Why Government Contractors should Open Source their Software

laptop with code on the screen

Open source software is nothing new, but the rise in demand for open source contractors is. From small companies to large enterprises like Google, the open source movement is in full swing.

Unsurprisingly, most governments are a few steps behind the latest social and technological trends, so naturally, government contractors are hesitant to join the open source software movement. But here’s where it gets interesting: a 2010 report identifies more than 300 government open-source policy initiatives.

Get this, in 2013 Nasa switched from Windows to open-source Drupal so they could have more in-house control over their software, with the liberty to modify, patch, and improve it as needed. Since then, more than a few agencies have been favoring open source software for the combination of lower costs and more control, but it’s still a slow progress in the U.S. and in many other countries.

However, the open source movement isn’t going away anytime soon, so you might as well begin the conversion to open source development sooner rather than later. But okay, you likely want something a bit more substantial than a one liner to convince you, and also some nice arguments to use as your best selling points when responding to RFPs.

Re-use and recycle existing code

The beauty of open source code is that it can be copied, pasted, and modified to suit specific needs, making it easier to be shared, transformed and maintained. With all the ‘open policies’ flying around lately, governments are now demanding their agencies use open source software to be shared across the agencies and in turn reduce duplicated code that arises when each agency gets their own vendor to develop custom software. (If you want to read about it from an agency’s perspective, here’s our post on Why the Government should Open Source their Software.)

Furthermore, since the code will be open source, as the contractor you’ll be able to use existing libraries and modules already developed to solve common problems that many contracts will inevitably share. No need to reinvent the wheel when you’re open source. However, if you do need to create your own coding solution, then it’ll be a great new addition to the open source community that can only give you more authority as a developer. It’s really a win-win type of situation.

Develop collaboratively

Software maintenance is just about as big as software development. As many of you will know, when a contractor is hired for a project there is usually a fixed price or budget, and maintenance is more of an afterthought which is only possible if there’s “any budget left over” or if there are plans for further investment in the project to build additional features. This means that sometimes the code dies out, and remains untouched until it’s obsolete and needs to be replaced.

As the reliable Ben Balter mentions in his article about open government, once open software is out, there is an opportunity to create a community around it, get support for bugs and suggestions for improvement.

Code that is constantly improved can only get better, and contractors have a good chance of fostering a long term relationship with the hiring agency to continue improving the code at a much lower cost and higher flexibility than with a proprietary software team.

Attract new talent

Since open source software is a collaborative effort, it’s easy to identify and pick out the rising stars who are adding to your code and incorporate them into your team or company. GitHub is known for hiring their new talent this way, and are familiar with many of their developers well before a resume ever changes hands. What better way to review applicants than seeing them in action from the very beginning?

Enhance coding practices

Developers who know their code is going to be out in the open to be reused and repurposed are less likely to write bad code or hardcode functionality. Open source compels contractors to stick to higher standards and make sure their code is good quality. Plus, with all the competitiveness involved when a government agency starts a procurement bidding war, you’ll need your past work to reflect best practices in order to prove you’re the right vendor for the job.

Freedom to show your work

With traditional software development directed at government agencies, those projects are usually contractually hushed up in the contractor’s portfolio. With open source, however, your code is a matter of public property and anyone is able to view and understand how you work. This would allow you to build up your portfolio of past work without hiding any achievements that could very well get you hired for a similar project.

Advantage over traditional IT vendors

When a government agency puts out a procurement, you’d have the uniquely attractive advantage of being an expert in open source software development which offers a whole new level of control to government agencies. No more waiting on the software creator/vendor and going through costly corporate channels for every question, petition, or security vulnerability. Not to mention lower maintenance fees and the flexibility to add, remove, and adjust the code as the agency needs it. Putting this ace up your sleeve now rather than later, you’d likely get many more contracts than you would by following the slowly dying traditional software path. So what are you waiting for to join the open source movement?

 

If you’re a government contractor looking to partner with an open source software developer, we’re here and waiting for your call. Get in touch today