Key Lessons from Open Source Projects

At BuDS we are proud to be a small yet highly innovative charity.  We have developed highly flexible ways of working. We embed this approach in our IT systems, in how we run meetings and how we encourage our job-seeking volunteers to overcome any barriers and express their talent.

The methods used to manage leading open source projects are a key influence on how we continue to improve our services and volunteer experience. It's thanks to the thousands of open source project volunteers that open source software dominates within many areas of software often lying at the heart of mobile phones, smart TV's and internet servers.

Open source is changing the way organisations, both large and small, function. It has become a mass movement of sorts. Ideas from the open source world are percolating out from the software industry to impact science, business and social collaboration.

Successful open source projects teach us there is a new way to collaborate. Here we highlight the most important required elements for their success.

It Must be Easy to Contribute

The easier it is to start contributing, the more people who will join. Ease of contribution is rooted in two elements.

1. Breaking down tasks into manageable chunks.
2. Clear, precise guidance.

It’s common when starting a new job to go through a week-long face-to-face induction, before being dropped in at the deep end. Clearly in the open source world this is not practical. Tasks are taken on gradually, often with increasing difficulty. In fact many participants make only 1 or 2 contributions in their entire time with the project.

The simplest tasks are often allocated to new contributors. For example, Mozilla Common Voice allows anyone to contribute to the development of speech recognition technology just by recording 5 sentences. Gnome has a designated pathway for new members, from choosing where to contribute, to submitting the first contribution. Projects have designated mentors for newcomers and helpful chatrooms and forums.


Open Culture

Fundamentally, the reason open source has flourished is due to it’s transparent, collaborative and inclusive culture.

Unlike the traditional organisational model there is no interview process in which only a select few are chosen. Anyone who can contribute is welcome, and work is then reviewed or improved by other members. This leads to a wonderfully diverse and collaborative culture.

Digital technology allows for easy communication. Anyone can suggest improvements, and anyone can offer support for new ideas. Meetings are rarely held in private (except for security reasons), and this gives everyone a potential seat at the top table. For this reason open source projects are able to respond exceptionally quickly to changing demands of users. When everyone has a voice, problems become common knowledge remarkably quickly. When anyone is free to contribute solutions, problems are fixed at a pace which puts the traditional corporate organisation to shame.

The ability to work flexibly and take on interesting tasks provides more fulfilling opportunities than people often find in their day jobs. Members enjoy contributing and are passionate about what they do. Contributing to open source can be a rewarding way to learn, teach, and build experience in just about any skill you can imagine.

The open source culture emphasises collective decision making, transparent public discussion, flexible roles and inclusion. Creating a diverse, adaptable and motivated community.

“Fundamentally, the reason open source has flourished is due to it’s transparent, collaborative and inclusive culture.”

Open Framework and Processes

Freedom of individuals to contribute to any task, followed by an independent evaluation of the contribution is a key difference between the open source and traditional organisational structure. The traditional corporate structure assesses people at the interview stage and allocates a fixed pattern of work which the candidate is hopefully competent to complete. Hence people often feel their job is restrictive and repetitive. In contrast open source offers flexibility, variety and choice. Those who have leadership roles have proven themselves not in an interview but through consistently demonstrating their ability and earning the respect of community members.

Projects such as Mozilla Common Voice, Duo Lingo and Asteroid Zoo demonstrate a common framework in which contributions are validated by multiple participants. In the case of Asteroid Zoo for example, ordinary people validating each other’s work can identify astrological images to the same accuracy as professional researchers.

In other cases a trusted community member may check the work of new contributors. They provide feedback which assists in the learning and development of new members. Once a new member has earned the respect of the community they may be given “commit access” which enables them to make changes directly to key systems.

Group forums, websites and newsletters are used to make as much information available as possible. Established public channels and guidelines exist for providing feedback and suggesting improvements. This supports the transparent, inclusive and collaborative culture.

The open organisation promotes a shared repository of knowledge, available to all. Forums are organised such that old discussions and proposed solutions can be located for future reference.
Decision making materials are available to all, and members are encouraged to contribute opinions, and in some cases vote on key project decisions.

Open Source Logos
A Collection of Open Source Logos


Only 20% of projects are independently run without any kind of institutional support.  The vast majority of projects are backed by foundations or private business.

Funding allows a small number of salaried people to focus full time on maintaining and supporting the community.  This provides stability for the project, and ensures momentum even during difficult times.  Although joining an open source community offers many benefits it’s unlikely members would commit full-time without a salary.  Managing volunteers, moderating online discussions, promoting the project and resolving inevitable mistakes or disputes, are tasks which require plenty of skill and time. Hence established open source groups are all maintained by full-time paid members.

“The open organisation promotes a shared repository of knowledge, available to all.”

Despite early scepticism the open source model is here to stay, and is rapidly expanding outside the software sector.  Within the software sector organisations such as Microsoft, Google and IBM have found supporting open source initiatives can save vast amounts of money on development costs (the core part of Google’s Android is an open source Linux kernel). Funders also benefit from learning the workings of a new type of business model that has already changed one industry forever.


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