code-for-a-living August 24, 2022

Open source and accidental innovation

The more open a system is to new contributors, the more chance that an accidental meeting will benefit everyone involved.

In college in 1978, I learned to write FORTRAN in a college class. Why did I take that class?  It wasn’t because I was convinced computer programming was the key to a great career in the future. It was summer, muggy and hot, and unlike the other buildings in my college, the computer lab had air conditioners. 

When I got my first full-time job after college, it was as an economic research analyst at a large company. The company had a PDP-11 computer in the basement and I got access to it, eventually teaching myself COBOL. Was I given access because I needed the machine for my job? No. I got access because I made friends with the computer operator and because my boss didn’t know enough about computers to tell me “no.”

With a couple languages and a growing love for programming under my belt, I figured, why not get paid for this, and proceeded to talk my way into a computer programming job, where I learned all sorts of languages, platforms, and technology—all on the job.

For most of my life since then, I have been involved in software in some way. I don’t write software for a living anymore, only sometimes for fun. But, as an intellectual property lawyer and venture capitalist, I spend a lot of my time thinking about software. These days, that means I spend a lot of time thinking about open source and its effect on innovation. 

Open spaces and open sources

When I was writing my first programs in the late 1970s, the technology industry in the US was centered on the Route 128 corridor—a highway near Boston. Geographic technology centers develop where there are two elements: capital to fund research and development and talent to do the work. In those days, technology development was dominated by a handful of large companies who funded everything, and they drew mainly on the talented engineers from MIT.

But by the time I became a software lawyer, in 1994, the technology center of the US had moved all the way across the country, to Silicon Valley. There, the schools were Berkeley and Stanford, and the money was private venture capital instead of technology companies. On the West Coast, the industry had added a new set of incentives: series financing and equity positions for founding engineers.

But what is interesting about this change was not its geography—from one end of the US to the other. In our pandemic-tested world, we know that geography isn’t that important anymore in software development. The important thing is that this change represented many billions of dollars’ worth of economic growth, and the creation of a huge economic machine for innovation. Why did that change happen?

According to Sebastian Mallaby in The Power Law, one theory is that the innovation that occurred on Route 128 happened in a culture of corporate secrecy. In fact, it was that culture of secrecy that caused the leaders of the open source movement, like Richard Stallman, to insist on access to source code as a moral right. After all, the famous Xerox printer that caused him to develop the free software model was produced on the Route 128 corridor.

In Silicon Valley, unlike on Route 128, workers changed jobs frequently, and took advantage of many a growing set of informal networks that developed among engineers, business leaders, and venture capitalists. Instead of a culture of secrecy, there was a culture of networking. If you were in the Valley in the 1990s, like I was, you could feel a buzz of ambition and technical hunger around you. Every chance meeting between players in the software industry could be the spark that changed how an entire industry operated. 

The OSS Revolution

Now as we stand in the 2020s, there has been another important development to super-charge innovation,and that is open source software. As open source became more popular in the 21st century, the pace of development skyrocketed. This was particularly driven by open source software infrastructure, like the LAMP stack, development environments, and innovation in database, CMS, search, and other core computing functions. Development has moved “up the stack” so that new applications don’t need to reinvent the wheel. 

This, too, has resulted in soaring economic activity. The availability of asynchronous development tools like GIT also exponentially increased the ability of tech workers to create informal networks and collaborate across the globe. Not coincidentally, during the 2000s, almost every kind of company became a software producer—from finance, to health care, to education—while government and academia re-focused on software as well.  Software runs our world, and open source software is the rule, not the exception, in development.

I got into software almost by accident. Those accidents could only happen because people shared their knowledge with me, mostly in unstructured ways. Call them happy accidents. This informal sharing, which now has the capacity to reach beyond geographical, political, and business-sector silos, is what keeps the world inventing. Now, we are seeing another shift—not to a new geographical hub, but to a post-geographical software development world,the great “re-widing” of opportunity across cities and towns far from traditional tech centers. – We are beginning the cycle all over again. 

How to get lucky

What should a reader draw from these experiences? That a great career rests as much on random chance as passionate intention? That geography can be destiny, but there’s no predicting where the next renaissance will occur?  

I think the most important lesson about accidental innovation is that it is not transactional. Over the years, I have talked with hundreds of entrepreneurs about using open source in business. And while I was often giving advice as part of my job—often, I wasn’t. I talk to almost anyone who asks for advice. There were plenty of people along the way who told me that was foolish, that I was wasting my time, and giving away services for free. That’s because they were thinking the Route 128 way, not the Silicon Valley way.

Proprietary exchange of information is quid pro quo. But accidental innovation requires us to give without getting, to trust that we will benefit, or that whether we will benefit directly doesn’t matter—to make a leap of faith.  As they say, if you share, some people will take advantage of you—but share anyway. Whether you are sharing open source code, or sharing your knowledge, that sharing is worthwhile for its own sake, and for how it helps others. It won’t guarantee the outcome, but it will certainly improve your odds.

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