Open source builders: Getting started
Inspired by Matt Asay’s recent Open Source Builders series on The New Stack, I sat down and talked with three open source developers, project maintainers, and community contributors. I wanted to know why they joined or created their first open source projects, what made them move from consuming to contributing to open source, and what they’ve learned along the way.
In my interview and video series, I spoke with Alex Casalboni, Senior Technical Advocate at AWS, about his project AWS Lambda Power Tuning, which helps customers optimize their functions. I interviewed Olaf Conijn, Principal Architect at Moneyou, (a born in the cloud bank in the Netherlands) about his project that is helping users more effectively build infrastructure. I also talked with Liz Rice, VP of open source at Aqua Security, about how she got started in open source, and what it’s like working within the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF).
In this two-part article series, I look at how these builders got started, and I ask them about lessons learned along the way.
Check out the full videos to find out more about Casalboni and Conijn and their open source projects:
Starting an open source journey
A theme I noticed when speaking to these developers is that they did not necessarily dive straight into open source development. The path there was different for all.
“When I first heard about open source in the very late ’90s, I was skeptical,” Liz says. “I was working for a company developing closed-source network protocol stacks and I couldn’t immediately see how open source was going to produce the same rigorous development, testing, and support that I could see in the commercial world. But when I found myself using open source code, I started to see the benefits—a variety of people using code in different situations is a great way to find issues, and because they can also contribute fixes for those issues, they don’t have to rely on a vendor for everything.” She says she started to witness the way a community can gather around a project and self-organize to build really sound technology.
“Eventually I found myself wanting to make code changes myself,” Liz says. One of her first contributions was an authorization extension for the Django framework. “I remember being worried that the maintainers might not want a change from a complete stranger, so it was exciting and something of a relief that it was accepted,” she adds. “It’s always a great feeling to get approval and even thanks for your contribution.”
This certainly aligns to my experience during the past 20 years speaking with developers about open source, and so you should not worry too much if you are just starting out as a developer and you don’t yet fully understand open source. Often, that understanding will happen as you jump in and start working with open source technologies and collaborating with the members of the community around those projects.
When Olaf was building the architecture for Moneyou on AWS, the builder inside him started working on new automation tools to help make sure Moneyou could scale and adopt cloud-native best practices. This was the beginning of AWS Organization Formation project.
Alex had been looking at optimizing AWS Lambda functions to run machine learning models, and he had spent the whole day on the project, which involved a lot of experimentation. That evening whilst traveling home on a train, he came up with the idea to try to automate that process via a function itself. That was the start of Lambda Power Tuning. Alex says that he wanted to produce something useful for as many as people as possible, and so open sourcing the project made sense in that respect.
Personal development and thought leadership
One of the key drivers for Alex was that he felt that developing this open source project would increase visibility and showcase his technical abilities, in addition to showcasing his thought leadership in this (at the time) emerging new compute operational model—serverless. The ability to develop collaboration skills was an additional benefit. For example, how does one collaborate, agree, or disagree on features or contributions within a project?
Open source projects are a great way to hone and sharpen key people (a.k.a., soft) skills. According to Liz, empathy is essential when you are trying to organize what is in effect a volunteer workforce. “I’ve learned and am still learning so much from open source communities about how to collaborate and interact with people so that they enjoy and are motivated to work on a project,” she says. “I’d also say that in the CNCF, I’ve developed my political awareness, in the sense of understanding the different motivations that people might have, and what outcomes they are looking to achieve. It’s crucial for a body like the CNCF to act neutrally for the benefit of the overall community, so I have learned a lot about recognizing when people appear to be acting in different interests.”
Ideas happen where you least expect it
Whether it is on a train journey like Alex, or whilst on summer holidays like Olaf, the ideas for projects can start anywhere. Olaf says, the seeds of the idea for AWS Organization Formation came out of having time to think about the problem outside of the day-to-day context of his work.
This might not be surprising to many. In his book Wired to Create, Scott Kaufman discusses a study that showed 72% of people have their most creative thoughts outside of work. The study goes on to highlight the importance of a relaxed space for creative thinking.
“I don’t get a lot of time to do this stuff during my day job,” Olaf says.
In the part 2, find out more from these open source builders about building in the open and the lessons learned.
Are you an open source builder?
In this series, I hope to uncover stories behind open source projects and help understand what makes open source tick, and to inspire more builders to get involved in open source.
If you have an open source project, are an open source developer, or are involved in open source projects and communities and want to take part, please get in touch.
Feature image via Pixabay.