The economy is crumbling. Jobs are being cut. Hope? It’s floating. One severely hit sector in times like these is the software development industry. Even companies like Google and Microsoft can’t escape the thunder and have had to lay people off in recent times.
Despite this depression, there is a silver lining behind the dark clouds—Freedom Software or Open Source is emerging as the saviour. But it’s easier said than done. Let me present a hypothesis here on how Freedom Software saves careers and companies.
The fantastic four
There were four friends working in three different software companies. One fine day, they received pink slips out of the blue. Suddenly, the ones with heavy salaries and the most promising careers were jobless. They met in the evening, concerned about their present and future. They did have some savings and working spouses, so they could survive for a while without jobs. But the economy was not promising anything big.
One of the four friends was into sales and marketing. He confirmed, “Tomorrow, I was supposed to meet a client who is also feeling the heat. The pressure from the US government to cut outsourcing, along with the economic slowdown, was already crushing their outsourcing business.”
Apparently the company was waiting for a big contract from their customer, but was required to scale up for that project. To do so, the firm needed to buy new licences for the proprietary products it used. The firm was reluctant to invest its savings in the current hard times, on something that it was not 100 per cent sure would materialise. Also, the firm could not access funds from banks. If the firm took the risk of investing its savings to scale up, only to find that another firm had out-bid it to win the contract, it’d go bankrupt. Ironically, if it did not scale up, it would still lose the project and go downhill pretty soon.
One of the friends was a software consultant. He offered, “Why don’t we meet this client and see if we can help. Either way, we are now jobless and have lots of time to spare.”
The four went to meet the client. They surveyed the firm’s infrastructure, which was running completely on proprietary technologies. For every new box, the firm would have to buy new licences. After visiting the centre, the four decided to suggest something that could save the firm.
“Migrate to Open Source.”
“What?” the owner said. “How can I migrate to Open Source during a running project? And where am I going to get the money for it? And even if it’s all possible, who in the world would be able to take up the job of migrating our entire infrastructure?”
The consultant told him that either way he’d have to invest money in buying or renewing licences. If he chose open source, they could bring the cost down dramatically. Most of what he was running had successful freedom software alternatives.
It all boiled down to who would do the implementation. The four friends had not shut themselves up in the closed-source, air-tight compartment of proprietary software companies they worked for. Instead, they had been using and working on open source technologies all along—thankfully! The consultant suggested, “We will do the implementation, and you can pay us only if your firm bags this project.”
The owner considered this as yet another risk, “But heck, this risk perhaps is worth taking. Besides I’ll still be left with some of the savings.”
So, the four started from the server end and moved towards client side—replacing things piece by piece.
The Windows server was replaced with freedom software servers, and other applications replaced by the open source alternatives. The OpenOffice.org office suite, Apache Web server, MySQL database and GNU/Linux started replacing the proprietary stack.
It took them more than 20 days to migrate the whole infrastructure. On the 21st day, the entire set-up was running on an open source stack, except for a few things that were required by the firm, and that did not need immediate scaling up or were too insignificant.
In the process, the four friends never felt like they were jobless as they were working even harder than before. Now, it entirely depended on whether the firm would get the contract or not, and thus would be in a position to pay them their fees.
Men at work
There was one more challenge for the organisation—it developed custom software and was now using free software to do so. This led to concerns on licensing compatibility issues. Fortunately—look at the irony here—they got to learn about someone recently fired from his job, who was a legal advisor to a software company. They brought him in to advise the firm on the legalities of mixing code.
Post implementation, the friends felt a bit relaxed. However, the next day the owner of the firm called them up asking for their support for one of his clients, who was already using an open source stack and wanted someone to come and fix it—he too was not in a position to afford the fees of his regular consultant.
The four met this client to look into the problem, which was fixable as well. The solution was to replace the proprietary stack with a free alternative. That took a week, but this time they earned some money for their efforts.
On the following weekend, they had nothing much to do. So they planned a vacation for two days. But that was not to be. Their first client apparently had gone around bragging about his successful migration among his peers. So the Fantastic Four got another call at night. An SME was on the verge of shutting down as its licences were expiring and projects were shrinking.
The team of four cancelled their trip and went to meet the folks at this SME. It was an outsourcing firm that provided solutions for a UK-based civic body. There had been a call for using only open source technology in the UK, and the organisation wanted to replace its custom software with a resource where people could get access to information and file complaints. Now, the Indian firm did not have much exposure to open source, and hence was afraid it would lose a valuable contract.
This was one of the easiest tasks for the Fantastic Four. They already had contacts with a firm that specialised in similar work, and most of the solutions had been released as free software. They scrutinised the SME’s current software stack and found that it could be replaced with the open source stack in a week. They took up the project.
One week passed and they were still working on the project. Meanwhile, they heard from the first client…he had won the project and was now in a position to not only pay their fees, but also make them partners to provide support in the future. They accepted the fee, but due to their involvement in the current project, they asked for more time to think about the partnership.
By the end of this project, the friends realised that one month had passed and they had not sat idle for a minute. They looked back and found they now had good enough exposure to making a living as consultants. They took a decision. The next morning, the four friends officially started an open source consulting firm. They would offer consultancy services on legal, migration, implementation and other matters.
Due to the economic slowdown, more and more firms that were dependent on proprietary technologies were shutting down. The Fantastic Four’s consultancy firm was in demand across the region, as it had already saved three firms from shutting down. But, it was also becoming impossible for them to be at the clients’ sites all the time. They hired two engineers who had recently been sacked. Then they hired one sales person to take account of all the clients. They also needed another database migration expert.
Feeling stressed out?
It was just three months since the four had got ‘pink-slipped’. They were going to need more people, given the rate at which projects were coming in. And they sat and reflected—three engineers and a sales person who had been fired and had been so unsure about the future, were now company owners. They had saved three companies from shutting down and had even hired eight engineers, while the IT giants were busy laying off staff .
It’s only a hypothesis
Well, I started by saying this was just a hypothesis. But hey, there is a possibility that it’s already happening somewhere—you never know.