FLOSS technical/dev summits: why? how? with Tarus Balog of OpenNMS

Tarus Balog is the CEO of the OpenNMS Group, a company which funds the development of OpenNMS: FLOSS enterprise network monitoring software. OpenNMS lets you know when your machines go down, among other things. I use OpenNMS at work to keep Mifos infrastructure up and running: build servers, cloud, databases, etc.

Our corner of the Grameen Foundation focusing on Technology for Microfinance has a lot to learn from OpenNMS! They’re also FLOSS, and they’re profitable.

I talked with Tarus the other day. Turns out he’s a really cool guy. I’ve been following his blog closely for quite a while now, so I was thrilled with the chance to pick his brain. The point of the call was to find out why and how they run their developer summits: in-person meetings where coding, alignment, teambuilding and planning are plentiful. OpenNMS hosts these yearly, and we’d like to do them for Mifos.

We talked for a while, so I’ll summarize. I’ll cover the dev summit stuff first, then more about FLOSS business.

Adam: what instigated the first summit?

Tarus: I live on a farm in the middle of NC, wanted to get in touch with other devs. I invited them to hang out at my place and code for a week. The result was camaraderie and commonality of purpose. In other words: the hard stuff. We also got a lot of useful coding done. There were only 5 people, yet it was an awesome time.

A: How do you think things will be different if you didn’t have these summits

T: we had to cancel last year’s, and we felt the pain. We missed each other. We usually have dev tasks that are especially suited to summits that we didn’t do.

A: can anyone come?

T: yes. We sponsor active contributors. Full-time paid employees are pretty much required to go. Others must pay $1400 (includes room + board). This is modeled after debconf ( http://debconf.org ).

A: who comes?

T: 1/3 full-timers, 1/3 sponsored volunteers, 1/3 folks who pay their own way. Even with the folks who pay, dev summits are expensive and can run $20-$30k.

A: what’s the format?

T: loose/barcamp/vague. This works much better for us than a dictated organized agenda

A: What are your definitions of “success” for a summit? How do you know when you’ve had a successful summit?

T: we don’t really have a measure, but the value is apparent from the team cohesiveness, fun had, code produced, and productivity following the summits.

A: can I come?

T: yep

A: what do I need to do to run a successful summit?

T: plan it well. Make it fun. Buy food. Have someone go onsite and set up logistics: rooms, wifi, whiteboards, projectors, etc. Do stuff together. Discourage newbies (they need to pay to attend): don’t make it a training session: make it a *developer* summit. Publish prereqs: compile the code, run tests, study the schema, have your laptop ready, etc.

Other stuff:

A: where are your devs?

T: global.

A: how do you reward volunteers and retain contributors?

T: LOTS of ways! “order of the X polo”: exclusive group of contributors are in the “order of the green polo”, these folks are the steering committee. OpenNMS is business driven, but the OGP drives the tech. They stick around because they are invested and we value what they say. They’re the experts. OpenNMS Group sells services, not software: training, consulting, installation, custom dev. Volunteers and contributors are invited to (and do!) do the cool stuff, the fun stuff, the most important stuff. We guarantee the code will not suck, and it will always be Free (as in freedom). also see “order of the blue polo”: that’s the one you should sign up for, Adam!

A: will do. Can you say more about what custom development you’ll have to do?

T: yes, but not just anything. Ex: someone wanted RT integration. Instead, we built a generic event-based framework and allowed them to hook into it. I don’t sell “custom dev” to a customer, I make them *sponsors* of features that make it into OpenNMS. Salespeople must have technical knowledge to make this work. The custom features aren’t what make them competitive anyway, it’s their business strategy, their processes, their people. We also sell commercial licenses for OEM arrangements. They pay for (us to do) custom dev, and we get the code, too.

Tarus will be speaking about Open Source Business in Portland on 2010-07-21 during OSCON.

I’ll be there, too!

Thanks to Adam Feuer for encouraging me to approach Tarus/OpenNMS.