Running a Successful Open Source Project

This post is based on a talk that Gunnar Wagenknecht and I delivered at the Open Source Leadership Summit 2017 and Devoxx US 2017. This content was recently published in the All Eyes on Open Source issue of JAX Magazine.

Running an open source project is easy. All you have to do is make your source code available and you’re open source, right? Well, maybe. Ultimately, whether or not an open source project is successful depends on your definition of success. Regardless of your definition, creating an open source project can be a lot of work. If you have goals regarding adoption, for example, then you need to be prepared to invest. While open source software is “free as in beer”, it’s not really free: time and energy are valuable resources and these valuable resources need to be invested in the project.

So, how do you invest those resources?

Define success. Before you can consider running a successful open source project, you need to have a clear definition of success. There are many factors to consider. Is it enough to just get some code into a publicly accessible repository or do you want more for your project? Is collaboration and adoption important to you? Are you just trying to build your reputation as as software developer? Does your definition of success long include long term viability? Do you want to grow a community around the project? Do you care about commercial adoption? Your answer to these questions can help you decide how many of the rest of our recommendations you’ll need to adopt.

Be transparent. Transparency is pretty simple to understand: make it so that the community can watch and understand what you’re doing: use a publicly accessible source code repository that’s easy to find, use public facing issue tracking software, post your release plans where the community can find them, and capture meeting minutes in public forums (e.g. mailing lists with archives).

Be open. For a lot of open source projects, “transparency” and “openness” mean the same thing, but the terms really are quite different. Being open is more than just being “open book” (which is essentially the same thing as transparency). For many, the “open” in open source means open to new ideas, or open to participation. The rules for participating in an open source project should be the same for everybody (“level playing field”): it’s not enough to just accept a few patches, you have to be open to new ideas. In short, you have to let others in and give up absolute control of the project.

Keep the “Playing Field Level”.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to let just anybody join the project, but rather that you ensure that the same set of rules apply to everybody (the playing field may be level, but you still have to earn your way onto the field). Meritocracy is about earning your way in.  Some projects implement meritocracy, for example, by requiring that developers make some number of contributions to demonstrate that they understand the code, rules, and culture of the project before inviting them to join the project team. Make sure that the process for adding new developers to your project are well known and that the process is operated transparently (e.g. a public vote).

Be vendor neutral. In order to be truly open, people need to feel welcome to contribute. This is easier if the project is vendor neutral. A vendor neutral project is not dominated by any organization or organizations; meritocracy should be based on the contributions of an individual, not the goals or hiring practices of any specific organization. Hosting at vendor neutral foundation is one way to achieve this.

Have well defined and documented standards. Be sure to document your project’s code formatting rules (make code formatter preferences easily accessible), expectations with regard to test coverage, development methodology, software and tools required, channels to connect with the project team, and other important information for potential contributors. Capture all of this information and make it as easy as possible to find. It’s a good practice to include a contribution guide in the root of your projects source code repositories (with DVCS, it’s entirely possible that potential contributors will find a copy of a copy of a copy of your repository; having the contribution guide in the repository will make it easy for potential contributors to find their way home).

Ensure that the project code is always buildable. Include build scripts and instructions with the project code. Make it as easy as possible to successfully build and test the project code.

Connect with your user community. The user community is that group of people who use the products of your open source project. The user community rarely contributes anything directly to the project code, but does tend to ask a lot of questions. Make sure that those questions get answered. A healthy user community feeds an adopter community.

Connect with your adopter community. An obvious sign of success for an open source project is that other groups start to use your open source project in their own products, or build extensions. This community is more willing to give back to the project and will be the project’s best source of contributions. Some number of those contributors will be great candidates to join your project’s team. Development of an eco-system of adopters and extenders is a great way to ensure the longevity of your project.

Connect with your development community. The development community is comprised of your project’s team members and contributors. Provide well-known channels for communication within this community. Having clear lines of communication will help developers collaborate.

Have a plan. It’s easy to lapse into a pattern of just letting software development happen, but like any process (especially a software development process), having  some method to the madness is critical. Make sure that your project employs a development methodology and make sure that somebody owns the process (e..g a project lead). Having a plan helps developers know where they can contribute the most value and makes it easier for adopters and extenders to implement their own plans (and thereby be successful). Treat your open source project like any other software development project.

Manage your brand. Your project will have a brand. The project’s name is its identity; as is the project logo, along with the names of any products (it’s typical that an the products of an open source project share the name of the project, but some projects produce more than one product). Claim the project’s brand as a trademark and consider registering that trademark. Establish trademark usage guidelines so that adopters know how to use your brand. This is an area where working with an open source software foundation can add value. A foundation can hold and defend the project’s trademarks on behalf of the community. This avoids letting any particular individual or organization hold the project’s name hostage (this happens).

Manage Intellectual property and copyright. The code, documentation, and other artifacts contributed to the project is intellectual property. Who owns that intellectual property? Do the authors retain their ownership, or do they assign it to another entity? Make sure that the rights and responsibilities of contributors are understood by all contributors. Consider having contributors sign a developer certificate of origin (DCO) or a contributor license agreement (CLA). Ensure that copyright notices are included with the source code and in notices.

Note that it is unlikely that the project itself is a legal entity that can hold copyrights. This is another way in which an open source foundation can provide a valuable service.

Pick an OSI-approved open source license. Don’t create your own custom license; that will just add legal hurdles for anybody who wants to use your code. Make sure that the license that you choose is compatible with the manner in which you intend for the code to be used. Further, ensure that the license is compatible with any third party content (e.g. libraries) that your project code needs. Include the SPDX code for your license in the headers for all source files.

Move your project to an open source foundation. We’ve mentioned foundations a few times already. A foundation can first and foremost help you to keep your project vendor neutral, which will help adoption: a bit part of the appeal of open source software is that adopters can avoid being beholden to a particular organization. A foundation can hold onto and defend the project’s trademarks, establish a governance model, help you manage your brand, provide intellectual property management services, and just generally provide assistance and advice for operating a successful open source project. Being a part of an open source foundation provides a value feedback loop. The foundation provides credibility for your open source project which in turn provides credibility to the foundation.

Running an open source project is a lot of work. But, as we’ve suggested, how much work it takes really depends on your definition of success. Fall back on the core principles of open source development: transparency, openness, and meritocracy. Everything else comes from that.

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