For those starting out in OSS product, here’s a tip

For those starting out in product, here’s a tip: Design, Defaults*, Documentation, Details and Delivery really matter in software.”
Jeetu Patel here.

* Note that you can interpret “Defaults” to be Out-Of-The-Box functionality offered by the product.

Let’s break those 5 D-words down and describe why they really matter to the OSS industry shall we?

  • Design – The power of OSS product development tends to lie with engineering, ie the developers. I have huge admiration for the very clever and very talented engineers who create amazing products for us to use, buuutttttt……. I just have one reservation – is there a single OSS company that is design-driven? A single one that’s making intuitive, effective, beautiful experiences for their users? The obvious answer is of course engineering teams hold sway over design teams in OSS – how many OSS vendors even have a dedicated design department??? See this article for more.
  • Defaults – Almost every OSS I know of has an enormous amount of “out-of-the-box” functionality baked in. You could even say that most have too much functionality. There’s functionality that might be really important for one customer but never even used by any of the vendor’s other customers. It just represents bloat for all the other customers, and potentially a distraction for their operators. I’m still bemused to see vendors trying to differentiate by adding obscure new default features rather than optimising for “must-have” functions. See this article for more. However, I must add that I’m starting to see a shift in some OSS. They’re moving away from having baked-in functionality and are moving to more data-repository-driven architectures. Interesting!!
  • Documentation – This is a really interesting factor! Some vendors make almost no documentation available until a prospect becomes a paying customer. Other vendors make their documentation available for the general public online and dedicate significant effort to maintaining their information library. The low-doc approach espoused by Agile could be argued to be reducing document quality. However, it also reduces the chance of producing documentation that nobody will read ever! Personally, I believe vendors like Cisco have earnt a huge competitive advantage (in the networking space moreso than OSS) because of their training / certification (ie CCNA, etc) and self-learning (ie online documentation). See this article for more. As such, I’d tend to err on over-documenting for customer-facing collateral. And perhaps under-documenting for internal-facing collateral unless it’s likely to be used regularly and by many.
  • Details – This is another item where there are two ends to the spectrum. That might surprise some people who would claim that attention to detail is paramount. Well, yes…. in many cases, but certainly not all on OSS projects. Let me share a story on attention to detail on a past OSS project. And another story on seeking perfection. Sometimes we just need to find the right balance, and knowing when to prioritise resilience and when to favour precision becomes an art.
  • Delivery – I have two perspectives on this D-word. Firstly, the Steve Jobs inspired quote of “Real artists ship!” In other words, to laud the skill of shipping a product that provides value to the customer rather than holding off on a not-yet-perfected solution. But the second case is probably more important. OSS projects tend to be massive and complex transformation efforts. Our OSS are rarely self-installed like office software, so they require big delivery teams. Some products are easy to deliver/deploy. Others are a *&$%#! If you’re a product developer, please get out in the trenches with your delivery teams and find ways to make their job easier and/or more repeatable.
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