Geeks, Suits, and the Case for Open-Source Software

“Am I a geek, or a suit?” I pondered, sitting in a large hall with some thousand others in Victoria, Canada, during the Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G ) conference. The question was posed to me by keynote speaker Damian Conway, PERL enthusiast, frequent speaker at FOSS conferences, and management consultant. I wondered to what extent my fellow conference-goers were pondering the same question. Looking around me at the number of bearded geography types who followed his speech with open laptops running strange Unix command lines, I concluded probably not that many. As developers, most of them self-identified with the geek label by default. The exception might have been the four obvious suits who decided to check out the conference, and perhaps some boundary cases such as myself.

Still, as a service to all of us--geeks, hybrid geek/suits, or suits--Damian Conway laid out a business case for open-source software. Contrasting the realm of the geeks with that the minds of the neoliberal “suits” (or: the ones making the actual decisions), the question Conway posed is why don’t the suits wholehearthily embrace the free software the geeks make available? Is there something fishy about open-source?

According to Conway, and taking the case of the battle of the giants, closed-source Windows operating system versus free, open-source Linux, the ten questions any open-source enthusiast geek has to come prepared with when speaking to a suit are as follows:

(Suit question 1) But SCO owns UNIX?
(Geek answer) No, that whole thing was a business play by SCO to raise the price before management dumped the stock. Oh, and if they actually did (the court said they didn't recently) the open source community would code around it.

(Suit question 2) Open Source has a higher total cost of ownership?
(Geek answer) Yes, if you read studies funded by proprietary vendors, otherwise, it does not.

(Suit question 3) Proprietary software is easier to use.
(Geek answer) Yes, but only marginally and most of that is from familiarity.

(Suit question 4) What about compatibility/interoperability?
(Geek answer) Actually typically Open Source supports more standards and are typically better than even previous versions of proprietary software on the same document.

(Suit question 5) What about security?
(Geek answer) Open Source tends to win here because it has genetic diversity. (How many versions of UNIX are there?)

(Suit question 6) What about support?
(Geek answer) Open Source options parallel proprietary, PLUS you can have folks in house!

(Suit question 7) But what if the product goes away?
(Geek answer) There's no single supplier, so less likely than proprietary vendors. Open Source is not cost driven and proprietary folks end products all the time.

(Suit question 8 ) Who will we sue if something goes wrong?
(Geek answer) Just like proprietary - no one. Proprietaries are too big to sue (unless you have tons of money) and with Open Source, there's no one to sue!

(Suit question 9) How will Open Source improve customer experience?
(Geek answer) Open Source use will drop company prices, thus customer prices, scale cheaply, etc.

(Suit question 10) How will Open Source improve the company bottom line?
(Geek answer) All sorts of things will be cheaper: licensing, licensing management costs, risk, insurance, hardware, security, etc.

So, what did I learn? Governments and major corporations around the world are now moving swiftly towards wider use of Open Source software. Open Source software development and support is based on a model of collaborative interaction that is entirely different from the competitive world of commercial software. It's not a business; it's a culture. As a manager, to get the greatest benefit from Open Source you need to understand and engage that alien culture, to appreciate the motivations, aspirations, mindset, and limitations of its community. As a geek, you need to know how to sell it.

Alien or not, the geeks, hybrids, and four suits around me showed some serious passion to drive down the costs of software. That's a good thing, particularly for developing nations struggling to fund their health care system. It is hard to argue with that.