Cooperation and Open Source


“It appears from these studies that humans are predisposed to cooperation and generosity, and only become selfish when they take time to think about the situation.”


This is a quote from an Ars Technica article.  Reading the article (go read it!) made me think about how the idea applies to software, and more generally the business of technology.  I see an obvious application of the theory in the concept of open source software. Open source is a philosophy of building software cooperatively. It’s people working together, often supported by competing companies, to solve a shared problem. From a common tech foundation, the different companies can all then compete on more interesting things like service quality and sense of humor, which is happening in the cloud world today with Openstack.

These days, innovative software often starts off as open source but then becomes more closed off as a business is set up around it and the people involved start thinking more about how to make money.  That in turn often kills the momentum of the software project and sometimes the company itself along with it.  When the company does survive, another open source option inevitably comes along to replace the original software anyway.  The selfishness predicted by the study leads companies to reduced cooperation which in turn reduces the longterm value of the original technology they work to promote. Rackspace, a competitor of DreamHost, is one of the original sponsors of Openstack. They realized that for the technology to thrive, it needed to be free from the control of any one company. Openstack is now managed by an independent foundation and DreamHost is a founding member of that foundation.

In closed companies, workers are expected to cooperate with one another internally, but not at all externally. That’s ultimately confusing and frustrating to a technical problem solver because there’s obvious duplication of effort (a.k.a. wasting time), and also because you can’t learn nearly as quickly if you don’t talk to everyone else thinking about a problem. It feels unnatural and just doesn’t make sense to be closed off that way. Technical people are creative people; they love to learn about new things and to build and create new things. Building something someone else has already built before is simply not satisfying.  These days, all of the smartest companies participate in open source projects (even Microsoft!).

Bringing it back to the original linked article, I believe that study shows that being more open and cooperative is also a better way of being human. Working within an open culture on open projects is more satisfying, rewarding, and engaging. When people are more engaged, they do better work and create more value. If you mentally follow that along a few more iterations, it becomes clear that open source and open technologies will always win out over closed and proprietary technologies.

At both DreamHost and Inktank, we’re major proponents and creators of open source software. Inktank’s whole purpose of being is to support and further the adoption of the open source Ceph software (created by DreamHost co-founder Sage Weil).  DreamHost wouldn’t exist if it were not for the foundation of open source we build on. We believe open is better in all things. It’s a better way of communicating, a better way of building software, and a better way of building an organization. We’re betting our future on it!