Dash Open 01: Gil Yehuda - Starting, Running, and Improving an Open Source Program Office

Rosalie: Hi everyone and welcome to the Dash Open podcast. Dash Open is your source for interesting conversations about open source from the Open Source Program Office at Verizon Media. Verizon Media is the parent company of Yahoo, Huffington Post, AOL, Tumbler, TechCrunch, and many other beloved internet brands. My name is Rosalie, and I'm on the open source team at Verizon Media. I'm very excited to chat with Gil Yehuda. Gil is the senior director of open source and external technology at Verizon Media. He got to Verizon Media by being an open source director at Yahoo. He is an avid writer, a very nice guy, and full disclosure, he’s my boss. Gil: I also like drinking tea. Rosalie: Today I'll ask Gil about how he got involved with open source, why open source matters to tech companies, and his advice for companies about running their own open source program. Welcome, Gil. Gil: Thank you. Rosalie: Let's start off with how you initially became involved with open source. Gil: I used to work at a large enterprise financial services company as an enterprise architect, working on internal technology. There was a group of people who were looking at emerging technologies, and they came to us with open source as this new thing that's going to revolutionize the technology industry. When I first heard about it and started looking at it, gotta be honest with you, I was not a fan. I thought it did not make sense, and my first involvement with open source was to oppose it. I was the guy on the team who basically said, "No way, there's no way we should drop our vendor contracts with IBM and Microsoft, and Oracle," and there was this opportunity to learn more, to really hear from one of the open source legends, who came to visit the company and gave us almost an all-day talk. It was just multiple sessions about open source, and at the end of that, I kind of realized, "I'm wrong. I'm really wrong about everything", this open source stuff makes a lot more sense than I had given it credit initially, because of things like scale, it just actually makes a lot more sense. Gil: So I switched like 180 degrees from somebody who was very skeptical about the open source movement and how successful it would be to somebody who suddenly realized this was probably going to be a big thing, and actually I think it is. Rosalie: So your first open source job was actually at Yahoo, and I'm curious - why did Yahoo create an open source program office and how did you find out about the job? Gil: So I'll tell you what I think, I mean when they decided to create the role, I wasn't in the role at the time, they hired me into it. But I think what happened is what I noticed happen at other companies as well, they come to a realization at some point that they're very dependent upon open source, they're using it everywhere and that various groups are doing things with open source, contributing, or publishing, or engaging in some manner, but every group does it on their own. And in some cases, they're doing it in visible ways, and some cases they're kind of hiding under the radar. What Yahoo realized many years ago was that it was very strategic and important to get a handle on what we were doing and why, and like with many things it doesn't self-organize. Open source isn't magically going to work for the company unless somebody or team looks holistically from a systems perspective at how it's being applied across the company, as companies are large, different groups do different things that may even oppose each other. Without anyone really looking at it, I think they realized it was going to turn out to be chaotic, and potentially increase risk, or waste money or time. Gil: So they created a position. How I found about it was kind of cool, actually. A friend of mine was working at Yahoo at the time. He used to work at Microsoft, he was looking for a job, I got him a job at my company and a few years later and he called me up and he said, "I'll return the favor, there's this job at Yahoo, and I think you'll be really good at it because you went through that process of sort of being on both sides of the open source debate, and you learned a lot in that transition, and you can bring that here and really help out". So I came for the interview, I wasn't really sure it was going to be a thing, and I fell in love. I was like, "This is going to be pretty cool, let's do something with it". So that goes back a little over eight years, but I've been at Yahoo ever since, and now we're part of the Verizon Media companies, so I'm still chugging along doing this open source work. Rosalie: Wow, eight years. That's awesome. And can you maybe talk a little bit about what you're focused on at Verizon Media, and some of the activities that your team oversees. Gil: Sure, so the way we've scoped it is we want to be involved, and we try to be involved in everything that has something to do with open source. So it's a fairly comprehensive program that deals with the intake of open source into our technology stack, and the related questions about what licenses are okay for which uses, questions like that. It also includes contributions back to open source projects, not just can we, but what's the best way of doing it. Publications of open source projects, projects that we've created, that we've put out there for other people to use, the engagement strategy that we have with the way we manage our assets on and other public assets that are available. The messages that we convey when we speak at open source conferences and meetups, our relationships with open source foundations, like the Apache Software Foundation, the Linux Foundation, and others. Gil: So we work with legal on legal contracts that have open source clauses in it and with HR in talent acquisition. Many times engineers will come to a company and one of the questions that they'll ask in their interview is, "Is this an open source friendly company, and what are the policies?" So we'll work with the recruiters and let them know how to answer that question so that folks who want to come work for us will know that we support open source activities, we're really progressive about it, and want people to succeed in open source. So just about anything that we do with open source, there's somebody on the team that is involved in making sure that we're doing it properly and toward a successful goal. Rosalie: Fascinating. One thing that I'd love to go back on is you made the comment that when folks are considering working here, they will ask about, "Are you an open source company, what sort of open source involvement do you have?" Other than from a recruiting standpoint, open source being a very large benefit, what are some other benefits from a business perspective? Gil: Sure. One of the things that we tell candidates, and we tell managers, and just about everyone who asks, is that we're not looking at open source as a perk. Because you work here, you get free food, and you get to work on open source, and all that. We're not really looking at it as that. Open source is the strategic way that we operate with technology. Most of our technology platforms are built on open source and composed largely of open source components. There are some things that are not open, obviously, there's secret sauce, and there's stuff we don't share. After all, we are a business, and that comes with the territory. But there's a lot that we depend upon. Gil: So what's important for us strategically is that we bet on the right open source bets, that if we publish a project we're doing so with a goal in mind, that we're not just putting stuff out there because we can, but we're putting stuff out there to engage and solve a real problem that the industry has, and then work together with partners at other companies to solve that problem together. We also want to make sure that we reduce tech debt, that's one of the killers to technology companies is that you see a bright, shiny penny, you start investing in something, and then a couple years later, you just kick yourselves for investing in that technology which at the time seemed really cool, but a few years later, you're like, "This was a mistake, and we should've waited, or we should've operated”. So open source becomes really important in staying current with the industry and preventing us from getting even locked into vendors, who start un-supporting older versions, or actually dead projects. Gil: So part of it, I think a lot of it, is really focused on being smart about the way we manage our technology portfolio overall. That said, it happens to be that lot's of engineers really like working open source projects. It's good for their skills and it's good for their portability to other companies. They come in hitting the ground running. So we also want to make sure that they understand that we're very friendly to open source, we're the kind of company that welcomes them to be an open source rockstar, and participate in whatever way makes sense for them and the company. Rosalie: Could you maybe just name a few of the open source projects Verizon Media is currently focused on? Gil: Sure. But I'll tell you it's going to be a subset, and there's a lot, and we're not going to have time to talk about them all. So forgive me for just picking off the top of my head, because there's just a bunch I'm going to forget. But that said, I mean a couple do stand out as being really special and worth talking about. Gil: One I'd say is Vespa. Vespa is a really cool technology, it comes out of our Norway team. We have a team in Norway, and they've been working on this technology for a number of years. It's very mature, very battle-tested. It's used in a lot of products. And it's a big data serving engine. So it relies upon a lot of the experience we have in big data, and just huge volumes of data and the engineering issues surrounding volume and speed. It operates as a serving engine, but it also has componentry that we use for faceted, vertical search for ranking and indexing within the search technology world and document search. It's a very sophisticated set of technologies. So Vespa comes to mind as being something definitely worth looking at. Gil: Another thing that comes to mind is something called Screwdriver, which is a CICD platform that we use to build our applications across the company. So it really leverages the way lots of groups do CICD at scale. Scales up fairly nicely, and that's also available on GitHub, very battle-tested, very mature. Gil: Another one that comes to mind is Athenz, which is an authentication technology and also operates at scale. And if you notice, many of the things that we do at Verizon Media, and as well as legacy AOL, and many of the other brands we've been involved, a lot of the things that we do are scale-based technologies, so it's something that we're particularly focused on, and that's making sure that a good solution works at incredibly high volume so that the very largest and the very most complex companies could use it. I've mentioned Screwdriver, I mentioned Athenz. Gil: Bullet is also really interesting technology. We use it as a forward querying system. So rather than querying data in a table, we're able to query data what's coming through a stream. So those are just a couple of examples, we have others in mobile space, in cloud computing, you name it. We have open source activities for tons of engineers on a variety of platforms. So that's pretty cool. Rosalie: All four of those sound awesome. Alright, Gil, so you have been running an OSPO for over eight years, and so now what I'd love to kind of shift our conversation to focusing on advice for other OSPO's. For companies that are considering starting an OSPO, what advice do you have for them? Gil: Well, first of all, start an OSPO. So I don't think that companies should be considering starting an OSPO, I think companies should have an Open Source Program Office. If you're a tech company, you should have at least somebody, if not a team, and maybe it's part-time, maybe it's like a part responsibility, but it'll quickly grow to full-time. You should have somebody who's looking at your open source strategy. This is very pragmatic. Not having somebody usually means that you're "doing open source" but you really don't know what you're doing. The organization doesn't have an ability to really introspect without somebody viewing, managing, making critical decisions, and providing oversight. It's sort of like, imaging trying to walk through an airport with no signs. You could, in theory, get to everywhere, but there's no signage so you have no idea where you're going. That's sort of like the way open source operates in an organization without any guidance, in that it could go anywhere, but it's not necessarily going to where it should. So you need to have that kind of structural signage. Gil: So my advice is put an OSPO in place. Reach out to the folks on the TODO group, which is a collaboration of other OSPO's who've come together to share best practices and to encourage people to improve the way their OSPO's run, or to learn how OSPO's run, and to just take it seriously, recognize that open source is a critical part of your technology portfolio for most technology companies, and even for companies that aren't "technology" companies, but where a lot of their success relies upon technology. Even if you're in the banking industry, financial services, you manufacture goods, or you're in media, you have a lot of source code. You have a lot of code that you buy or code that you build, or potentially code that you sell. So having an OSPO will help ensure that everyone is working together toward the corporate goals. Rosalie: Really great advice. And for those companies who already have an OSPO, how can they make sure that they're constantly improving their approach and increasing their overall impact? Gil: Sure. That's a good question. So here's my philosophy on this, I think that open source should be done in an open source manner. The underlying ethos of open source is that by sharing and being receptive to the insight of others, we're better for it. And that doesn't necessarily mean sharing everything but sharing as much as you can. So if you are running an OSPO, be open about it. Publish, share, speak at conferences, meet with other OSPO leaders, and engage. Share what works, and ask questions about what doesn't, and find out. Publish your OSPO code, theoretical code, and be receptive to pull requests, and issues, and inquiries about that code. So by living that sort of open source consistency, your OSPO will benefit from all the benefits your open code benefits from, which is the insight of others who collaborate and, for the most part, try to improve things. And then you still have the control to resist those pieces of feedback that don't work for you, or don't work for your company. You don't have to accept them. You're not obligated to take every piece of feedback, but you should be open to listening to it because that's a signal that could be useful. Rosalie: Absolutely. For folks listening in who either are about to start an OSPO, or already have one, and they're hearing all this great feedback and thinking to themselves, "I would love to connect with Gil", how could they connect with you? What is the best way for them to sort of reach out? Gil: So I try to be available on a bunch of the social media channels, I use Twitter, I'm on LinkedIn, I welcome people to link into me and send me a note. I've written a bunch of responses on Quora, it's a website for questions and answers. And I've written a bunch of stuff on open source particularly there, so people could reach out to me there if they're a Quora user, reader or contributor. Or they can just email me - I meet with people all the time and actually people drop me a note and say, "Hey, I'm starting an OSPO, been thinking about it, heard your name out there, can you take a look at a slide deck and tell us what you think and would you be willing to get on the phone for a half an hour?" And I try to make sure that I have some time available to do that, because not only am I glad to help other people, I learn things in the process. Gil: Again, the point of open source engagement is that it's a two-way street. I always learn something in the process with those conversations. So I'm generally glad to take them if I'm able to. Rosalie: Gil, it has been so great to be able to chat with you, so I just wanted to say thank you. Gil: Thank you for doing this, it was a lot of fun. Rosalie: If you enjoyed this episode of Dash Open, and would like to learn more about open source projects at Verizon Media, please visit You can also find us on Twitter @YDN.

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