30 May 2022
Kristen Pol

What is open source?

Open source projects, products, or initiatives embrace and celebrate principles of open exchange, collaborative participation, rapid prototyping, transparency, meritocracy, and community-oriented development.  -

Open source has a long and interesting history. The open source movement has transformed the technology industry to make it more accessible and equitable. With open source, we make an impact on business and technological advancement as well as social, environmental and ethical fronts.

For those who aren’t in the tech world, open source isn’t just about code. It’s a philosophy of openness that reaches beyond software. We benefit from:

And so so much more.

Why should we work in the open?

Working in the open can be scary. People can see your mistakes and your failures. But that’s part of the beauty of open source. We collaborate together, we fail together, and we advance together.

There is a saying:

“Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” - Eric S. Raymond

Eric’s phrase is known as Linus’s Law, which is named after the founder of Linux. Linux is a hugely popular open source operating system that runs almost 40% of all websites and 85% of all smartphones!

Since more people can review and test open source solutions, more people can find issues, bugs and security flaws. Perhaps counterintuitively, open source is considered more secure than proprietary software for this reason. More people can identify vulnerabilities and help fix them.

If you’ve ever been dependent on proprietary software for your work, you’ve undoubtedly encountered times where you wish someone would just fix some annoying bug. With open source, people can dive in and do that. If you don’t have the skills yourself, you can pay someone who does. And, while ideally people would be paid for their efforts, there are many who provide free labour for the cause of open source.

The benefits to open source

Open source has so many benefits.

It tends to be cost-effective. There are no licensing fees. You can work on it yourself or hire developers around the world to help you with the software, so there is no vendor lock-in that you typically get with proprietary solutions.

Often you have greater flexibility since, if the software is designed well, you can extend the system easily with custom plugins or modules. Or even “ patch” it yourself when there is a bug that the open source community hasn’t gotten around to fixing yet.

Since open source is typically supported by very enthusiastic developers, they are invested in making products more reliable and performant. They get excited about improving their code, not only for themselves but for the greater good.

What does it mean to contribute to open source?

If you ask a typical person or even a typical developer:

“What does it mean to contribute to open source?”

Often their answer centres around code. They may focus on giving code away or maintaining and improving code.

In reality, open source contribution is way more than code. Just like any business is way more than just one aspect.

If you have a product company, you need the product engineers. But you also need QA and marketing and sales and writers and so so much more. It’s no different with open source. You need everything and everyone.

Open source should not be a place for gatekeeping. We need everyone with a variety of skills and backgrounds. Can you do project management? Great! Did you know that open source projects are often sorely lacking in project managers and need them to help out?

The same is true for marketing. Sadly, many technologists are really poor at marketing their products. If you are skilled at documentation, project management, marketing, testing and design and have a passion for an open source project, please know you are sorely needed.

Why does Salsa contribute to open source?

First off, warm and fuzzies.

Seriously! Many people who contribute to open source do so because it makes them feel good. They are using their skills for the benefit of many. It’s like giving to charity. We give and we get back positive feelings in return.

But, of course, there are many other reasons for contribution. You learn things. You collaborate with great people. You have fun. You laugh. It can be a lot of good times if you are in a supportive open source community.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t frustrations. Of course there are. But that’s part of anything that we do. The important thing is finding a niche where you feel valued and comfortable contributing. These communities do exist.

Beyond learning and fun and warm fuzzies, you can feel a sense of purpose. Like what you are doing actually is moving the dial. Maybe the software you are contributing to is used by environmental groups cleaning up the planet. You can actually make the world a better place by using your skills. It’s the best win-win.

Contribution aligns with Salsa’s values

There are many more reasons we contribute. Salsa has a set of core values that is an integral part of our culture, and open source contribution is a perfect fit with these values.

  • Rigour - We value rigour. Open source projects often require us to dig deep into our skills and figure out the best outcome.

  • Commercial outcomes - Hey! We have to stay in business :) Just because you work with open source doesn’t mean you can’t make money. In fact, it is crucial that open source projects are sustainable with hard cash or they will languish or fail. We are fortunate that we work with viable projects like CKAN and Drupal to, not only keep the lights on, but thrive.

  • Accountability - We depend on open source to build our projects and products. In turn, we must give back to the community. It’s that simple. No one should have a free ride. Open source is “free”, but it’s “free as in puppies”!

  • Fresh thinking - The best way to think of new solutions is to surround yourself with a diverse set of great people who are trying to improve the world. Diversity of experience is a must.

  • Transparency - Open source is, well, open ;) Working in the open lets you help others and lets them help you. It surfaces issues easier. It establishes trust. It may be uncomfortable at first but learning to work in the open is a game changer.

  • Personal growth - There are so many ways we can grow in our careers. We can gain technical skills. We can improve our human skills. We can mentor others. We can inspire. We can move the needle. Open source has so many opportunities for growth.

  • Mutual respect - Respect is vital in open source. You will not get contributions for your open source project if you are a jerk. Well, there are unfortunately counterexamples, but you certainly will have a larger and more diverse set of hands if you are respectful.

  • Authenticity - There is nothing more authentic than giving a part of ourselves. When you are contributing to open source, use the opportunity to be yourself and contribute the gifts you have.

Open source aligns with Salsa’s social policies

We also have an internal “Social Policies” document that covers very important human topics like anti-discrimination, reducing our impact on the environment, being responsible corporate citizens and valuing human rights. While you might wonder how open source would align with these topics, we feel they often do.

When an open source community has a healthy code of conduct, it supports human rights, diversity and inclusion and discourages discrimination, harassment and abuse. This is vital for both corporate entities and open source communities to encourage innovative collaboration. This can break down silos and be truly transformative. 

For the environment, we need to always be looking for ways to reduce our footprint, conserve resources and solve environmental issues. Open source is a great way to collaborate on these challenges, whether it be reducing pollution or improving efficiencies in processes to reduce energy consumption, duplication and waste.

And open source can actually help us be more ethical. We must work in the open for all to see. With transparency, we not only critically examine the world around us, but deep within.

Government + open source = open government

Our motto is:

“We strive to help governments become more open, more connected and more consolidated.”

The best way to do that is with an open source mindset. Government benefits from open source, and open source benefits from government agencies who invest in open source.

Through our open government projects and focus on open source, we want to make a difference in the world and particularly in Australia. Whether it’s working with the Victorian Government’s Single Digital Presence (SDP) platform, Data.vic open data portal, Queensland’s data catalogue or Department of Finance’s GovCMS solution, we’ve seen first hand the power of open collaboration. We hope to continue making strides in open government in partnership with our public servants.

Salsa’s contribution beginnings

While we’ve been contributing to open source for years, it really became a major focus when we started the SDP project back in 2017. SDP is a decoupled platform that was a first of its kind in Australia. It is built with backend software (Tide) based on Drupal and a frontend (Ripple) built on Vue.js and Nuxt.js.

SDP chose to open source its code so anyone can contribute to the project. We continue to work with many other contributors in Australia improving SDP through contributions.

Not long afterwards, in 2018, we began work on GovCMS, a whole-of-government platform built on top of Drupal and managed by the Department of Finance. Fortunately, GovCMS also saw the benefits of open source and created a distribution that anyone can use. This platform provided more opportunities for Salsa to contribute back to open source.

Expanding our contribution vision

Fast forward to today. We still contribute to both SDP and GovCMS, and have also expanded our reach over the last few years.

Drupal continues to be a huge focus for our client work so we naturally saw the need to give back more to Drupal core and contributed modules. But we wanted to give even more! :) We have been developing in-house Drupal “products” like Merlin and CivicTheme that we are releasing as open source. Our hope is to collaborate on these projects with the greater Drupal community.

Along with Drupal, we also use CKAN for many clients so have invested more contribution effort recently into both CKAN core and several CKAN extension projects. Beyond Drupal and CKAN, we help out with several open source projects that we depend on like Ansible, Lagoon and QuantCDN.

And, importantly, we honour all types of contribution at Salsa. Whether it’s blog posts like this, mentoring, organising meetups, social media promotions, testing bugs, speaking at events, participating in discussions and, of course, coding. We have an internal goal to have everyone (yes, everyone!) do some sort of contribution in the coming year.

Salsa’s “Giveback Pledge”

In 2018, we pledged to give back 20% of our time for clients who are contributing back features and improvements to GovCMS. In 2019, we extended our giveback pledge to any Salsa client contributing to open source.

This is a win-win-win! :) A win for open source, a win for our clients, and win for us. We’re committed to open source and open government, and this is a concrete way we can nudge our clients to contribute back.

It’s with these types of initiatives that we can move the dial of innovation. And once our clients get a taste of open source contribution, they may never turn back. Encouraging contribution is the first step.

We log our giveback contributions in our giveback register. Big thanks to our clients who are co-contributing with us!

More than lip service

This has been a lot of words. You might be wondering if this is just a marketing ploy!

It’s certainly one thing to say we are doing all sorts of great open source things but an entirely different thing to show the data. Looking through some recent numbers, here are a few things that might convince you. :)

  • Organised 12 Drupal meetups in the last 12 months
  • Increased Drupal Association sponsorship to $15,000 USD per year
  • Sponsored 25 people to contribute in 2021 and 2022
  • Sponsored about 100 hours for givebacks in 2021 and 2022
  • Sponsored more than 300 hours for external contribution in 2021
  • Sponsored more than 1000 hours for external contribution in 2022 so far
  • Increased contribution from 60 to 265 issues from 2021 to 2022
  • Increased CKAN contribution from zero to more than 400 hours from 2021 to 2022
  • Committing to a minimum of 200 hours per month in external contribution time
  • Invested 2000+ hours in 2021 and 1000+ hours in 2022 into CivicTheme so far
  • Wrote more than 50 articles in 2021 and 2022 on open source, open data, etc.

We love open source!

Some of us have worked with open source technologies for, literally, 25 years. Wow!

We still love it. It’s not always easy but it can be very rewarding. We see success stories every day. We’re still excited about the future of open source.

So let’s innovate. Let’s create. Let’s collaborate.

We hope you’ll join us in contributing to open source!


General resources

Salsa resources