This New Collaborative Reality

In the 1990s, Intel released an early Pentium-class CPU that produced an error when doing floating-point math. Former Intel CEO Andy Grove considered it to be a minor rounding error, so he and his management team decided to release the chip anyway. Soon after internet chat rooms lit up with discussion about the bug. The scientific community in particular was upset because the seemingly tiny error led to huge problems over millions of operations. These communities eventually made the error known to the public, causing a PR nightmare for Intel – what would be one of the first for the tech industry. After reflecting on this setback, Grove realized how the power of the crowd and of community-driven feedback could help drive critical product decisions, and he recorded his observations and resulting actions in the book “Only the Paranoid Survive”.

1904labs’ is initiating an open innovation program which is designed to help everyone proactively harness what Andy Grove identified as the power of the community. This program we’re developing is something for all of us to do together, for all of us to talk about together, and for all of us to benefit from together. When we’re successful, the benefits that make the community so powerful will be readily accessible by everyone in the labs, and the labs will become a little bigger than the four walls that surround it.

Harnessing the power of the community:

Some companies might not realize that engaging with a consulting company can also mean engaging with the open-source community. They might be skeptical about the benefits of open source. But after thinking deeply about the community’s role in the industry, we believe our investment in this new program will benefit everyone involved: our clients, our people, and the open source projects themselves. I have noticed two important benefits that come from participation:

Attention to detail

Gaining a deeper understanding of the technologies you work with is one benefit I immediately noticed from participating in the open-source community. The input you get – on your own contributions, as well as while watching others’ contributions – is invaluable toward developing a deeper understanding of the product, platform, or library that you’re using to support your clients. What’s more, the structure of the open source community can improve the way you work: For example, if you’re putting up a pull request to a project that has hundreds of people participating, it naturally affects your attention to detail.

Diversity of thought

Another benefit is access to a wide, diverse set of creative people in the open source community. If you stick to the same crowd, you’ll always get the thoughts of that crowd. However, if you look outside your immediate sphere of influence you’ll discover a wider variety of perspectives and expertise. People from all over the world gather to put forth effort into these projects regardless of race, gender, timezone, etc. This diversity of thought is one of the keys to creative innovation. If you’re on the fence about open source, I’ve found the community to be incredibly supportive of and welcoming to newcomers. Participation instantly provides the ability to establish relationships outside of the confines of the circles in which you’re currently operating in.

We aim to focus on three key areas as we look to increase our presence in these communities.  These include reuse, community, and contribution.

Reuse: leverage and scaling

Reuse is about leverage and scaling. Leverage is based on the reality that common problems have common solutions, and even in the event that the problem you are tackling doesn’t have a common solution, there are likely ways to break the problem down so that its constituent parts have common solutions. Frameworks – whether process or technical – exist to provide answers to common questions and to reduce the time required to go from problem identification to solution implementation. With the introduction of the open innovation program, we’re providing a framework for the labs to help complete the path from problem to solution much faster, and over time exponentially cheaper.

Community: Curiosity, Consistency, and Commitment

Good open-source communities are based on self-governing ideals that help members work toward a shared goal or vision. The only way the community thrives is if those that have a need are willing to both look, act, and ask questions. These communities need what 1904labs calls the “Intensely Curious Innovator” – people who have an innate need to know how something works and who won’t give up until they find the answer. Besides curiosity and shared goals, communities also need consistency and commitment. In my experience, all of the well-established open source communities comprise individuals that possess these traits. As a by-product, the group also ends up possessing these key traits, and is able to pass them on to others.

Contribution: strikes at the heart of a universal desire for meaningful work

Contribution is foundational to a thriving community. You must strive to make something better. Break something. Figure out how something works. Bring forth a talent the community doesn’t possess. I’ve discovered that it can be as simple as respectfully asking “Why?”. These are all ways that you can contribute to the community from which we all benefit so greatly.  The very act of contribution stokes the embers of meaning, which provides the opportunity for relationships and connections that are essential to forming community.

Future Plans:

I see the ideals of reuse, community, and contribution as self reinforcing and foundational to the support of an environment where innovation can thrive. It is no secret that good frameworks enjoy economies of scale. You don’t need to look too far to see this at work. Take Stripe and Twilio as two modern-day examples: Stripe is a web merchant framework that has boiled the process of taking online credit card payments down to one or two lines of javascript code. Meanwhile, Twilio has simplified the act of providing in app call center functionality providing access to IVR, text messaging, voice mail, etc. Both companies are valued beyond one billion dollars, which is a pretty strong proof of the power of a good framework. For the uninitiated, a good framework does a few things extraordinarily well:

  1. Solves a well understood problem for which many people need a solution
  2. Provides a clear path to get to the solution and its variants
  3. Develops a community around the problem and it’s solution

There are many examples of this in the open-source community as well, and we’re hard at work deploying them. Two of these include OpenLayers and Apache nifi. We are implementing a broad-based OpenLayers framework for a large-scale crop science company. Almost all geospatial mapping applications at this client use this framework. As a part of making this work for our client, our team had the opportunity to make OpenLayers better by contributing bug fixes back to the community. We also serve a large telecommunications firm that has deployed Apache nifi to populate a data lake, and we’ve been given permission to contribute some of our extensions to the nifi project back to the community.

Our plan is to bring the power of these communities to our clients by creating open source awareness in each of our team members. Our goal is to leverage this awareness to create stronger, more reusable solutions for our clients, while also continuing to purposefully give back to the open source community. We’re currently entering the hypothesis stage where we’ll be running many experiments to determine how to best shape our program going forward. We’re looking for feedback from the community, our clients, and our people with the hope that each of these groups will help refine the program.

As I look toward the future, I see us becoming more collaborative, not less. I see keyboards as only one of many forms of input. As a result there will be greater opportunity to both create and share across many mediums. One element of this new collaborative reality will be open source and its variants including the Free Software Foundation, the Creative Commons, and others that allow us to produce information and ideas open for anyone to use and to improve. There is room for everyone to promote, contribute and participate in creating the knowledge capital of the future. There is no question these contributions will be driven by technology, and used to do things that we can only imagine right now, and at a pace no one will believe possible. My only question is: What are you waiting for?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt