As Chef gets bigger, it’s learning how to appease its open source community

Chef, the open source configuration management company, found itself the recipient of a strongly worded blog posting last week by a former employee named Noah Kantrowitz, who claimed that Chef is not really acting like an open source company (at least according to Kantrowitz). While these debates over open source have been going on for years, Kantrowitz’s post and Chef’s subsequent response by its chief development officer Adam Jacob, highlighted the difficulties open source companies face when they start getting big.
Kantrowitz, who worked for Chef (then known as Opscode) as a lead web developer from 2011 through 2013, wrote that he has witnessed a shift in the way Chef has been operating over the years that led him to question whether or not the company is interested in maintaining its open source ideals. In an interview, Kantrowitz said that while his blog posting’s headline was “intentionally inflammatory” (the title was “Chef is not Open Source”), he wanted attention pointed to the fact that Chef’s community engagement is not what used to be when Chef was first getting off the ground.
While Chef has always maintained that being an open source project is hugely important to the company as it pertains to its codebase and how it refines upon its product, Jacobs conceded in his own blog post that maintaining an active community around Chef’s product was pushed to the wayside as the company gained momentum.
From Chef’s blog:

We did, however, lose something as we grew. In the space between being a small group of like-minded builders hacking on the solution to our problems, and being a thriving community with thousands of active members with a hugely diverse set of motivations, we allowed our implicit process to wither away. As the humans involved in it have grown and changed, the implicit sets of behaviors the builders relied on to get work done went with them.

Chef, which competes with Puppet Labs, Ansible and SaltStack, is now working on creating an “explicit process for how the project is managed” and will be hosting bi-weekly meetings with developers as an attempt to be more transparent and inclusive with the Chef developer community. Kantrowitz said that’s something he is glad to hear but noted it’s a much easier thing to say than do.
“The source code is open, but in a free and open source movement there is more than the code being created to have a healthy community,” said Kantrowitz, now a consultant that handles Chef implementations.
As Kantrowitz explained to me, Chef never had an open source charter that explicitly outlined the terms of the relationship between the Chef community and Chef, and while some people might consider these sort of documents as “silly” they do matter in that expectations between the parties can be set.
Ultimately, it’s hard to tell whether or not an open source company like Chef will ever be able to appease all constituents, regardless if there is a charter in place or not. It’s almost inevitable that someone from the open source community will at some point claim “You sold out!” as soon as the company decides to add that little “.inc” after its name.
Even Kantrowitz said he doesn’t know a lot of corporations that effectively run open source projects and he believes that these kinds of projects perform better when they are governed by a non-profit organization, like how the Python Software Foundation oversees Python. For some people like Kantrowitz, mixing together the corporate world and open source is a bit like mixing oil and water.
Disclosure: Puppet Labs is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock user kentoh.