Open Source Ideology

Oh hey look, my employer Artsy is in the news! We got a great write-up in The Verge and our recent fundraising was reported on in Tech Crunch. Very cool!

I’m really proud of my work at Artsy, and I admire the company and its leadership. I especially like a few things, that I would argue have a huge positive impact on our business success.

First, there’s our Open Source by Default policy. We generate a lot of open source: code, tools, frameworks. We create projects for – and contributing back to – the Ruby, Node, iOS, and DevOps open source communities.

Second, there is our adherence to collaboration over disruption. The term “disruption” is such a cliché of Silicon Valley, and I’m really glad to focus more on collaborating with existing art market players than “disrupting” them. As time goes on, folks in the valley are starting to realize that disruption may not be the guaranteed path to business success they thought it was.

And I think these two paradigms – open source and collaboration – complement each other really nicely.

Artsy’s success has always been intrinsically aligned with the company values and open source software. We couldn’t build Artsy without open source, especially with such a small team, and we wouldn’t be as successful as a business without contributing back to that community. Collaboration is intrinsically connected to that open source software as well.

This is something so foundational to Artsy’s engineering culture that it’s hard for me to describe. What I’ll call our open source ideology imbues every conversation I have with one of my engineering colleagues. It’s contagious. Engineers are drawn to it, they join the company, they drink the Kool-Aid. “I can’t imagine working any other way”, I’ll hear them say. I nod. “Neither could I.”

But what is it? Artsy’s open source ideology is defined by “open source by default”, and there are a lot of implications carried in that phrase. To borrow a phrase, open source by default is a mindset. It’s the ability for engineers to ask the community for help on a pull request they’re having a hard time with. It’s taking pride in their work, knowing they can use it and showcase it even after they (eventually) leave the company. It’s a sense of ownership, as open source projects created by Artsy engineers are done on their own GitHub accounts – our engineers own the open source projects they build.

Not all our software is open, but even our closed source software still has open source components that we contribute back to. And that closed source software is often modularized and open sourced piecemeal anyway. We aim for a sort of… minimum viable closed source.

So why is this open source ideology so important to Artsy’s business success? Let’s frame the impact in business terms.

  • Low turnover. It’s rare for an engineer to leave Artsy. Turnover, especially in specialized fields like software engineering, is a huge cost for businesses. Replacing engineers is expensive, and we don’t often have to do it. That’s because we’ve got…
  • Engaged engineers. Our engineering team is really engaged with their work; our internal anonymous surveys back this up. I doubt we could accomplish as much as we do with only 25 engineers if we weren’t highly engaged with our jobs. You can read more about the impact of employee engagement on businesses here.
  • Reputation. Smart businesses know that you can never have too much reputation. Artsy is well-known among developers in the open source community. That helps us attract talent, making hiring engineers a lot easier for us.
  • Familiarity with tools. Every business relies on open source software, at some level, and our team is familiar with a lot of that tooling. There are teammates available to pair with you on whatever compiler/language/tool issue you’re having to find the problem, document a fix, and hopefully submit a pull request back to the project.

So there are a lot of business upsides to working in the open. The risks are pretty minimal too. People tend to overestimate the risks anyway, since the unfamiliar is always scarier than the status quo.

Our ideology is a feedback loop – a sort of flywheel that keeps gaining momentum. The more we contribute to open source, the more we benefit as a business, allowing us to contribute more back, and so on.

Our values are open source. They all contribute to our success. But openness, particularly in software, will always be close to my heart, and I’ll see it reflected in our success all the time. I believe that this is how the whole software industry will work, eventually, and I’m proud to be ahead of the curve.

I would encourage you to experiment with open source by default at your own workplace. Remember, it’s open source by default, not by demand. It’s okay to have closed source! The steps to start open source by default, more rationale behind the idea, and tales of our own progress towards this goal are all documented. Check it out, get in touch if you have questions.


Posted on July 18, 2017