Companies today can’t get away with not using open source, says Guy Martin, Director, Open@Autodesk, who recently sat down with us for a deep dive into Autodesk’s engagement with and contributions to the open source community.
“Like any company… we consume a lot of open source,” said Martin, “I was brought in to help Autodesk’s open source strategy in terms of how we contribute back more effectively to open source, how we open source code within our environment, which we want to be a standard — code which is non-differentiating and not strategic IP.”
One of the things that Martin is most proud of is the work his company is doing in the film and media space.
“We have contributed to projects like Universal Scene Description (USD) and OpenColorIO to help our film and media customers utilize not only our products but also products from other companies through the combination of open source software,” said Martin. This leads to a typical open source ecosystem that allows film and media companies to mix and match solutions from different vendors.
In addition to contributing to various open source projects, the company has also open sourced some of its own projects. Autodesk’s GitHub repository currently has more than 51 projects.
Process and planning
But it’s not easy for a large company like Autodesk to engage with the open source community. Because they also have industry-leading proprietary solutions, they need to be extra careful with consuming and contributing to open source. They need to understand various licenses to avoid legal complexity, and they must be aware that releasing some code may also expose company IP. These are areas where all companies must tread carefully, and developers need to be fully confident that they can use code efficiently without dealing with a heavyweight process to get permissions for using or contributing.
“There needs to be a process around what we are going to open source which involves legal at a very early stage,” Martin said.
When Martin started working at Autodesk, he sat down with the legal department and found that one of the challenges in open sourcing code was lack of any business strategy around the process. One team might decide to open source something, start discussing with legal, then after a few months or more of all this work someone from business unit might look at it and ask why are we open sourcing this? All the previous efforts would be wasted.
“Now the process starts with the business team. We engage the business leaders; we engage the engineering teams. When we decide to open source something, we ask what’s the strategic value for Autodesk in open sourcing. What do we gain and what do we lose regarding the ability to patent things. These are the genuine business concerns,” he said.
Beyond open sourcing their own code, legal also needs to get involved when it comes to using (or contributing to) external open source projects. Before Martin joined the company, Autodesk had many different ways and means for getting approval to contribute something to upstream open source or consume some open source project.
Martin worked with the open source legal counsel at the company to fix the process. “Now we have a single process for anyone who wants to consume some open source code or wants to contribute to some. We are still improving that process,” he said.
Another thing that Autodesk has done is create a whitelist of pre-approved open source licenses, so developers have more freedom and flexibility. There is still some oversight from legal in case there is something they are not comfortable with. “We still have to track that work from a compliance perspective, but it does lift the burden from developers,” said Martin.
Autodesk has also implemented more communication channels internally, which leads to more transparency across the company. This helps people understand the value of contributing to as well as consuming open source.