Originally Published: Saturday, 19 February 2000 Author: Jobs Staff
Published to: interact_articles_jobs_ask_staff/Ask the Jobs Staff Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

"Giving something back" to the Linux and/or Open Source community

Dear Jobs Staff: Well, you did say anything job-related was fair, so here goes. My question is, how do I convince my management that "giving something back" to the Linux and/or Open Source community is a good idea?

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Dear Jobs Staff:

Well, you did say anything job-related was fair, so here goes. My question is, how do I convince my management that "giving something back" to the Linux and/or Open Source community is a good idea? A bit of background: we are almost entirely a Linux-based shop and base most of our services and products around Open Source Software of some kind. Personally, I think that we should donate some of the profits back to the FSF or SPI, to pay for what we're taking out, but management wants reasons that make "business sense". How do I go about explaining why we should do it so they don't just think I'm some kind of evangelist and disregard the idea? Where can I start?

Wannabe Evangelist ;)

Dear Evangelist:

First of all, congratulations for wanting to give something back! It seems that some of the most successful Linux-based companies make a practice of giving back either cash, hardware, server time, or even salaries for developers.Of course, these companies also need to be responsible to their shareholders, boards of directors, and so forth, so they must have some good reasons for doing so.

One thing you can do is compile a list of "case studies" of Linux-based business who are successful and/or highly regarded in both the financial and Open-Source communities, and find out what they're doing. Sometimes, "making business sense" is no more than saying, "Well, Joey's doing it, and Susie's doing it," and letting your management figure out for themselves that they must know what they're doing. VA Linux, Red Hat, and Cobalt Networks would be the obvious examples, seeing as how their IPO's went gangbusters, and their names tend to be recognizeable. VA Linux, of course, sponsors Linux.Com, SourceForge, and otherwise donates money, hardware, and more to Open Source projects. Along with SGI and O'Reilly Associates, VA also pays for the packaging and distribution of Debian with no profit. Red Hat pays Alan Cox (famous kernel god) a full time salary, mostly for continuing what he's always done: kernel hacking. Cobalt Networks pays David Miller (another kernel god) mostly also to continue kernel hacking. Sure, Red Hat gets Cox to do a few things that benefit them directly, as does Cobalt with the work Miller has done on a MIPS port of Linux, but pretty much everything they work on goes back into the Open Source pool.

From another angle, note that IBM supports the development of the Apache web server. Intel has invested in Red Hat and other Open-Source companies. Open Source is beginning to be accepted by even established companies, as you can see.

Another thing you can point out is that from a purely mercenary standpoint, it's at least a tax writeoff for the company (if it's a U.S. company), and not just a tax writeoff but one that actually has a chance of buying the company better software in the long run. The more money donated to organizations like Software in the Public Interest, the better things like GNOME and Debian become, and thus, the better the products and services your company can offer. If you were using non-free operating systems and software, you could still write off what you paid for them as a business expense, but it would cost you a lot more for less return. Donating a fraction of what you'd pay for a non-free O/S would be more cost-effective, and definitely more appreciated.

Then, too, let's not forget the good PR. You can explain to your management that it would be good public relations to donate back to the Open Source community. After all, lots of companies are glomming onto Open Source software because it's cost-effective, but not all of them are giving as well as taking. Manager-types often seem to like the idea of getting good PR, so this may be a selling point too. Also, the community as a whole tends to not have a lot of patience or use for companies who don't seem to get the concept of give as well as take. For this reason, you can point out that it could be very bad PR not to give back!

Finally, though not necessarily immediately appropriate to your needs, you might want to look around for some articles on what they're calling "The Open Source Business Model," in the hopes that you can get your management to somehow get a feel for how things are different. In the book "Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution," (O'Reilly and Associates, 1999, ISBN 1565925823), there are several good essays talking about various angles of Open Source and business. Another book that may be a good read for your management is "Under the Radar: How Red Hat Changed the Software Business and Took Microsoft By Surprise" (The Coriolis Group, 1999, ISBN 1576105067). Bob Young, CEO of Red Hat, discusses the rise of Red Hat and their changing paradigms.

It's hard to think of purely monetary reasons to do something that is obviously just the right thing to do. Still, with a little research, you could well be on your way to convincing even a miserly management team that giving back is, if not critical, at least highly desirable. Good luck!

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