176: 4 benefits of hiring dedicated open source contributors

Eric Mandel, CEO of infrastructure provider Blackmesh, and I got the chance to speak at PHP World 2014 (where I was also a keynote speaker). We spoke about his history with development, open source, and Drupal. I also had the chance to ask Eric about how Blackmesh has become a leader in the area of corporate contribution to Drupal, employing Cathy Theys to work on Drupal core, mentor new Drupal contributors, and help out at code sprints around the world.

Blackmesh and Drupal

Blackmesh has been involved with Drupal since version 4. Eric is excited about how Drupal 8 is bringing the community "back off the island" to work with the rest of the PHP community. He's looking forward to easier administration, control, migration, configuration for his business when clients start moving to Drupal 8, "but at a bigger level, it's going to make Drupal more available to more people to do more things. That's going to be great. At the end of the day it comes down to making things easier for more people."

Drupal 8's configuration management is clearly going to be a big win for Blackmesh's core business. Eric is excited about "how the back end configuration has been simplified and you can keep much more of it under source control," since it is no longer in the data base, but rather in simple text-based YAML files. "It simplifies some of the deployment process and things that our internal tools use. That will be a nice change."

Paying it back/forward, the business case

Not everyone who uses and benefits from Drupal contributes back to the community. And to be fair, not everyone can, but the sustainability of contribution has been a hot issue in Drupal recently – Dries spent a lot of his Amsterdam keynote talking about it – and it has come up over and over again in the project's history. Relying solely on volunteer efforts to build and maintain one of the leading FLOSS solutions in the world is clearly no longer possible. The cost in human terms (burnouts and stress), time lost through inefficiency, and lost opportunities is too great.

Blackmesh is one of the companies doing right by Drupal. As an infrastructure provider hosting a lot of Drupal websites, Blackmesh has a lot to gain from a stronger, more sustainable Drupal and they've put their money where their mouth is. Since early 2014, Cathy Theys has been employed by Blackmesh – "Your job description is: be Cathy, wear a Blackmesh shirt." – working on Drupal core, mentoring new contributors, and running code sprints around the world.

  • Benefit: You get a better Drupal back – Eric prefers making a specific, measurable difference for the project, rather than (as I put it) "Throwing pizzas at it and hoping it'll get better." He explains: "We used to sponsor and give back and help in communities that way. This gave us a much more concrete, a much more impactful way to influence and work with little camps, little communities, and bring Drupal up. She's in the mentoring, she's in the Drupal 8 testing and the issue queue, so she sees the forefront of what's coming down the pipe, but also the new people coming on. She's doing a lot with the sprints. For us, it was an ability to personify and [make an] impact on things, as opposed to that sort of, 'Here's some sponsorship; go make these dollars do things'."
  • Benefit: Closer ties to the technical community – How does Blackmesh, the business benefit from having a non-revenue-generating, Drupal contributor on payroll? "We thought is was much more focused and impactful to have her out there doing those sorts of things. It was for us to be able to give back to the community; to have a better pulse on the community and understand what's going on, where the pain points are, how we can help, how we can do things. It has been amazing how much she's been able to do: raising our awareness of things that are coming down the pike, issues where we could help that we didn't necessarily know we could help, being able to do things with introductions I've never met before. It's been a wonderful experience. It has gone better than I ever imagined."
  • Benefit: Awareness builds business – I asked Eric to justify and explain the advantages he's getting from an employee who is not on client projects, not generating revenue, but working directly on a key technology for his company. "Being able to serve our customers better because we know more of what's happening, what the pain points are, how to address things like that. Also getting more information and more relationships with different customers, different development shops, different companies in the Drupal ecosystem. Cathy is wonderful in that she's [also] going outside of Drupal, so she's done things in Symfony, so getting introductions to that and learning things about that and understanding the big picture. And sometimes it's just nice to have perspective and be able to ask an opinion of someone who's not sitting in your office every day. :-) There are lots of ways ... both measurable and more subjective benefits. And I only know about the impact she's had from the people who've come back to us and said, 'I talked to Cathy, she told me about you guys, and that you might be able to help me on this, is this something we can do?' I don't know about all the other conversations she's had. I don't know how many other people she's influenced or talked to. From what we've seen and from our perspective, it's been a wonderful experience."

"It's always good to have your brand out there, to have your logo, to have people hear about you, talk about you ... She is going places, doing things that we normally wouldn't be at. It is definitely worth it, I believe both on the quantifiable and the subjective level. And sometimes it just makes you feel good to give back. We wouldn't be here without open source. Keeping that ecosystem going is a very important part of the whole system."

Benefit: A richer, deeper organization – "Bringing diversity in always brings strengths and improvements – at an ecosystem level, at a company level, and at an individual level. At a company level, it's been really helpful. At Blackmesh, having someone who has the ability to tell us what devs are thinking, what the project is doing is a wonderful asset for us. She's our community advocate. She helps us help Drupal."

Guest dossier

Interview video