Why Open Source Software Needs Non-Technical Roles

Why open source needs non-technical roles

Marketers, designers, writers, and other non-developer skill sets make open source projects grow, thrive, and stay competitive.

InMotion Hosting has a long history of using and supporting open source software.

Think programming is the only skill that matters in the information technology sphere? Think again.

From our extensive and lasting participation in the WordPress community, to our new involvement with OpenStack and the OpenStack Foundation, reflected in our new Flex Metal Cloud product, open source has always been a critical part of our mission as a technology company. In that time, however, many open source projects have struggled. 

The software is good but maybe the interface is difficult-to-use, there is no documentation, and/or the marketing has been ineffective.

We believe open source needs designers, marketers, technical writers, testers, and advocates for every skill and area beyond actually writing the software.

Why Open Source Needs Designers

The original Apple iPhone is one of the best examples of this principle.

An intelligent, effective design makes all the difference in whether a product stands out in a crowded field. 

When the iPhone launched in 2007, there were cell phones that could do as much as the iPhone or more, often for a lower price. Windows Mobile phones and Blackberries were well established and could run apps, check email, browse the Internet, make phone calls, send text messages, and all of the other tasks the iPhone could do. What made the iPhone stand out was how well it integrated and improved the existing functionality.

Other smartphones of the era were relatively thick, boxy, and clunky to use. 

The Windows Mobile and Blackberry operating systems also were much slower and clunky-feeling compared to the iPhone’s slick new design. 

The innovation for the iPhone was that the barrier for entry for these features was suddenly much lower thanks to the iPhone’s easier-to-use interface and more attractive physical design.

Open source projects, like OpenStack, for example, could benefit from the skill and knowledge of designers, user interface experts, user experience professionals, and other related skill sets. 

There are applications within the OpenStack ecosystem that do not provide a completely consistent or convenient user experience for OpenStack users. 

A consistent, attractive, convenient design will help OpenStack maintain competitiveness in a cloud market where Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and other major players are constantly streamlining and refining their users’ experience.

Why Open Source Needs Marketers

The portable media player industry of the early 2000’s has several examples of products superior to the iPod that no one remembers. The Microsoft Zune is one of the more noteworthy products from this era, but there were other competitors with better feature sets and price points than the iPod but failed to have the same lasting impact and success, like the still-active line of media players from SanDisk, the flash storage brand.

Even the best product or software in the world will struggle to achieve success if no one knows about it or knows what it can do.

The SanDisk e200 series of media players from the same time period as the iPod, for example, had higher storage, more features, and could play video — all with a more compact form factor than the iPod. 

Despite having apparently superior products, these products were significantly less successful than the iPod. 

None of the manufacturers or product developers committed significant resources to market and advertise their products or had the established expertise and knowledge to most effectively sell the product.

In order to remain competitive with major public cloud providers, OpenStack and other open source projects must be able to clearly explain how they can help meet users’ needs and be valuable to users.

This kind of marketing is especially important to open source projects because they often do not have the same level of resources for advertising and traditional marketing.

What are the important differences between public cloud and private cloud? A good content strategy can illustrate this better than a long, complicated information dump.

A team of marketers can help an open source project build consistent and well-tailored messaging for explaining to users how the project can solve their problems and make their lives easier.

Developing a brand

The software’s brand recognition can also play a significant role in how successful a product is adopted, especially if the software is new to an industry or market.

Efforts to build a brand on top of high quality products and services have a compounding effect.

Major companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon are household names. Everyone has heard of these companies and have a general idea of something valuable they produce. Given the choice between OpenStack, AWS, Google, or Microsoft, many users may be more inclined to choose the well-known brand, even though OpenStack may actually be a better fit for their needs, especially if using open source software is a concern.

Marketing professionals have the expertise, knowledge, and experience to help build a consistent brand message and advance the brand’s influence across various channels. 

A solid marketing strategy also helps build connections to larger networks.

Why Open Source Needs Technical Writers

A great product with solid marketing and messaging can still fall short if no one knows or understands exactly how to use it. 

Plus, how many developers take time or want to write the detailed documentation for software when developing the product? Even if time is taken to write documentation, how thorough or detailed is the documentation? Is the documentation accessible and easy to understand understandable?

Technical writers are an important part of product development. 

Technical writers are an important part of product development. 

They write the manuals, guides, and reference documents for the most successful products.

Many of these professionals also provide on-going written support as well and updates to written documentation as new features are developed.

OpenStack’s documentation has a number of areas where skilled technical writers could significantly improve the value of OpenStack’s documentation.

There is no documentation to help OpenStack users move from a development environment into a production-ready system.

Unfortunately, too many projects only have a development environment tutorial or an API reference.

In addition, sometimes these documents are not up-to-date with the current release of OpenStack.

Dedicated technical writers can help keep this important reference material up-to-date to meet the needs of new and existing OpenStack users.

Where Are These Helpers Now?

While there undoubtedly are professionals in these and other disciplines helping open source projects be successful, too many “non-technical” professionals feel intimidated or unwelcome to participate.

This kind of impression stems from these skills being viewed as less valuable or important than software development, even though they have a valuable part to play in the success of software development.

Open source software needs to embrace these essential “non-technical” professionals in order to remain competitive with major closed source providers with big budgets for design, marketing, and technical writing.

Start the conversation

If you are a software developer or systems administrator, ask yourself next time if you would help your open source project better by designing an interface or trying to market the software yourself or by inviting someone with those skills to help out.

Even if you could do these things yourself, having someone else to help you frees you up to write better software.

Project teams should also take time to explain technical concepts to people new to the project. Fostering an attitude of openness, respect, and appreciation for others’ contributions is critical to ensuring your open source project has a healthy population of contributors. For non-developer professionals, consider what open source software you normally use in your work or daily life.

Ask yourself how the software could benefit from your particular expertise and reach out to the software’s team with a plan for contributions you would like to make.

This post was contributed by Jadon Naas, ace product development lead at InMotion Hosting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *