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Trust and Zeal in Open Source Advocacy

by Jono Bacon, coauthor of Linux Desktop Hacks

Ever since the seedling that was free software and open source began to propagate through the early tunnels of the internet, extensive sociopolitical analysis has been aimed at defining the open source community. One theory is that the community is essentially a meritocracy, a group founded upon the ideals of ability and effort. Meritocracies are, after all, nothing new; the military is a prime example. In a world where invisible governments so often drive communities, the concept of replacing the nobility of blood with that of virtue attracts idealists and ethical protagonists alike. Although few would deny the admirable ideals behind open source, this idealism can hinder open source progress in the nonidealistic, cut-and-dried business world.

Within any community, zeal plays a critical part in defining how that community can move forward. Eric Raymond, author of The Cathedral & the Bazaar, provides a particularly nice definition of zealotry:

A person of great zeal might say "Free software is my life! I exist to create useful, beautiful programs and information resources, and then give them away." A person of moderate zeal might say "Open source is a good thing, which I am willing to spend significant time helping happen." A person of little zeal might say "Yes, open source is okay sometimes. I play with it and respect people who build it."

From an outside perspective, you may assume that you really need to attract heavily zealous people; surely they offer the firmest commitment to the cause.

Normal People Don't Like Evangelists

If one point is critical to drill in, it is that people who are unfamiliar with open source generally don't like evangelists--at all. This is particularly true for managers who may take the same disdain to evangelists that they take to salespeople and marketers.

The important difference between an evangelistic zealot and a consultant is the authenticity of the advice; a zealous evangelist may advise you to go the open source route irrespective of whether it is right for you, yet a consultant is far more likely to identify what your needs are and determine how--and if--open source can help you. The latter is most certainly the approach you should seek. It is the only path I try to advise.

Evangelism by its very nature is embroiled in militant zeal for a cause. The perception of evangelism as a potentially fanatical pushing of a cause stems from its traditionally religious roots; in the eyes of many, an evangelist is someone who is a mouthpiece or proponent of a particular faith. Although evangelism is perfectly acceptable and often desirable when applied to that of unbending faith in God, the same approach applies less often to a business culture where logic, politics, and doing lunch rule.

Building the Bridge

Related Reading

Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing
By Andrew M. St. Laurent

The challenge you face is how to translate the technical and ethical issues involved in open source and present them in such a way that does not alienate your sector. This translation is more than overcoming the technical reasons that open source software could be useful; it's also aligning the ideals of open source with the ideals of the sector you are targeting. Open source's commonly cited technical goals of stability, open standards, accountability, and future proofing are straightforward to explain to many organizations. Many of these concepts have their grounding in logic and competition, and much of the discussion applies favorably to real migration issues.

The challenge you face is legitimizing the meat and potatoes of community dependence in software. Martin Fink, author of The Business and Economics of Linux and Open Source, determines in his writings that while all commercial software decreases in value over time, the merits of open source drastically speed up the process. Fink believes that a huge community of developers working together can produce a competitive open source product fast, and this community will add features for which a closed source vendor would want to charge extra. Fink's assertion of such value in the open source process is important. In many ways, it is more important than the resultant product.

Legitimizing the concept of community and the community-driven open source process partially involves trying to persuade the business culture that being competitive does not require having absolute control of the process, developers, and final product. In the same way that intellectual investment and embrace and extend are common buzzwords bandied around boardrooms, the business culture needs to understand how to apply these ideas to an open source process. Real Networks, the creator of RealPlayer and the open source Helix platform, has been successful in legitimizing this process. "We said to ourselves, rather than continually bringing out no-cost but proprietary software, we should look at leveraging our customers and users," says Kevin Foreman, general manager for Helix technology at Real. He continues, "Because Microsoft has $50 billion in the bank, they could out-engineer us, but they can't out-engineer the world." Although the Helix platform does not extend to Real's proprietary codecs, each new step is another step in legitimizing open source.


When you are trying to build a bridge between two cultures, it is important to understand how the cultures work; only then can you patch cables between the similarities. Trust plays a key role in both the community aspects of open source and the business decisions in the enterprise world. This trust nominally hinges on reputation--a good reputation is critical in allying these two separate cultures and making the connection. Reputation is particularly important within the business environment. Conventional wisdom argues that "our assets are our people, capital and reputation. If any of these are ever diminished, the last is the most difficult to restore." This quote, from the highly regarded Goldman Sachs business principles, quintessentially summarizes the importance that businesses place in reputational integrity.

With reputation so important to business, your reputation as an advocate of open source software is essential. In the next few parts of this advocacy series, I will cover some essential techniques in understanding how to arm yourself with a reputation and knowledge portfolio that strengthens your ability as an advocate. The goal of this work is not to create a disguise that unfaithfully represents you, but it will help to prepare you to understand some of the finer-grained issues involved in promoting open source in your targeted sector. Given the importance of trust and reputation, and the disdain towards salespeople, you may have only one chance to recommend open source for some of these organizations. You may as well go in armed with the right information.


Before I close, I want to emphasize how you can help contribute to this column. As an advocate, learning from others is essential in us growing as a community of advocates. As such, I am eager to see your experiences, views, and comments about the discussion in each part of the column. If you have anything to contribute, please feel free to add your comments below. This way, readers can discuss the concepts mentioned here and possibly unwrap other ideas, theories, and case studies in this growing field.

Jono Bacon is an award-winning leading community manager, author and consultant, who has authored four books and acted as a consultant to a range of technology companies. Bacon's weblog ( is one of the widest read Open Source weblogs.

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