A few years ago I sat in an office in San Francisco’s SoMa district, attempting to write a difficult email before a meeting. That email was about a plan to refactor my company as an open source project. And that meeting was a quick intro chat with a visiting Australian, Jane Scowcroft, the Head of Product for CSIRO’s Data61. That's the innovation arm of Australia's national science and research body.
Which turns out to be quite the coincidence.
Today I’m writing about starting my new job at CSIRO as an open source strategist. I’m joining as a contracting consultant with the mission of helping Jane and an incredible team of developers, designers, engineers, researchers and scientists work through the same kinds challenges and opportunities I faced when considering the potential of open source to achieve a greater impact. But on an exponentially bigger scale.
To understand what I will be working on I keep thinking back to the situation when we first met.
The open source opportunity
During that conversation with Jane my mind kept wandering to a series of challenges I was struggling with. The most stressful of those was how to keep up with the growth of our enterprise SaaS product.
To secure our revenue model we had to solve a strange problem. Corilla’s free users demanded additional core features before converting to paid plans. Meanwhile Corilla’s most energetic advocates (including some of our former Red Hat colleagues) had actually built many of these features in their own exploration. They wanted to help us fit those pieces together — an opportunity for open source.
Meanwhile we were also using open source projects as part of our stack. At first we just grabbed anything that could power our MVP. But moving into growth mode we now had to understand the impact of licenses, shifting development and deployment trends, and how our stack fit in with scalable cloud platforms.
The open source challenge
Contributors wanting to help build things for a project, projects being used to make great products, products enabling companies to resource contributors. That’s the story of open source, right?
This phenomenon of the virtuous cycle of mass global enablement and collective creation is why I joined Red Hat in the first place. But even with that experience I still learned so many hard lessons when it came time to spin out and attempt this with Corilla.
Narratives are not instruction manuals after all. Hence the need for experienced strategists to tackle issues including licensing, community management, project sourcing and risk evaluation, resourcing, and developer (let alone investor) relations.
That’s without even asking what to do when an open source component is discovered to contain a critical issue or a maintainer pulls the plug. And don't forget the challenge of change management and influencing internal culture — all without risking the commercialisation of sophisticated research and technology.
A new open source mission
I join CSIRO and the Data61 team as a contractor with both a specific scope and an overall broad mission. Already I’ve found there to be immense passion for and literacy in open source right across the organisation.
I’m impressed by the talented product leaders like Jane Scowcroft and Hilary Cinis, as well as Data61 CEO and startup veteran Adrian Turner, who advocate for deep research to result in innovative products that make an impact in Australia and around the planet. I am of course still a product leader first and foremost — open source projects without successful products are an interest rather than an industry — so I feel very at home with the team’s practical approach and "product as purpose" mindset.
If my time with the team can move the dial even a little in how we approach, use, understand and contribute to open source, that’s going to result in an outsized impact over time. An opportunity I’m excited and grateful to be a part of (especially in the context of my earlier post about dedicating 2019 to open source research).
For more info about CSIRO and Data61 check the links. And for some follow-on reading, read how Joshua Simmons explains the role of an open source strategist, and then Mozilla’s report on the ten common archetypes for open source. And of course — drop me a line anytime!