Run To Daylight

I am a huge football fan and the title of this post is one of my favorite quotes, attributed to Vince Lombardi. The concept is simple: find a gap in the defense and run through it. Spotting gaps is a little easier in football than in other endeavors, but the concept is broadly applicable: spot an unmet need and meet it.

By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is this very concept that has driven my consulting work and has also attracted me to the open-source world over the past decade-plus. It is, of course, not unique to open-source but I have come to understand that it is fundamentally baked into the culture.

A few years back, I attended FOSS4G-NA when it was held in Washington, DC. I am not a huge conference attender as I don’t typically like to sacrifice time with my family for conferences and, if it were feasible, one could make attending geo-conferences alone a full-time job. So I pick and choose. Although I had been a user of various open-source geospatial tools for some years by then, that FOSS4G-NA was the first such conference I had attended. It helped that it was in my back yard.

What struck me most was not the prominent open-source tools, which were exceedingly capable and mature and with which I was pretty familiar. Nor was it the technical content, which was indeed much meatier than any corresponding user conference I had previously attended. What struck me most was the energy that permeated the event.

While the expected big names (PostGIS, QGIS, OpenLayers, etc.) were well-represented, it wasn’t hard to find someone who had his or her own open-source project on GitHub that solved some niche problem. It was a different kind of of energy than other conferences. This wasn’t a group of users waiting for a big-splash rollout, hoping that their pet bugs or issues have been addressed by cloistered development teams. These were users who were running to daylight.

They were undaunted by the current lack of a solution. They would build it and share it, hoping that their work would help someone else. The military users that I typically support call that “leaning forward.” I have come to recognize it as leadership. Good organizations find ways to foster this kind of behavior in their teams. Open-source turns that model on its head somewhat in that the organizations self-create around a commonly-recognized problem.  I am increasingly fascinated by this.

There is probably no better recent example of this phenomenon than the rapid rise to prominence of NodeJS as an application platform. With legions of JavaScript developers already in place, it was a fire just waiting for some gasoline. Today there is a robust package management system, mature devops tools, ready-to-use application frameworks, and hundreds of existing libraries for various problems. This has all happened since 2009 and much this output is itself open-source.

As open-source gets longer in the tooth, traditional organizations are looking for  ways to incorporate its methods and it energy. In our world, Esri now has committed teams working with open-source tools and producing open-source outputs. That said, I’m sure we’ll never see the code for ArcGIS posted to GitHub so true open-source will only exist at the margins, but it will be interesting to see how an incoming generation raised on more collaborative and community-oriented development can affect and improve operations in places like Esri or in traditionally-stovepiped government organizations. It’s already underway and I’m sure interesting hybrid approaches will emerge.

Open-source is not, of course, a panacea, because there are no panaceas. It presents, however, approaches to leadership and problem-solving that I think will be interesting to observe as they move beyond the tech world.