Strategy – Effective Commercial Open Source Product Management

As open source software becomes increasingly prevalent in today’s digital world, it is important for product managers to understand the unique challenges and priorities associated with managing open source product definition and delivery. While many of the same general Product Lifecycle (PLM)  and Agile approaches apply as with any software product management and development processes, there are stark differences when building commercial open source products with and alongside a community of users and contributors. 

Commercial open source product management has its own set of best practices that build on the general best practices for managing open source products. In this blog, I will highlight what have become the top priorities product managers need to consider for managing commercial open source product management and delivery.

Streamlining Community Requirements Gathering

Requirements gathering is a crucial first step in any product development process. When it comes to open source product development, this process becomes even more critical. Since open source software is community-driven, it is essential to gather feedback and input from the community to ensure that the product meets the needs of its users. As a product manager, you should regularly engage with the community, solicit feedback and suggestions, and incorporate them into the product development process. Leverage the public github and slack channels you set up that you can utilize to capture input. Also be sure to provide a clear submission form or process for collection – documented within your project. A 2020 report by Red Hat found that open source projects with an explicit governance structure were more likely to be successful than those without one, highlighting the importance of establishing clear guidelines and processes for open source product development.

Investing in Upstream Participation

Open source products typically have dependencies on other open source software. As a result, it is essential to participate in the upstream development of these dependencies. This means contributing to the development of these projects, submitting bug reports and patches, and engaging with the upstream community. Product managers should communicate regularly with upstream developers to understand their priorities and ensure that their contributions align with the project’s goals. According to a 2020 survey by The New Stack, 74% of respondents said that working with upstream developers was important in evaluating an open source project. By participating upstream, you can ensure that your product integrates smoothly with other software, and you can avoid issues down the line.

Publishing and Maintaining Public Roadmaps

Having a public roadmap is critical when it comes to open source product development. This allows the community to understand your product’s direction and goals, as well as its timeline. A public roadmap also fosters transparency and accountability, which are essential in community-driven projects. As a product manager, you should regularly update the public roadmap and solicit feedback from the community.

Maintaining Private Roadmaps

While a public roadmap is essential for community engagement, it is also important to have a private roadmap for internal planning and prioritization. As many open source projects are either initiated by one company or a small set of companies it;s just as important to understand where your areas of core contribution need to be to grow your related business.This allows you to prioritize features and plan releases based on the needs of the community and the product’s business goals. By having a clear roadmap, you can ensure that your team is working towards a common goal and can avoid feature creep.

Fostering Community Development and Engagement

Finally, community development is critical when it comes to open source product development. This involves building relationships with the community, engaging in community events, and creating resources for the community to use. By building a strong community around your product, you can ensure that it remains relevant and successful in the long run. Product managers should work to create a welcoming and inclusive environment that encourages participation and fosters collaboration. According to a 2020 survey by The Linux Foundation, 71% of respondents said that community building was the most important factor in driving open source adoption.

Managing Project Fragmentation

Open source software can be highly fragmented, with many different distributions, versions, and configurations. This can create challenges for product managers who need to ensure that their product is compatible with different versions of dependencies and is easily deployable on different platforms. Managing fragmentation requires a deep understanding of the software ecosystem and careful planning and testing.

Balancing Community Needs with Business Goals

One of the biggest challenges for product managers of open source software is balancing the needs of the community with the product’s business goals. Open source products are community-driven, and it is important to incorporate feedback and input from the community into the product development process. However, it is also important to prioritize the product’s business goals and ensure that the product generates revenue and meets the needs of the market.

In conclusion, commercial open source product management requires a unique set of priorities and challenges. By prioritizing requirements gathering, upstream participation, public and private roadmaps, and community development, you can ensure that your product meets the needs of the community and is successful in the long run. As a product manager, it is essential to be mindful of these priorities and to regularly engage with the community to ensure the success of your product.

Scott Clinton
Author: Scott Clinton

Scott has 20 years of industry executive leadership experience leading Developer, Software-defined infrastructure, Big Data, Hadoop, Security and Hybrid-cloud product portfolios for some of the industry’s leading global technology providers including EMC, Hortonworks/Cloudera, MobileIron, Red Hat, Qualys, VMWare, and Sun. Educated in Silicon Valley, Scott holds Bachelors of Computer Systems Design and International Business degrees.

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