July 05, 2003
Reflections on OSAF as an Organization

Part of my job, as I see it, is to foster the organizational health of OSAF. Ever since my early days as an entrepreneur at Lotus, I've naturally felt that an organization's success had to be assessed not only in terms of its finances and products but its culture as well.

Prior to forming Lotus in 1982, I had had a checkered career as a disc jockey, meditation teacher, and mental health worker, Never was I in serious danger of being named employee of the month. Generally speaking I had a bad attitude towards authority and regarded virtually all organizational structure as unnecessarily bureaucratic, dumb, and therefore generally oppressive.

When, unexpectedly, Lotus became an instant success (albeit with one of the world's least formally trained or experienced CEO's -- me), it seemed to me a golden opportunity to foster a corporate culture which would be less subject to the failings I found so irksome. I'm as proud of our accomplishments in this realm and as certain of their long-term impact as I am of the company's contributions to application software and its use.

So, paying attention to how people are treated and how they treat each other in the workplace is by now a habit of long-standing. This is where it begins, with attention. It's remarkable to me how often it is the case in Silicon Valley companies how little regard there is for creating workplaces in which basic conditions of respect and fairness are taken seriously. It's not that venture-backed companies are dark Satanic mills. Far from it. It's more that in the furiously single-minded pursuit of success, as defined in these parts, nothing matters but shipping product, getting the customer order, and beating the competition.

The organizational design of OSAF has reflected my concerns from the outset.

As a non-profit, we have the freedom (and the commitment) to focus on the integrity of the product without the undue pressure for short-term results which a board and financial backers often demand (and which, to be fair, is a fundamental way the game is played in Silicon Valley).

At the same time, we also have a "business model", recognizing that we must find a way to become financially self-sustaining. Our intent is to catalyze development of an entire ecology and to foster, among other things, for-profit efforts which license our code base for commercial use reflects this.

As an open source project, we fully embrace an open development process. The code is there to be examined and downloaded, even at this early stage. One of the gratifying results of this is that we already have a small cadre of volunteer developers working on their own parcels.

In a sense, our unique process is our first product, and we are innovating as we go. We are attempting to synthesize features from the world of open source projects with features of entrepreneurial start-up companies.

We offer no stock options (though we do offer competitive salaries), as non-profits have no stock to offer. But we do offer an environment where individual developers can feel what they do makes a difference and contributes to something that matters. That matters a lot, to some people more than the often-illusory promise of riches.

It is as important for us to be as transparent as possible, just as it is almost always important for a private company to be as secretive as possible about its product plans and the "secret sauce" algorithms in its code. Transparency builds trust and invites participation. We have already seen this proven out over and over again. We get more help because there's more to see, more to react to, and more to contribute to.

We are not trying to capture market share in a zero-sum universe where one party's winning implies another party's losing.

High transparency equals low spin. I dislike spin intensely. Spin, to me, is massaging every corporate pronouncement to put things in the best possible light. Low spin is about being straight-forward, taking responsibility, and acknowledging mistakes.

If we can demonstrate that it's possible to create great product under these conditions, and if we can continue to find a balance between the pragmatic necessities required to actually ship code and the idealistic values we profess, if we can find ways to integrate those values into our day-to-day process, then I think that will be a contribution on the order of whatever it is we actually produce as product.

Posted by mitch@osafoundation.org at July 05, 2003 12:10 PM


I was taken by your comment on your early attempts to avoid the development of the common bureaucratic firm. I also noticed your self-effacing sentence about being a CEO. I read all of the doc and found a lot of myself in it.

We recently started Sports Business Simulations, Inc. SBS produces online simulations of sports organizations for use in the classroom, and is a sports portal.

I have this question: Did you (and do you) find that there are people who simply want to be in a corporate bureaucracy and not in an environment that offers more freedom?

Posted by: Zennie at July 20, 2003 11:21 PM

>Did you (and do you) find that there are people who >simply want to be in a corporate bureaucracy and >not in an environment that offers more freedom?

Yes, some people aren't comfortably, at least at first, at being in an environment with more freedom and more responsibility.

A good thing to screen for in hiring.

And something to make clear to people about what's required to succeed in the job.

-- Mitch

Posted by: Mitch Kapor at July 26, 2003 12:20 PM

Been too long.

Is OS AF large enough to be concerned about organizing functionally, by cross-function teams, or by process oriented (as in Vough's Total Responsibility) structures?

If it is, how do you handle it and how does that compare to what you did at Lotus? Which structure gives people the most freedom? Which the most responsibility?


Posted by: John Sturm at September 5, 2003 06:09 AM