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Open source: The key advantage in the war for talent

Open source: The key advantage in the war for talent

Written by Bernard Golden

In 2011, Marc Andreessen famously declared that “software is eating the world.” His point is clear: Our society has reached a tipping point in the decades-long shift from analog to digital.

In his article, Andreessen cited a number of examples:

Andreessen summed up his message in this way: “Companies in every industry need to assume that a software revolution is coming.” Failing to make the transition from atom-centric to bit-centric will consign a company to the ash heap of history.

One thing Andreessen doesn’t address is how companies can make the transition — how can they become software powerhouses? It’s clear that the fastest path to software excellence is to emulate the exemplar companies Andreessen cites. They all center their software strategy around open source because open-source licenses uniquely offer the freedom, flexibility, and cost structure necessary to create a software-centric company.

Placing open source at the core of a company’s IT strategy means more than using open-source components. It means using open source as the basis for building a world-class IT team.

Bernard Golden

But placing open source at the core of a company’s IT strategy means more than using open-source components. It means using open source as the basis for building a world-class IT team — and understanding the why and how of this fact is critical to competing in a “software eating the world” economy.

Here are four ways placing open source at the center of staffing will pay enormous dividends for an IT organization.

Open source makes recruiting easier

Finding top-notch technical talent is difficult. In the past, hiring developers meant applying keyword searches to resumes and following up with in-person interviews. And anyone who has participated in the interview process recognizes how poorly it predicts satisfactory fit for either party. It’s like deciding to get married on the basis of a single blind date.

Open source changes the recruiting dynamic dramatically. Today, it’s often said that GitHub is a developer’s resume. People post code there to share with others but also to show off — to demonstrate technical achievement. This improves the recruiting process in a couple of ways. 

First, it’s much easier to find a candidate with experience in the specific area needed. Instead of typing in keywords and hoping they accurately reflect a developer’s expertise, GitHub repositories can be searched for integration with particular code components. So, for example, if a company is looking for a developer with streaming analytics experience, it can search through GitHub for developers with code that works with Apache Kafka — directly relevant experience for the position at hand. 

This ensures a better job fit and raises satisfaction for both parties. From the candidate’s point of view, he or she gets to work on technology in an area that previous work demonstrates a strong interest in. For the company, the employee comes with existing experience, which makes for faster productivity. 

There’s another way the GitHub-as-resume makes recruiting better. By examining a developer’s code, the employer can evaluate quality, experience, and creativity. This allows the organization to identify highly desirable candidates and develop individualized recruiting strategies to increase the probability of a successful offer.

Open source makes the company a more attractive employer

In the war for talent, it’s critical to be a company that candidates want to join. One way to do this is to make open source a central part of the software environment used in application development and operations. This makes the company a more attractive employer — and candidates more likely to join.

Why is this?

For one, it’s more likely that candidates will find familiar technology when they join the company. This holds true whether they are early in their career or have established track records. Many new graduates have mostly worked with open source in their college studies, so they may already have relevant experience when they join. More established candidates may find it easy to get up to speed with skills they already possess.

In either case, if new employees begin working with familiar open-source components, it often raises their confidence that they’ll be successful, reducing their perceived risk of coming into a new work environment.

Just as important is the fact that candidates like working with widely used open-source components because it protects their career. Experience with industry-standard open-source products means finding a new job is easier.

How important is this factor? I heard the CIO of a major entertainment company say that shifting from an internally developed (i.e., proprietary) platform to an open-source alternative increased their candidate flow significantly — because nobody wants to be locked into skills that are only useful at one company.

Open source offers an attractive career path

A common trait among most technical personnel is that they are drawn to creativity and challenge. Many find executing the same task every day repetitive and boring — and a goad to seek another employer.

Smart companies recognize this and look for ways to allow employees to develop their skills and take on more engaging work. 

A smart way to do this is to extend the organization’s open-source strategy from consumption to creation. What do I mean by that? 

Many IT organizations have embraced open source for reasons of cost and quality. Open source has proved its ability to deliver great software components that can be used as building blocks in creating applications. 

But some IT organizations now recognize that there is far more value to be gained in actively developing open-source code and contributing it back to the core project codebase. Clearly, this enables the company to implement desired functionality and ensure its ongoing support in the core project code. 

There’s more: Active participation in open-source development offers technical staff an opportunity to spread their wings and build skills and a reputation, both within the company and in the larger technical community. 

For ambitious technical staff, this kind of opportunity is catnip and can raise job satisfaction and engagement — not to mention allows them to build skills that will be useful throughout the remainder of their career.

Open Source helps build the company’s brand

If an organization commits to the open-source path, it will realize technical benefits: faster development, greater access to innovation, and lower costs. Open-source commitment can also raise a company’s profile in the software world and help it become a highly desirable place to work — in other words, shift recruiting from an outward activity to an inbound engagement.

As outlined in this Fast Company article, Capital One is a good example of this. As it began its journey from traditional IT organization to FinTech powerhouse, it stepped up its use of open-source software. Along the way, it recognized that the innovation it needed in order to compete required open-source software development.

This takes the form of contributing to existing projects, but Capital One took its open-source efforts beyond this form of engagement. It created brand new projects that address its needs but then made them available under open-source licenses to allow other organizations to use them as well.

Capital One then began evangelizing its open-source innovation by sponsoring meetups and speaking at open source conferences.

The net effect of this is that Capital One has built a reputation as an innovative company and become a magnet for talent. Its commitment to open source makes clear that it is a forward-looking, creative environment — one that many talented candidates would find a highly attractive place to work.

Open source and the war for talent

I often say that IT’s role is shifting from “support the business” to “be the business.” It is no longer tenable for an IT organization to aim for middle-of-the-pack capability. IT organizations must equip their companies for success in a “software eating the world” environment. 

That requires world-class talent — talent that has lots of demand, and many options. Embracing open-source software can help organizations be more attractive to potential employees and win the war for talent.

Bernard Golden

Written by Bernard Golden

Named one of Wired.com’s 10 most influential persons in cloud computing, Bernard Golden is CEO of Navica and writes an award-winning blog.