Managing Open Source Projects

First published in Software Quality Professional, Volume 5, Issue 3, June 2003

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Author Jan Sandred
Publisher Wiley Computer Publishing
Published New York, 2001
ISBN 0-471-40396-2
# of Pages 180 + 8 pages of index

Project Management

Your mission is to develop software with some very specific capabilities and you must do it within a very defined period of time. You have no assigned staff but will be able to use any participants whose interest you can provoke. You will be able to institute some rules but others are free to ignore them, modify them, or substitute their own. Should you choose to accept this assignment you may become famous or you may not. Should you fail, your participation will be disavowed.

That, in essence, is the theme of this book. Unlike the characters of Mission Impossible left to their own devices for completing the assignment, the reader is not left alone. The reader is guided, by way of history and examples, to an understanding of first the construct of “open source” and then the framework that surrounds “open source”. Only after the reader is well acquainted with open source does Sandred introduce the reader to the concept of managing this type of project. His focus is that open source is a valid business concept with unique characteristics.

When thinking open source the reader should think Netscape’s Navigator and Communicator, Linux and Linux applications. Linus Torvalds had put some basic functionality out on the Web. Developers saw the source code, some of them found defects and fixed the defects, others decided that some code could be better written and they re-wrote it those portions, and others added new code and new functionality. There was no central organization to arbitrate among Linus Torvalds and the contributors. There were no teams with assigned members and there were no assigned tasks. The contributors made the contributions they wanted to make when they wanted to make them.

Out of these, and other experiences, the author identifies three basic requirements for the success of any open source project.

  • It is not possible to code from the ground up in open source style. It is possible to test, debug, and improve code.
  • There must be a virtual network that can cooperate. There must be a virtual network of collaborators/contributors. The Internet provides only the technical platform.
  • Open source development builds on volunteers, and the leader must earn the respect of the collaborators/contributors.

Obviously, the traditional hierarchical leadership style prevalent in most corporations will not foster an open source project. The open source project requires a collaborative management style and an organization with weak internal and external boundaries. Essentially, the open source project is distributed. Implementations and decisions are primarily the responsibility of each collaborator/contributor. This type of project, according to Sandred, can be managed only by trust and respect.

And if trust and respect are the methodologies, then groupware, videoconferencing, and other collaborative technologies provide the means for these virtual teams to bridge, time, space and organizational barriers. Sandred believes that the conventional way in which people work is coming unglued.

In his book, Administrative Behavior, Herbert Simon stated that in the post-industrial society, the central problem is how

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to organize to make decisions. Thinking outside of the box and innovations have driven the modern IT companies. The children of the Nintendo generation are comfortable with both the new media and non-hierarchical ways of working which are critical to success in

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an open source environment. They thrive on collaboration. They are driven to innovate and they have a mind set of immediacy. Most important, their first point of reference is the Internet.

Thus managing distributed projects and the people attracted to them requires more advanced skills and leadership competencies than are possessed by most American managers. These projects require an incredible focus on people, communication, project leadership, and even on social leadership. Through case studies the author explores:

  • Building, motivating, and managing virtual teams
  • Structuring tasks and meeting deadlines
  • Establishing trust within a team
  • Collecting and communicating information
  • Effectively using the Web to integrate and manage the open source model
  • Maintaining project security

As stated, “If managed the right way, open source can deliver industrial-strength systems that meet users’ needs and provide solutions that are fully extendible and maintainable over long periods of time.”


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