “What can all managers learn from Free, Open Source Software?

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  2. Hans Bezemer

    In my experience, complex implementations or organizational changes are usually applied top down. And consequently, they almost always fail, especially in an IT environment. The point is that most employees there are very well educated, sometimes just as well as the management. You can’t apply the 19th century paradigm “the boss knows all and the boss knows best” anymore. Still, they want to make all the decisions – even if they don’t know. Some of these constructions are plainly ridiculous – overly complex or fuzzy. Force them down to a well educated workforce and the chaos is there. Those people are very well able to organize their work themselves – not in a big bang and (admitted) with a little help, but still they do.

    The point is, it will take a while. People are not computers you simply reprogram. It doesn’t work like that. But as more and more aspects of their working lives are smoothed, they are able to handle more and more complexity. Add the very fine initiatives the develop and you have a winner. You don’t need management for that. On the contrary, management can be an insurmountable obstacle in these situations.

    Strangely enough, GOOD management does not really have a problem here. They are happy to let it go as long as they are getting the results they require. BAD management is led by fear: fear to lose control, fear to fail, fear to be exposed. They want results now and they want results in the way they want to see it. Managing people on activities is a long, gruesome path to failure. Managing results is much easier and gets you the things you really want.

    This is in direct analogy with the meritocracy that rules FOSS. The merit, the result is the thing that counts. The rest isn’t even worth managing. If you want to do that, use machines. Machines do EXACTLY what you want and fail when they can’t. People think and act accordingly. They take initiative. They surprise you. They are made to surpass their specifications and are hence not as predictable. If you can handle that, then you’re a 21st century manager.

    1. marco Post author

      The merit, the result is the thing that counts. The rest isn’t even worth managing. If you want to do that, use machines. Machines do EXACTLY what you want and fail when they can’t.

      Well said, Hans! I would have really liked to have a boss thinking like that…

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