Power to the people. Down with the Man.
That '60s revolutionary rhetoric has gotten an IT industry spin because of the open-source movement, said experts speaking this week at the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco. The "people" being empowered are corporate software developers, who are increasingly calling the shots on what software gets used in the enterprise, at the expense of the "Man," or the CIO.
"I don't need to educate vendors on how to reach the CIO," said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at Denver-based consulting firm RedMonk. "It's more important these days to reach individual developers."
Members of the panel discussion, titled "Marketing to Dilbert," claimed that developers already strongly influence buying decisions because so many of them are experimenting with open-source software or are implementing it in order to bypass centralized purchasing bureaucracy.
"CIOs used to say, 'Oh, we only use Unix here.' Then they're surprised to find their developers were already doing other things," said Zack Urlocker, vice president of marketing for open-source database maker MySQL.
Before agreeing to buy something, today's CIOs "always ask if there is an open-source alternative," said Mark de Visser, chief marketing officer at Zend Technologies Ltd. "If they find out all of their developers were already using it, that might convince them."
But how to woo developers, who the panel said were an even grumpier, more skeptical bunch than CIOs?
"You can't use 'Slick Willie' packaging; you have to communicate to developers in their own language," Urlocker said.
"Staying on message, hiding problems and attacking other products is just not helpful with this audience," O'Grady said.
Rather, encouraging the growth of a large community of interested developers makes all the difference, said Patrick McGovern, an executive at open-source systems management software maker Splunk Inc., who formerly managed SourceForge.net, the most popular open-source development Web site in the world.
"I've seen great software that developers never got attached to," he said. "The community is more important than the product itself."
Techniques such as creating lively forums or wikis around the software, rapidly releasing product updates and making honest attempts to fix problems are all part of the equation.
"Our CEO will type 'MySQL sucks' into Google to find out what needs to be fixed," Urlocker said.
But once open-source vendors have proved themselves to developers, they can leverage that confidence again.
"Red Hat -- they own nothing. It's all brand," said Zend's de Visser. "They could easily drop their current product, starting a new business called BlueOS, and still do well in the market."