Tips & tricks

Running a successful open source project

Wayne Beaton and Gunnar Wagenknecht

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Managing an open source project isn’t as easy as it sounds. A successful open source project is more than just making the source code available. In this article, Wayne Beaton and Gunnar Wagenknecht explain how you can make your open source project a runaway success.

Running an open source project is easy. All you have to do is make your source code available and you’re open source, right? Well, maybe. Ultimately, whether or not an open source project is successful depends on your definition of success. Regardless of your definition, creating an open source project can be a lot of work. If you have goals regarding adoption, for example, then you need to be prepared to invest. While open source software is “free as in beer”, it’s not really free: time and energy are valuable resources and these valuable resources need to be invested in the project.

So, how do you invest those resources?

Define success

Before you can consider running a successful open source project, you need to have a clear definition of success. There are many factors to consider. Is it enough to just get some code into a publicly accessible repository or do you want more for your project? Are collaboration and adoption important to you? Are you just trying to build your reputation as a software developer? Does your definition of success long include long-term viability? Do you want to grow a community around the project? Do you care about commercial adoption? Your answer to these questions can help you decide how many of the rest of our recommendations you’ll need to adopt.

Be transparent

Transparency is pretty simple to understand: make it so that the community can watch and understand what you’re doing: use a publicly accessible source code repository that’s easy to find, use public facing issue tracking software, post your release plans where the community can find them, and capture meeting minutes in public forums (e.g. mailing lists with archives).

SEE ALSO: The new workspace currency is open source

Be open

For a lot of open source projects, “transparency” and “openness” mean the same thing, but the terms really are quite different. Being open is more than just being “open book” (which is essentially the same thing as transparency). For many, the “open” in open source means open to new ideas, or open to participation. The rules for participating in an open source project should be the same for everybody (“level playing field”): it’s not enough to just accept a few patches, you have to be open to new ideas. In short, you have to let others in and give up absolute control of the project.

Keep the playing field level

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to let just anybody join the project, but rather that you ensure that the same set of rules apply to everybody (the playing field may be level, but you still have to earn your way onto the field). Meritocracy is about earning your way in. Some projects implement meritocracy, for example, by requiring that developers make a number of contributions to demonstrate that they understand the code, rules, and culture of the project before inviting them to join the project team. Make sure that the processes for adding new developers to your project are well known and that the process is operated transparently (e.g. a public vote).

Be vendor neutral

In order to be truly open, people need to feel welcome to contribute. This is easier if the project is vendor-neutral. A vendor-neutral project is not dominated by any organization or organizations; meritocracy should be based on the contributions of an individual, not the goals or hiring practices of any specific organization. Hosting at vendor-neutral foundation is one way to achieve this.

SEE ALSO: The advantages of open source tools

Have well-defined and documented standards

Be sure to document your project’s code formatting rules (make code formatter preferences easily accessible), expectations with regard to test coverage, development methodology, software and tools required, channels to connect with the project team, and other important information for potential contributors. Capture all of this information and make it as easy as possible to find.

It’s a good practice to include a contribution guide in the root of your projects source code repositories (with DVCS, it’s entirely possible that potential contributors will find a copy of a copy of a copy of your repository; having the contribution guide in the repository will make it easy for potential contributors to find their way home).

Ensure that the project code is always buildable

Include build scripts and instructions with the project code. Make it as easy as possible to successfully build and test the project code.

Connect with your user community

The user community is that group of people who use the products of your open source project. The user community rarely contributes anything directly to the project code, but does tend to ask a lot of questions. Make sure those questions get answered. A healthy user community feeds an adopter community.

Connect with your adopter community

An obvious sign of success for an open source project is that other groups start to use your open source project in their own products, or build extensions. This community is more willing to give back to the project and will be the project’s best source of contributions. Some number of those contributors will be great candidates to join your project’s team. Development of an eco-system of adopters and extenders is a great way to ensure the longevity of your project.

Connect with your development community

The development community is comprised of your project’s team members and contributors. Provide well-known channels for communication within this community. Having clear lines of communication will help developers collaborate.

Have a plan

It’s easy to lapse into a pattern of just letting software development happen, but like any process (especially a software development process), having some method to the madness is critical. Make sure that your project employs a development methodology and make sure that somebody owns the process (e.g. a project lead). Having a plan helps developers know where they can contribute the most value and makes it easier for adopters and extenders to implement their own plans (and thereby be successful). Treat your open source project like any other software development project.

Manage your brand

Your project will have a brand. The project’s name is its identity; as is the project logo, along with the names of any products (it’s typical that the products of an open source project share the name of the project, but some projects produce more than one product). Claim the project’s brand as a trademark and consider registering that trademark. Establish trademark usage guidelines so that adopters know how to use your brand. This is an area where working with an open source software foundation can add value. A foundation can hold and defend the project’s trademarks on behalf of the community. This avoids letting any particular individual or organization hold the project’s name hostage (this happens).

SEE ALSO: “All the great disruptive trends of the last decade have been strongly driven by Open Source”

Manage Intellectual Property and copyright

The code, documentation, and other artifacts contributed to the project are intellectual property. Who owns that intellectual property? Do the authors retain their ownership, or do they assign it to another entity? Make sure that the rights and responsibilities of contributors are understood by all contributors. Consider having contributors sign a developer certificate of origin (DCO) or a contributor license agreement (CLA). Ensure that copyright notices are included with the source code and in notices.

Note that it is unlikely that the project itself is a legal entity that can hold copyrights. This is another way in which an open source foundation can provide a valuable service.

Pick an OSI-approved open source license

Don’t create your own custom license; that will just add legal hurdles for anybody who wants to use your code. Make sure that the license that you choose is compatible with the manner in which you intend for the code to be used. Furthermore, ensure that the license is compatible with any third party content (e.g. libraries) that your project code needs. Include the SPDX code for your license in the headers for all source files.

Move your project to an open source foundation

We’ve mentioned foundations a few times already. A foundation can first and foremost help you to keep your project vendor-neutral, which will help adoption: a bit part of the appeal of open source software is that adopters can avoid being beholden to a particular organization. A foundation can hold onto and defend the project’s trademarks, establish a governance model, help you manage your brand, provide intellectual property management services, and just generally provide assistance and advice for operating a successful open source project. Being a part of an open source foundation provides a value feedback loop. The foundation provides credibility for your open source project which in turn provides credibility to the foundation.


Running an open source project is a lot of work. But, as we’ve suggested, how much work it takes really depends on your definition of success. Fall back on the core principles of open source development: transparency, openness, and meritocracy. Everything else comes from that.


Open Source

To read more about open source, download the latest issue of JAX Magazine:

All eyes on Open Source

Open source skills are a boost for career prospects — if you don’t believe it, it’s time to bring out the big guns.

We invited the Eclipse Foundation, The Apache Software Foundation, Cloud Foundry, Red Hat, Hyperledger and more to show you why open source is important. You’ll surely learn a lot from their experiences!

But don’t take my word for it! Open the magazine and allow their passion to “infect” you.


Wayne Beaton and Gunnar Wagenknecht

Wayne Beaton works for the Eclipse Foundation where he fills the dual roles of Director of Open Source Projects and Evangelist. He spends his days working with the many Eclipse open source project teams, learning about Eclipse technology, and making sure that everybody knows just how cool it all really is. In 1982, he received the prestigious Chief Scouts Award from then-Governor General Edward Schreyer. In 1984 his team was selected to represent beautiful British Columbia in the Kinsmen Voyageur Relay. In his spare time, he writes down meaningless accomplishments from his youth in a lame attempt to impress the reader. Wayne authors the Eclipse Hints, Tips, and Random Musings blog.

Gunnar Wagenknecht is a technical leader with a tremendous amount of experience. Whether it’s real-time analytics or highly transactional systems, web & mobile applications or development tools, multi-tenant software as a service offerings or enterprise software, he has extensive experience in formulating and executing technology strategies to successfully deliver complex products and compelling solutions. Gunnar is thrilled by technology and open source and fulfills these passions by researching interesting ideas, speaking at international conferences and working extensively with open source communities like Eclipse where he also participates in different leadership roles and has been awarded with the Lifetime Contribution Award.

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