Attracting commerce-minded devs to an open source business

How open source ideology has become a New Zealand consultancy’s greatest asset

Cool. Sassy. Hip. When New Zealand consultancy Catalyst IT started up in 1997, it had none of those attributes. What it did have, however, was a vision to make open source software the preferred option for local businesses, and it was that vision that eventually led to the company's current financial success.

Catalyst's biggest asset, said the company's co-founder and director Donald Christie, has been its use of open source technology, which has enabled the company to deliver cost-effective, highly customized products to its clients.

The company has worked with some of New Zealand's most reputable organizations, including NZ Post, Telecom NZ, TAB, and the Electoral Enrolment Centre. Turnover is good, and the company has zero debt, Christie said.

"If anyone says that you can't make money doing open-source type work, they're just wrong," he said.

Staffing, on the other hand, was said to be the company's greatest liability, as the coming and going of employees was at times disruptive to the organization.

The company, which currently operates under what Christie calls a meritocractic 'management unstructure', is also now having to deal with management and internal communications issues owing to its growth over the years.

While existing employees have recently shown initiative and come forward with management suggestions, Christie acknowledged a need to recruit project managers - either externally or from existing employees - to establish clear leadership.

"We're trying to manage change and growth without losing some of the things that made us enjoy starting our own company in the first place," Christie said.

Catalyst maintains a rather flexible recruitment policy of "never turning away a good person". As a result, the company now has almost 80 staff, including six full-time directors.

Christie said potential employees tend to be involved in open source community projects, which can provide the recruiter with some measure of a developer's skill level and how he or she interacts with colleagues on forums.

Participating in open source projects can also be a valuable maturing process, Christie said, in which young people can obtain skills that took himself years to learn - "like that being polite and respectful to people is good," he said.

In its aim to attract mature, lucid developers who understand how open source projects work and are also able to work closely with clients, Catalyst has once again found its greatest asset to be its passion for open source. Christie recalls one employee who first contacted Catalyst because of how he perceived open source to be promoted on the company's Web site.

The work environment in an open source company should also reflect its ideology, Christie said, starting from the tools that developers use in-house.

"Nothing tells a developer more than they are working in an open source company than pointing them to a Debian repository and telling them to set up their own desktop," he said.

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