HolidayBuyer's Guide

Building, not buying, tomorrow's open-source superstars

Hiring well in open source is critical, so why do so many companies do it so poorly?

I love Arsenal. If you read this blog (or have talked with me for more than five minutes about anything other than software), you know this. At the heart of Arsenal is its amazing coach, Arsene Wenger. I just read an interview with Arsene that jibes well with how I feel about hiring in open source, too:

I am not scared to spend big money but we make the superstars. We have a feel for the game and the way we want to play football is linked to development. I have not seen a number of what you might call 'world-class' players. Maybe world-class prices, but not world-class players.

"We make the superstars." While most clubs are spending outlandish sums on "proven" soccer stars, Arsenal tends to spend comparative pennies on 15-16-year olds with potential. It's how we roll.

It's also a good model for growing an open-source business.

When hiring, you always have the option to hire experience or potential, as I've noted before. The more people I hire, the more I'm inclined to side with aptitude rather than experience, because experience too often gets in the way of (business thinking) innovation. Yes, you need a certain amount of experience to apprehend the business world and fashion new modes of doing business from that experience, but too much is as bad as too little.

Maybe worse.

Open source requires a different way of thinking about software, and about the selling/support/development of it. You need to burn the boats, as I've argued many times before. In the non-open source context, think about Google. I'm convinced that one of the reasons Google has been so successful is because it was not founded by a bunch of ex-Microsofties or [Insert name of successful company]. Google had to invent a whole new way of monetizing software.

In open source, we do, too. To do it well, I think it's best to mold people to the task, rather than trying to retrofit old, calcified ways of doing business onto a new model. If you're hiring for an open-source startup, intellectual youth is on your side. This doesn't translate, necessarily, into physical youth. It just means you have to hire people who don't have a vested interest in seeing the world through yesterday's model. (This is why Matthew Szulik at Red Hat tends to hire people from outside the software industry.)

Arguably, it's harder to do this kind of recruiting, because your typical recruiter won't have a clue as to how to source innovative thinkers that don't easily fit the industry mold. I use LinkedIn to search for keywords, former employers, etc. that match what I need for my Alfresco team. That's one way. I'm sure there are many good ways to do it, but the key is to find people who are smart and not manacled to the past.

It works for Arsenal. It's working for Alfresco. Maybe it will work for you, too.