Five things I learned working in an Open Source company

11 Mar 2020 5 min read
Written by Nicoleta Bîncă, Communications & Marketing Assistant

Before joining XWiki, I had little to no idea what Open Source really meant, apart from the basics - the software's source code is available for anyone to modify. But besides that? Not really. Was it really that different from any other proprietary company? How were things done? I wasn't sure what to expect. Nine months after joining the Marketing team at XWiki and a prolonged period of questioning and observing, I can confidently say I've learned quite a few things about being part of an Open Source working environment. Here are my takeaways from the experience, so far. 

1. How important organizing information is

It probably is safe to say we all faced the challenge of having to find that one document to complete a task. Either you didn't know where to search for it or had to scour through the endless sea of files, both scenarios are counterproductive and waste your time. I know each time I had to deal with this in previous jobs, I was left feeling lost and frustrated. Why did it have to be such a difficult process for me to find what I needed to do my job? 

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Today, everything runs on knowledge. You can't use information if you don't have it. Those who manage it well thrive, while those who don't are swamped by silos and misalignment.

At XWiki, however, organizing information is the backbone of how we operate. It would be a bit ironic not to use our own knowledge management software internally. I can clearly remember the relief I felt when I was first introduced to the XWiki internal intranet, particularly the Marketing Wiki. Finally! An organized place where I could find everything I needed, at the mere click of a button. This not only made it easier for me to integrate but also helped me learn the ins and outs of how things were being done. All because I had access to best practices, procedures, tools, and virtually all the required materials to get started. Having all resources centralized in a comprehensive manner boosted my productivity and helped me efficiently complete tasks.

If your team has yet to embrace organizing information, maybe you could be the one to start suggesting it. Without a doubt, knowing where to go for information offers a sense of clarity and essentially makes it easier for you to do your job. Once you've seen how seamless work becomes when you have everything you need in one place, it's hard to go back. I know, from hands-on experience, that I wouldn't want to go back to spending time asking around and continuously searching through numerous files just to understand how I'm supposed to do my job.

2. Why collaboration improves an organization

One way or another, collaboration is ever-present in any workplace. It's just a matter of efficiently reinforcing and making it work. At XWiki, we seem to have found a recipe that works for us - collaboration is not only encouraged, but also facilitated. All vital information is stored on our intranet, which helps teams stay up to date with each other's progress. When I first began working here, I didn't know what other teams in XWiki were exactly doingBut I knew I could very easily familiarize myself with those aspects because I had access to all necessary information. Overall, this made the entire process of learning the ins and outs of the company faster compared to a scenario where I would have had to find out all of it by sitting in meetings or training sessions. The teams also use other Open Source tools (like Riot.im) to ensure communicating with each other is easy and even take part in polls (using CryptPad) or vote on each other's ideas. Trying to make working together seamless is a collective effort, powered by real-time collaboration and proactive behavior.

Collaboration not only helps create a cohesive workspace but also instills a sense of stability and openness.

This is not to say that creating a fully functional collaborative workplace is easy. It's not. It is a collective effort that takes time before you find out how to make it work for everyone. However, the payoff is well worth it.  Collaboration encourages employees to look beyond the benefit of individual contributions and get involved in working together. On top of that, it helps the company thrive by bringing everyone a little closer to each other and honing the mission of your organization. 

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3. How to build transparency

A value many companies are doing their best to adopt, transparency is the core of Open Source. When everyone has access to the source code, everything is out in the open. Users know exactly what they're getting so there are no surprises when it comes to adapting the software, which helps create a level of trust and openness between the community and the company. However, simply producing Open Source software does not make a company transparent.

Transparency involves more than allowing access to code, designs or products. It is a commitment to total clarity, in business practices, structure and communication. - DB Hurley

As part of the Open Source movement, at XWiki, it is well known that transparency is key to successful collaboration, not only with the community but internally as well. This is why internal communication has been built on the very philosophy we operate: encourage initiative, free-thinking, and communication. There is a sense of respect in place for different opinions, which allows each employee to speak out and contribute while being confident that the work done is evaluated on meritocracy. I know this always sounds nice on paper and might seem like empty words to some. But, in my case, I was encouraged from the very beginning to speak my mind and get involved. Any ideas, suggestions or feedback (even negative) I had, I could just hop in the team chat and communicate them freely. I will not pretend I started pouring my heart out with ideas at that moment, but it did make it easier to communicate whenever I came up with something I thought could be discussed and implemented. Having the knowledge of simple things such as how the company is performing, what needs to be improved or what is planned for the future helps to feel more personally involved with the goals of the company because you actually feel part of it at a much deeper level. 

Transparency keeps everyone rowing together in the same direction toward a common goal. - Brett Dunst

The way you build transparency is not by just saying things, but by doing them. You can say you are going to leverage freedom of choice, knowledge and deliberate, but the way you go about doing those things is what matters - in a deliberate and actionable way.  Transparency inspires trust - the more you share with your employees, the more faith they will have in you and the more motivated they will be to improve themselves.

Transparency works on a personal level, because you don't have to remember lies. -  Dana Blankenhorn

4. Why the power of the community overrides fading trends

When it comes to Open Source companies, they have something very powerful at their disposal that proprietary companies do not - the community. Bound by a common drive to support a solution both the enterprise and community can benefit from, the Open Source community is, perhaps, the main reason for the success of Open Source software. Many of the people making it up are, most often than not, strangers who choose to work together and unite toward a common goal: improving a solution they believe in. It is the easiest way to gain insight into the minds of the users by directly engaging with them and listening to their needs. 

It is not the company producing Open Source software that has the last word, it is the community that tells you what it needs and not what's "trendy".

At XWiki, it's not only the employees working on developing and enhancing the software. The community is always pitching in and contributing one way or another, making development an overall easier process, while also bringing fresh perspectives on what can be done or how it should be done. The collective power of such a community of talented individuals coming together not only delivers more ideas but also quicker development and troubleshooting. This is why XWiki's development will continue to remain transparent as contributors report bugs, find fixes or suggest new features. It's not only the team I'm part of working on and benefiting from the product. It is also thousands of other people helping us improve it by letting us know what they need to achieve their own goals with it. The idea and possibility that anyone is able to contribute to making the software better are what allows us and any other Open Source business to thrive.

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5. How being involved in something bigger transforms your vision about work

As clichéd as may sound, Open Source really isn't about the software, it's about the people. You are not part of just a company, you are part of a project that serves people from everywhere around the world and helps them achieve their own goals. You take part in creating a product that everyone can use, modify and adapt to meet their needs, all the while becoming just as invested as you are (if not more). The thought alone of working on something with more than just your colleagues is enough to change your perspective on work itself.

Open Source has transformed how businesses work, develop, and operate. 

While not part of the development process itself, I was still able to witness the way in which Open Source shapes and changes a working environment. The team that develops the product isn't just collaborating with each other, they are joining forces and synchronizing with the community as a well-oiled machine. It is a collective effort on all fronts, both from the company and community to improve the software in such a way that leads to a mutually beneficial outcome. Being part Open Source company is all about seeing the bigger picture and realizing just how much your work, alongside the community's, impacts the world. 

Final thoughts

Being part of an Open Source company is a bit of a unique experience, and I think Mark Atwood put it best as to why: "When your work on Open Source, you get to work on things that benefit the world". Of course, all the points I've listened in this article are biased and come from my own experience and will not apply to everyone working in Open Source. However, I think they could still be useful to keep in mind. Drop us a comment or tag us on social media if you'd like to share your own experience with Open Source - either as part of a company or as a contributor to your favorite project. We'd love to hear what Open Source is like for others. 

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