What is InnerSource anyway?

This is a guest post for Computer Weekly Open Source Insider written by Danese Cooper, VP of strategic initiatives at NearForm.

NearForm is an open source development company specialising in building Javascript-based enterprise solutions using agile co-creation methodologies & open modern technology stacks’

Cooper writes as follows…

As open source adoption continues to grow in enterprises today (it is soon expected to surpass proprietary software adoption), InnerSource is gaining momentum thanks to the wide range of reported benefits – from achieving a more efficient software delivery model to improved talent acquisition and retention.

But what exactly is InnerSource and how does a company get started. Is it a set of tools and resources or is it a cultural shift – or is it both?

Put simply, InnerSource is the approach of using open source practices within proprietary organisations to take advantage of the open collaborative way of building software – which at this point, many agree is the better way of building software than some of the older models. Adopting InnerSource can revolutionise a company’s development strategies so that they can become a true modern technology organisation. By applying the principles of open source within an organisation, InnerSource helps teams work better together, reduce bottlenecks and build a much more collaborative, effective and efficient delivery model.

It’s been used to help with lack of innovation, with lack of code reuse, with lack of full stack knowledge across the organisation and with simple bottlenecks because of excessive silos. It’s proven to cure these kinds of problems and it almost always also results in much happier employees – at least that’s been our experience.

Quality street

InnerSource has also been successful in upping quality. Pretty much everywhere that we’ve implemented it, the code gets better. This is because inside companies it’s rare for real code review to happen. Just changing that through InnerSource can have a significant positive impact.

What InnerSource isn’t is a just-add-water solution that somehow magically makes everything happen all by itself. To be successful with InnerSource often requires a change in cultural mindset together with the use of available collaboration tools & techniques to make it an inherent and effective way of getting things done.

For example, one of the recurring obstacles to rapid innovation within companies is the fear of the gift of code. A lot of companies’ ownership culture is so thick that they don’t want to take a gift of code because it’s like getting a puppy that they’re going to have to feed! They don’t want to have to maintain code that they didn’t write. So that’s automatically limiting how far they can get, because everything has to land on those individuals that are directly assigned to that work.

With multiple parts of the business wanting to influence what’s going on in a given code base, this often results in executives getting into escalation paths to determine which work gets done because everybody’s oversubscribed.

Cultural code mindset

So how does any organisation begin with InnerSource and achieve that change in cultural mindset?

InnerSource is about infiltrating the core culture and proving the value of transparent peer-based co-development models. In order to do that successfully, we encourage companies to start small, treat it like an experiment and be honest & open with the learnings. Once you’ve demonstrated how to solve big problems on a small scale, you can broaden it to the wider organisation.

Having an open source evangelist can help drive change that is organic and long lasting – someone with the expertise and knowledge about how the company’s technology stack works and how best to make changes to your development principles.

We should also note that there is no such thing as overcommunication – so embrace all channels, documenting policies & procedures and keep people informed about the purpose of the community and what is expected. Have the right guidelines & toolkits to onboard people into the systems that they need to be able to use.

The six-step starter journey

In short, we recommend organisations take the following steps in embarking for the first time on an InnerSource journey:

  1. Carry out a fearless cultural inventory. You have to really understand what’s going on inside your culture and where the impediments to collaboration are.
  2. Do an initial experiment and keep it small. You want it to be impactful, but not so much so that it’s a risk to the business. When it comes to shifting company culture, there are no truer words than to say that success is a series of small wins.
  3. Conduct a careful measurement of the outcome that you get from that – not on every possible measurement you could take, just one thing that you want to influence in that first experiment.
  4. Take the learning from running that experiment and examine those metrics.
  5. Learn and codify that learning. Document and collate shared learnings from everyone who was involved.
  6. Pivot to another experiment.

If InnerSource is new to you, you’re not sure what ‘great collaboration’ looks like and you need practical help in setting up ‘rules of engagement’ or embarking on a pilot, there are lots of great get-to-know resources on the InnerSource Commons.

Further reading

Danese Cooper’s book Adopting InnerSource: Principles & Case Studies presents a series of case studies to illustrate when and why InnerSource may be useful to an organisation. Click here, to obtain a complimentary hard copy of the book and to listen to some of the recent podcasts on the topic.

Danese Cooper: hardcore coding knowledge, with an open heart.

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