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Hiring the Open Source Way

Hiring the Open Source Way

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October 4, 2007 (

In a business utopia every employer would be able to hand raise their employees, selecting those who showed early potential and molding them to naturally excel in a chosen skill set. HR departments would become happy havens of retention and corporate trainers would become den mothers fostering natural selection. Alas, it is not a “brave new world” in which we live. Employees are not decanted with a programmed set of skills, and children are not conditioned to prefer one type of work over another. In this society, individuals choose their professional track, and hopefully a wise choice is made. Sometimes, success is achieved on both sides; other times, the two sides collide then go their separate ways. Imagine how both sides would benefit if employers had an established set of potential hires who had already proven their worth, and if employees had an opportunity to experience the company culture before committing to it. This is where businesses associated with open source software projects hold a distinct hiring advantage: a skilled pool of IT professionals who are already demonstrating their worth through volunteering and contributing to a project.

Consider this: a newcomer becomes active in an open source project. This is nothing extraordinary in itself, but then think about what could grow out of it. This person starts by contributing some bug fixes and maybe some documentation. Over time, this new contributor becomes more invested in the project, writing tests, plug-ins and core feature enhancements. In the meantime, the open source related business gets to review that contributor's work and gain a feel for his skill level. The contributor is also becoming an active participant in the community by participating in forums, IRC channels and mailing lists, providing additional insight into this person's personality and how he might fit into an organization. Along the way, the employer needs help with a professional project. Having seen the contributor's work, a project contract is offered, further allowing both sides to demonstrate and evaluate that contributor's abilities. Eventually, a staff position opens up in the business. The employer could go through the traditional hiring process, but why? Having already become familiar with the project, demonstrated skill and ability, and proven a good work ethic, the contributor from the open source community is a natural fit for the position.

This seems to be a win-win situation for all involved. The employer is able to feel at ease with the hire already knowing the person's personality traits, skill level, work quality and work ethic. Each side enters the situation already having communicated and worked with the other, easing the transition. The new hire is obviously interested in the product or that person wouldn't have been volunteering so much time to the project. This also brings the advantage of reduced formal training because this person has been working and contributing for some time before the hire takes place. The new hire can come on board and immediately be productive. And from an employer's perspective, the hiring process is as painless as can be: no wasted time spent reviewing unqualified applicants' resumes or conducting hours of interviews.

The only real disadvantage to this situation is that hiring from the open source community is diminishing that community. A once active open source contributor is now a paid employee; however, since the purpose of the open source related business is to help sustain and aid the project's growth, it really isn't poaching from the community. It's just redefining that particular person's role. Where once the person freely contributed, he may now be providing support and other professional services back to the community. In this case, the results go full circle.

Open source projects thrive on volunteerism, and the ability for all to benefit from those efforts is a true advantage. While contributing to an open source project is in and of itself rewarding, most people also have professional agendas to fulfill. Let's face it, everyone needs money, and few would pass up the opportunity to make some money doing what they already enjoy. Plain Black Corporation, headquartered in Madison, WI is an example of a company that benefits from hiring within its open source community. Plain Black makes WebGUI, an open source content management system, and provides professional services related to the project. Since its inception, both WebGUI and Plain Black have quickly grown in a relatively short amount of time, and while growth is great it brings with it some headaches. It's difficult to keep up with demand in a rapidly growing environment, and more than one business has failed because it outgrew itself.

In this situation, Plain Black has directly benefited from turning to WebGUI's community in times of rapid growth. Plain Black's staff routinely interacts with the WebGUI community, so everyone in the company has the opportunity to recognize potential employees. Over the years, a dozen or so community members have become Plain Black staff through contracting and filling internal positions. Recently, Plain Black hired its Director of Media Relations as a result of a professional relationship that grew directly out of community involvement. Six years ago, Tavis Parker adopted WebGUI for his website consulting business. Within a year, Tavis changed the focus of his company to specialize in WebGUI-based projects, which led to increased involvement in the WebGUI community. Tavis actively contributed design styles and graphics, collaborated on documentation, and assisted other WebGUI community members on support forums. This fostered a relationship between Tavis and Plain Black, and eventually Tavis began presenting at the annual WebGUI Users Conference, hosted by Plain Black. In addition, Tavis was offered contract work with Plain Black for design and development of WebGUI sites. In 2007, this relationship culminated in a staff position with Plain Black when Tavis was hired as Director of Media Relations. Already familiar with Tavis's work, Plain Black knew that Tavis was ideally suited for the position, and Tavis was able to start working immediately due to his prior experience with Plain Black and WebGUI.

Using the talented pool of professionals already active in the global WebGUI community, Plain Black has been able to maintain a high level of productivity by hiring community members who have consistently demonstrated a high level of skill and dedication. While community members may not receive every contract project Plain Black offers, they have consistently proven themselves a valuable asset. Not only do these members contribute countless hours to the WebGUI community, they also help sustain its parent company. The community members benefit by receiving monetary compensation for their efforts, and Plain Black benefits by having an established professional workforce to pull from.

The hiring process can be time consuming and costly, and every employer would like to find ways to ease the process. Hiring from an established open source community can be beneficial to all by eliminating much of the time associated with searching for and bringing on a new employee. When an open source related business turns to a project's community they have the opportunity to test the waters first and pull from a proven talent source, instead of blindly sorting through paper resumes without any real indication of an individual's true worth. In the world of technology, the race to snatch up talented IT professionals before someone else grabs them is difficult enough. An open source community, on the other hand, is pre-populated with individuals who are already interested and invested in contributing. Use those contributions as a test to gauge potential employees and everyone will benefit in the process, creating a sort of hiring utopia that takes some of the pain out of the employee hunt.

JT Smith is the President of Plain Black Corporation the developer and distributor of the WebGUI Content Engine. He speaks internationally on topics related to web content management.