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20 June 2010, 11:29

TransferSummit - Open innovation at Apache: "No Jerks Allowed!"

By Justin Erenkrantz and Sally Khudairi

Over the past decade, The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) has been supporting the Apache community’s development of some of the most ubiquitous products in Open Source, benefiting billions of users worldwide. Its collaborative, consensus-based development process, affectionately dubbed "The Apache Way", is one of its secrets to creating dozens of high quality, industry-leading software products that all began with a single project.

That first project also happens to be the ASF's most popular; the Apache HTTP Server continues to dominate the Web server market, powering more than 70% of all web sites, roughly 112 million web sites worldwide. Not bad for an all-volunteer group with a membership of 300 individuals and nearly 2,300 code contributors from across six continents.

To date, half of the top ten downloaded Open Source products are Apache projects, most enterprise Java solutions are developed using Apache build tools, and more than a dozen Apache technologies form the foundation of today’s Cloud computing. An array of Apache solutions power mission-critical applications in financial services, aerospace, publishing, government, healthcare, research, education, infrastructure, and more.

We are often asked, with no technical directive (formal or otherwise), virtually no hierarchy, and hundreds of individual collaborators, how does the cat herding happen? How do we actually get anything done?

As it turns out, one of our most interesting challenges is also our greatest strength. The ASF tagline is "We consider ourselves not simply a group of projects sharing a server, but rather a community of developers and users". We are unequivocally committed to our community and that commitment is one of the primary drivers behind the Apache brand, though the geographic, technical, and cultural diversity certainly poses its fair share of challenges and advantages as well.

We believe that our community is one of our greatest strengths behind the Apache brand. The ASF's developer-friendly culture has championed great creativity and project diversity.

The ASF is founded on meritocracy: those who contribute the most have the most input into the direction of a project. When visiting the OSS Watch group in Oxford, we learned that the term "meritocracy" can be first found in Michael Young's book "Rise of the Meritocracy" though Young's view of this governance model is rather satirical and pessimistic; the key difference in Open Source is the remarkable level of transparency within Apache projects. We often refer to the day-to-day progress at the ASF as "Meritocracy In Action".

One of the core tenets of The Apache Way is that the projects are independently governed. Each of the ASF's primary technology projects (known as top-level-projects; abbreviated as TLPs) are overseen by a Project Management Committee (PMC). The ASF empowers each PMC to decide the technical direction of its respective TLP. Additionally, meritocracy isn't transferable: "karma" in one PMC doesn’t grant rights in another PMC – karma must be earned independently!

Among our more interesting challenges as the ASF continues to grow is how to teach The Apache Way to those seeking to bring new Open Source projects to the Foundation. We created the Apache Incubator to "mentor" new projects and to assist in their learning how to operate as an ASF project. ASF Members who find the candidate technology worth pursuing, can volunteer to become a mentor to the project.

This process is hugely successful on the technical side. The nuances of the so-called "softer skills" of interpersonal communication are obviously much trickier; we're continually course-correcting and are getting better at it every day. A mentor's main responsibility to a new initiative is not overseeing its technical development, but rather one that is more social, by helping to pass down the traditions and culture of other projects. Over time, once the initiative has demonstrated that it has learned The Apache Way and can govern itself successfully, it can become a fully-fledged ASF project and eventually graduate to become an ASF top-level project.

By allowing Apache developers to focus on what they do best, which is coding, and for the Foundation to take care of the rest, we're creating an environment where we can collaborate to create exceptional Open Source software on a common platform.

No Jerks Allowed! Apache folks are some of the nicest people we know; however, there are exceptions: some are purposely curmudgeonly by nature, some have a contentious streak and challenge you along the way, some are just having a bad day. Trust us, trolls exist...whatever you do, don’t feed them! More importantly, don’t become a poisonous person. We recommend the presentation, “How Open Source Projects Survive Poisonous People (And You Can Too)” by Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian Fitzpatrick, which is helpful in navigating the sometimes shark-infested waters.

Anyone can sign up and participate in any of the ASF's dozens of mailing lists, which in total average 50,000 messages each month, and we encourage you to check out the archives of any project you may be interested in to see our meritocracy in action. If you have an existing Open Source project and would like to join the Apache community, we invite you to check out the Apache Incubator, and consider submitting your proposals to the Foundation.

A great opportunity to learn more firsthand about The Apache Way is at TransferSummit, taking place 24-26 June in Oxford. The conference and BarCamp connects business executives, technologists, and members of the academic and research communities to discuss requirements, challenges, and opportunities in the use, development, licensing, and future innovations in Open Source technology. We look forward to seeing you there.

See also:

Justin Erenkrantz
Justin Erenkrantz is President of The Apache Software Foundation. He is also Chief Technical Officer at Project WBS and holds a PhD from the University of California, Irvine. He's a long-time contributor to numerous projects, including the Apache HTTP Server, Subversion, APR, Serf, mod_mbox, and flood. In addition to presenting at TransferSummit, Justin will be at OSCON 19-23 July in Portland, Oregon, and ApacheCon, the ASF's official conference, training, and expo, taking place 1-5 November 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Sally Khudairi
TransferSummit advisor Sally Khudairi is chief executive of HALO Worldwide, a Member and Vice President of Marketing & Publicity for The Apache Software Foundation, and the Program Chair for ApacheCon NA 2010.

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