Open source adventures with... wait for it... Microsoft

posted by Jeff | Friday, March 30, 2012, 10:54 PM | comments: 0

Last week, Microsoft announced that it was going to open source the rest of the ASP.NET MVC Web stack. The core MVC framework has been open source for a long time now, but the other pieces around it are also now out in the wild. Not only that, but it's not what I call "big bang" open source, where you release the source with each version. No, they're actually committing in real time to a public repository. They're also taking contributions where it makes sense.

If that weren't exciting enough, CodePlex, which used to be a part of the team I was on, has been re-org'd to a different part of the company where it is getting the love and attention (and apparently money) that it deserves. For a period of several months, I lobbied to get a PM gig with that product, but got nowhere. A year and a half later, I'm happy to see it finally treated right.

In any case, I found a bug in Razor, the rendering engine, before the beta came out. I informally sent the bug info to some people, but it wasn't fixed for the beta. Now, with the project being developed in the open, I was able to submit the issue, and went back and forth with the developer who wrote the code (I met him once at a meet up in Bellevue, I think), and he committed a fix. I tried it a day later, and the bug was gone.

There's a lot to learn from all of this. That open source software is surprisingly efficient and often of high quality is one part of it. For me the win is that it demonstrates how open and collaborative processes, as light as possible, lead to better software. In other words, even if this were a project being developed internally, at a bank or something, getting stakeholders involved early and giving people the ability to respond leads to awesomeness. While there is always a place for big thinking, experience has shown time and time again that trying to figure everything out up front takes too long, and rarely meets expectations.

This is a lesson that probably half of Microsoft has yet to learn, including the team I was on before I split. It's the reason that team still hasn't shipped anything to general availability. But I've seen what an open and iterative development style can do for teams, at Microsoft and other places that I've worked. When you can have a conversation with people, and take ideas and turn them into code quickly, you're winning.

So why don't people like winning? I think there are a lot of reasons, and they can generally be categorized into fear, skepticism and bad experiences.

I can't give the Web stack teams enough credit. Not only did they dream big, but they changed a culture that often seems immovable and hopelessly stuck. This is a very public example of this culture change, but it's starting to happen at every scale in Microsoft. It's really interesting to see in a company that has been written off as dead the last decade.


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