The Github Effect

Feb 24, 2012 00:00 · 565 words · 3 minute read

Recently I’ve come across a stretch of similarly themed articles. Articles discussing the increasing shift of all business to be tech-based. The conclusion for business owners is often the same: hire talented developers.

I don’t disagree. Every business that expects to have any staying power whatsoever needs some level of development. If not for their core product itself, surely for some sort of web and/or smart-phone presence. And for the former, the level of developer talent required to stay afloat can be tremendous.

In my opinion, the greatest pool of developer talent is open source software projects. The people involved in these projects are doing what they love for free. They’re good at working alone or as part of a distributed team. They use new technologies and champion new techniques and Design Patterns. They write maintainable and generalized libraries of code to be put on display like the Art that it is. Furthermore, to enjoy any level of notoriety in this field, the code has to be high-quality.

More and more, companies are realizing that talented developers are the intellectual property, not the software they create. Letting your talented developers write the software they want –under the licensing they want– is the best way to get great software.

I’d argue that the ridiculous rate of innovation is enough to offset the risk of intellectual piracy. If Google were to open source its entirety right now, could anyone use that as a competitive advantage? I say no; Google has the talented engineers to out-innovate any forks or clones – not to mention the huge head-start in terms of how to best leverage all that code.

Case in point: The two most popular browsers right now are Firefox and Chrome, both just thin layers of branding over fully open versions of themselves. Is Google worried that someone will take Chromium’s source and out-compete? Of course not. There’s plenty of derivative projects using Webkit and V8 – while these are great for exploring ideas and satisfying niche markets, they make no negative impact on Chrome. Quite the opposite; the flourishing ecosystem of buzz and patches can only help.

Successful tech start-ups are show-casing the value of the open source ecosystem. Companies like etsy, thoughtbot, and paperlesspost open source a ton of their “intellectual property” via github. This gains them followers, watchers, end-users, contributers and most importantly: something to entice recruits. Whether intentional or just the organic outcome of good-natured founders, the strategy works.

Companies like the one I work for are starting to look at open-source as a valuable goal. Regardless of the motivation (the altruistic “giving back” or simply building brand recognition), the bottom line is more software is let free. Beyond the fact that this is generally good for the world, it’s good for me to work on such software – I feel unencumbered by licensing or copyrights. I can freely blog about the stuff I’m doing and share snippets with interested parties. It’s just damn easier.

What I’m seeing is people being paid to develop in an open-source landscape. Whether using or writing such tools, we are absolutely making money with them. I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve had trying to convince people that free software has real monetary value.

We’re here – a world where investors and recruiters are actually interested in the number of watchers and followers you have on github.