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Open Source as a model for the ‘New Normal’

This collaborative way of working makes smarter, more resilient tech.

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Illustration by Tara Jacoby

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In the beginning, most software was proprietary — that is, it was developed privately, its intellectual property often owned solely by a corporation or its developers, and its source code was as closely guarded as a secret family recipe. But by the late 1990s, there was a new ethos on the rise — one that believed that software could be made better, more innovative and resilient by opening it up to the input of many different people. This new way of thinking began with a glimmer of activity in the free software movement, continued through the Linux revolution, and eventually reached the ultimate, logical expression of business collaboration: open source.

More than 20 years after its inception, the open source software movement is still going strong. More than 80% of the world’s smartphones run on Android, an operating system built on the open source Linux system, while organizations from the Department of Defense to NASA use open source software in their operations. (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab even opened up the source code for its Mars rover to create a teaching tool for future cosmonauts.) More than anything, the open source community has created a technological ecosystem that thrives on collaboration, adaptability, and resilience. 

“Open source means you get to work with the best engineers out there — you’re not limited by who your company can hire.”

“Open source is all about people collaborating at scale with transparency and openness to achieve common goals and interests,” says Tracy Miranda, executive director of the Continuous Delivery Foundation, an organization committed to expanding the world’s capacity to deliver software quickly and securely. Miranda is a longtime open source advocate and knows the benefits of working in an open source environment firsthand. “Open source means you get to work with the best folks out there, you’re not limited by who your company can hire,” she says. “The collaborative, transparent nature makes it very innovative. It’s no surprise the best engineers want to work with open source.” 

Collaboration has also taken on a vital new role in the shadow of Covid-19 with organizations facing the new normal of distributed, remote teams. The open source community has been thriving on global collaboration for decades, and can teach business leaders about the value of cooperation across disciplines, expertise, and geography. “The open source community revolutionized distributed collaboration at scale,” says Miranda. Covid-19 has put that way of working — and open source in general — into the spotlight, and companies across the globe are seeing the benefits.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

Setting engineers up for success

Known for being a data and tech pioneer in the financial services industry, Capital One has embraced the open source movement with the creation of its Open Source Program Office (OSPO), a sort of laboratory that invests in the community. “We didn’t want to use open source as just a tool, we wanted to be open source first,” says John Mark Walker, director of the OSPO and a long-time open source community, product, and strategy expert. 

He’s a staunch advocate for three benefits open source brings to an organization: speed, quality, and innovation. Because of the massive libraries of code available on open source projects, engineers are able to deliver software in accelerated development cycles, speeding up the usual timelines for engineering. Applications are also integrated easily within source ecosystems, allowing organizations to leverage a global community of talent to find innovative solutions. There’s also a worldwide network of eyes on code bases which provides quality control at scale.

“Open source is about the ability to take your fate into your own hands.”

“Open source is about the ability to take your fate into your own hands,” says Walker. Which is why, when an engineer identifies a project they’d like to contribute to, they’re able to pitch it to the OSPO and, once it’s vetted for strategic value to the wider community, there’s a robust infrastructure to support its development and delivery. It’s one way that the bank is fostering innovation through an embrace of open source — and engineers are taking notice. 

Capital One’s investment in open source is part of its broader efforts to use emerging technology to transform banking, which includes its decision to go all in on the public cloud, as well as shift to modern architectural standards like RESTful APIs and microservices architecture. The company has learned that embracing open source and other innovative ways of working has both strengthened its business, and attracted some of the industry’s most ambitious, creative engineers.

A global open source community

The effects of that investment have reverberated. As a group, Capital One engineers have made more than 1500 contributions to 100 different open source projects and created more than 25 projects of their own — some of which have become notable successes. Since its engineers released Hygieia, a DevOps dashboard that enabled the visualization of key metrics in 2015,  it’s been forked hundreds of times on GitHub and adopted by 160 companies worldwide, including Verizon and Walmart. Its 2016 Cloud Custodian tool has also become popular within the open source community, with engineers at Microsoft, Google, and AWS contributing to the code base over the years. 

The OSPO’s focus on open source tools for cloud computing has paid dividends as the Covid-19 pandemic continues. When the business world needed to use distributed teams in remote environments without much warning, Capital One was able to quickly act and empower their employees wherever they were. “Our move to cloud computing enabled us to pivot,” says Walker. “But it was our cloud and our open source strategy that let us do that. You can’t move things to the cloud without open source technology, and it’s open source that made that transition to cloud computing and remote work smooth.”

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

Innovation through openness

Progress is never made in a vacuum; it’s done through cooperation between curious common spirits. That’s never more vital than in the face of a crisis like Covid-19, where workflows were turned on their head virtually overnight. “Open source thrives in difficult times,” says Miranda. The collaborative resilience that the open source model brings to the table makes it especially valuable for distributed teams who are dealing with the unexpected — such as how a global pandemic transforms our habits.

That unique adaptability has driven the open source community since its inception nearly 25 years ago, when a group of engineers and idealists saw a future where the most successful technology in the world would be programmed by a global body of like-minded people. Walker believes that as time goes on, more businesses will see the value in cultivating a culture that champions innovation, adaptability, and empowerment. “Nobody is going back to the old days,” he says, “where an organization’s fate lay in the hands of a single developer.”

Miranda agrees: “My advice for organizations is that they should really leverage open source in their organizations — it is a super power. It benefits your teams, products, and organization reputation all at the same time. It is not easy to do without committing fully, but those who do embrace it are very successful in achieving their goals.” For open source advocates the world over, the future is the one we create together.