Thursday, August 31

What can we learn from the Open Source community?

The most common complains I heard from the developers during my consulting career are as such that “The job is boring”, “The job is too stressful”, or “The manager does not know what he/she is doing”, and if I hear that a lot from the team then it means the team is probably demoralized which in most cases inevitably leads to a project failure. At the same time on the other side, the common complains that coming from the managers usually consist “The developers are not self-motivated/managed”, “The developers are too picky”, or “The developers are too greedy” as you can simply see both sides are not happy with each other, and in most cases that I have observed eventually the trust between managers and developers will be completely broken resulting in further demoralization which ultimately contributes to the failure of the project or can even bring down a company.

Now lets take a look at some of the characteristics of a successful open source team. In my opinion almost every successful and popular open source project has the following characteristics: firstly the team delivers high quality software that largely satisfy end-users' requirement, secondly it is consist of a group of highly skilled and self motivated developers, and finally (this is the sweetest part for the corporation) they don't get to paid to do all of that, but rather doing it for FREE. Now it is obvious this kind of developers are the perfect kind of employees, a dream come true if I may say for many of the corporations out there, so my next question will be how can a company acquire this kind of employees? If I am running a recruiting company, I will probably tell you that I can find someone like that for you, but since I don't I am going to tell you the truth. It all starts from building the company culture. In my opinion, two major contributing factor formed the solid foundation of any successful open source team and their formidable power of devotion.

The Learning Edge

Recent research in Psychology shows that when a person is in a constant and comfortable learning zone without too much pressure, then he/she has a much higher chance to get into a state called “Flow”. Flow, as described in The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a state of altered consciousness in which our ability to concentrate and perform is enormously enhanced. The research also suggests that within this state a great level of self-satisfaction and appreciation are being generated for the individual, in other words in this state a person can be more easily satisfied without too much stimulation from the external environment. The open source project perfectly reflects this theory, most of the team members are not being paid to work but still they devote a large chunk of their time and energy to do something, why? Because they can achieve satisfaction this way without any reward in any materialized form. We all know from Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs that once the basic needs are met the effectiveness of putting more investment such as increasing salary or benefit suffers from the law of Marginal Efficiency of Investment, hence it can not be used effectively as a motivation tool forever, sooner or later the company has to consult to other means to motivate people and of course the Learning Edge is the cheapest and proven the most effective way of doing that. For more information on the Learning Edge management philosophy check out the “The Learning Edge” article that is published on June 2006 ACM Communications journal.

Direct Feedback from the End Users

This is something else that's usually missing in many corporations but playing an very important role in open source community that also contributes to the high level of self-satisfaction and motivation demonstrated by some of the most successful open source team in the field. A good manager knows to openly express his/her appreciation to the team to increase the morale and the team spirit, but just like salary this kind of appreciation from a single manager or even a couple of them also suffers from the law of Marginal Efficiency of Investment and eventually become ineffective or too expensive to be effective, however if you open the communication channel between the developers and the end users directly then you actually open the door to a infinite appreciation program (if the software quality is good and also serves the end user's requirement) as well as an equally infinite monitoring and inspection program (if the software suffers from quality issues or fails to meet the end user's requirement) although special care need to be taken in consideration to remove the distraction and any other negative effects as side effects this direct channel can create, but overall I think the benefit greatly outweighs the shortcomings.

To summarize, to be competitive as a technology company at this post-dot-com era you can not only rely on the traditional management toolkits and philosophies but also need to learn from the open source community to first of all maintain a reasonable salary level as well as talents and most importantly to survive and strive.


Taha Ghaznavi | PROJECTED LIFE Photo said...

Excellent analysis Nick, esp about the learning edge.

Makes me wanna go read my organizational behavior books, and that's saying a lot. :-)

When young techies graduate from university and first enter the workplace, they can think of no better motivation than 'basic needs' (i.e. $$$s) after years of 'learning'.

As the novelty of long work hours and chargeable overtime wears off (usually by the end of their first 'project from hell'), they begin to think about what makes their jobs worth it, what would motivate them in their careers and work assignments.

And, one of the motivating factors they discover to make their work more enjoyable, as stated in your post, is "being in a constant and comfortable learning zone without too much pressure" where we "can be more easily satisfied without too much stimulation from the external environment"...

hmmm.. this sounds a lot like an average university students' life... oh the irony!

Nick Zhu said...

I am glad that you like the post. Yeah this kind of philosophies works the best if applied by the managers or the executives, but it can also be applied at the personal level, so if your manager is not a fan of this theory you can try to align your task and goal accordingly based on this theory yourself.

dbeilis said...

Very well presented, I'm impressed.

I started to write about a similar topic and then noticed this post in your blog. Bravo!!!

I agree that corporate world faces many difficulties today and it needs to change to survive. Open Source is definately one of the models to borrow the experience from.

Personally, I think the fastest way to improve situation is to create a better communication link between managers and the team. Those as you mentioned are two fighting opositions nowadays.


Nick Zhu said...

David, you are right we do have to improve the communication between managers and developers too. Btw, I just added your Blog link on the home page.