Why Open Source Is Becoming A Big Developer-Recruiting Tool


Most companies are just coming around to the idea that open source can help lower costs and boost innovation within their organizations. But Web companies like Netflix, Twitter and Facebook understand that open source can be more: a powerful weapon for recruiting and retaining top engineering talent.

See also: The Reasons Businesses Use Open Source Are Changing Faster Than You Think

If we believe that developers are the “new kingmakers,” then the companies able to source the best developers will win. That means open source is the new ante for even getting into the developer recruiting game.

You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Chains

For years organizations largely constrained their developer productivity, hemming them in by withholding access to hardware and software. But something has changed in the last few years, which Digital Ocean CEO Ben Uretsky highlights:

[D]evelopers were at the mercy of their employer’s capital. But that’s changed…. With software being free and readily available, the sole ball-and-chain left shackled to the ankles of developers was hardware. With the development of the cloud market, developers had a newfound stray dog freedom.

Fortunately, developers haven’t done “stray dog” sorts of things with that freedom. Instead they’re hard at work within lines of business, building apps often in spite of IT. No wonder Gartner says 38% of technology purchases already happen outside IT, which number will jump to 50% by 2017.

The developer inmates, in other words, increasingly run the enterprise asylum. But how well they run it may hinge on your ability to recruit them.

Open Source Your Recruiting

Which is why I found James Pearce’s presentation at OSCON (transcribed by Remy DeCausemaker) earlier this summer so interesting. Pearce heads Facebook’s open-source efforts, which is a big job given that Facebook could well be the world’s largest open source company. He shared a few data points on Facebook’s open source efforts:

[There are] 200 active projects at Facebook, with 10 million lines of code. Many hundreds of engineers working on these, with over 100,000 followers and 20,000 forks. We contribute to a wide range of projects (i.e. The kernel, mercurial, D, etc). We’ve even open sourced the designs of our data centers and machines in the Open Compute project.

Even this belies just how much open source code Facebook uses and contributes. For every Cassandra (a NoSQL database) that Facebook develops and open sources, it also heavily contributes to an existing project like MySQL. But Facebook also “tries to scale” open-source projects that interest it, and does a lot of fiddling to that effect, as has been the case with MongoDB storage engines

See also: Open Source Projects Need More Than Good Code—They Need Marketing

This culture of open source permeates Facebook. So much so, in fact, that it serves as a beacon to developers who want to work somewhere that unfetters their freedom to tinker, as Pearce notes:

We asked our employees…”Were you aware of the open source software program at Facebook?” Two-thirds said “Yes”, and one-half said that the program positively contributed to their decision to work for us. These are not marginal numbers, and I hope, a trend that continues. A large number of those people said their experience using our projects in the open helped them get ramped up prior to being hired. That is a huge win for our company. This is important part of why open source is valuable to [Facebook].

For Facebook, then, open source is not “naive ideology,” but rather is “like the breeze from an open window; it keeps things from going stale,” both in terms of code and in terms of people.

Set Your Developers Free

Facebook is onto something here, and it’s similar to what Netflix and others have done. Netflix, as I’ve written, “is looking for the best and brightest developers, and knows that the best developers generally want to be involved in open source.”  

Twitter? Chris Aniszczyk, Twitter’s head of open source, lists core operating principles that closely resemble Facebook’s own ethos:


As he told me over Twitter, this isn’t about peace, love and Linux, but about self-interest:

Guess what? It’s in your self-interest, too. The best software today, from Hadoop to Android, is open source. The best developers—those people that will make or break your business—are also focused on open source. 

Set them free. Just like Facebook. Just like Twitter. Just like Netflix.

Lead image by Marcin Wichary

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