Why should you release your code open-source?

Learn about the benefits of opening your code as open-source with Clément Flipo, CPO and Co-Founder of Dokit (Founders Program).

It’s always hard to recall exactly how a project started, but sometimes doing so can help you understand that project more clearly. For me, if I think about it, Dokit came straight out of my childhood. Growing up in a house where my toys where Meccano and model aeroplane kits, the idea of making things, taking individual pieces and putting them together to make a new whole, was always a fundamental part of what it meant to play. My father worked for a DIY company, meaning that there were always signs of building, repair and instruction manuals around the house. When I was young, my parents sent me to join the boy scouts, and maybe there more than anywhere – where we made tables, tents and mud ovens – I was developing an enjoyment of the shared learning that I since found online in the open source movement.

If that was what my childhood was like, the art of repairing things and recycling products then became part of what I did for a job. Finally, it became an ambition to take the reassuring feel of learning at home or in a group how to make and do and repair – but put it online.

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The First Months

It wasn’t always easy, but since founding our company in 2017, I realised that the biggest and most worthwhile goals are generally always difficult. If it was our plan to revolutionise the way that old-fashioned manuals and user guides are created and published, and to maximise our impact in what we knew all along would be a niche market, that sense of a guiding mission was crucial to how we organised everything else. It was from there that we reached our first big decision: to quickly launch a proof of concept using an existing open source framework, MediaWiki, and from there to release all of our own code as open source.

In retrospect, we were helped in this decision by the fact that MediaWiki was already up and running. With fifteen thousand developers already active around the world, and on a platform that included 90% of the features we needed to meet our MVP, things would have no doubt been harder without the engine that made its name by powering Wikipedia. Confluence, a documentation platform in use by many enterprises, offers some good features, but in the end it was an easy choice between the two.

Placing our faith in the community, we put a first version of our platform straight onto Github. The excitement of watching the world’s makers start using our platform, even before we’d done any real advertising, felt like an early indication that we were on the right track. Although the maker and Fablab movements encourage users to share instructions, and even sets out as much in the Fablab charter (as stated by the MIT), in reality there is a lack of any real documentation.

The first and biggest reason that people loved using our platform was that it responded to what was a very real space inside a great movement that we knew as users could be even better. To us, it felt a bit like we were repairing a gap in the community. Within a year, Fablabs and communities including Wikifab, Open Source Ecology, Les Petits Debrouillards, Ademe and Lowtechlab had all installed our tool on their servers, helping them to create step-by-step tutorials. Before even putting out a press release, one of our users, Wikifab, began to get noticed in national media. The French newspaper 20 Minutes, and French radio both gave them the (totally flattering!) name “the Wikipedia of DIY”. In just two years, we’ve now seen hundreds of communities launched on their own Dokits, ranging from the fun to the funny to the more formal product guide. Again, the power of the community is the force we want to harness, and it’s constantly amazing to see projects ranging from wind turbines to pet feeders develop engaging product manuals using the platform we started.

Opening up open source

Looking back at such a successful first two years, it’s clear to us as an organisation that the use of open source has been fundamental to how we got where we are as fast as we did. The ability to gather feedback in open source is second-to-none. If a piece of code didn’t work then someone was able to tell us right away. Why wait on appointments with consultants if you can learn together with those who are already using the service you’ve created? The level of engagement from the community also reveals the potential, and the potential interest, of your market. Paris has a good and growing community of developers, but open source took us from a pool of a few thousand, and brought us to millions of developers all around the world being able to become a part of what we were trying to make happen. The open availability of all of our code also proved reassuring to our users and customers who felt safe that, even if our company went away, the code wouldn’t.

If all that was most of what we thought might happen as a result of using open source, there were also surprises along the way. By doing things the open way, we found ourselves gaining customers, reputation and perfectly-targeted advertising that we didn’t have to pay for out of the limited budgets of a company trying to grow itself. We found that the availability of our code helped to improve our recruitment process, meaning that we were able to test candidates in using our code before we made hires – this method also helped to begin and simplify the onboarding journey of those we did hire. In what we see as a mixture of embarrassment and solidarity, the totally public nature of developers creating code in an open setting helped to drive up quality. People can share feedback with one another, but the public nature of the work also seemed to encourage the people we were working with to do their best. In the spirit of constant improvement, and of constantly building and rebuilding the way Dokit works, this area of supporting the community is something that’s become crucial in terms of where we know we’d like to do more and get better in future.

Where next?

Even with the faith we always had in what we were doing, and the great product manuals we have seen developed using our software, it never stops being exciting to see your project growing, and we’re certain that the future has good things in store. There is no doubt that for all of the above reasons and more, open source is now a global trend that isn’t going anywhere. IBM bought Redhat, Microsoft acquired Github, and the challenges now, much like Dokit’s first challenge of bringing the feel of home repairs to a digital experience, is not to ensure its role as much as it is to ensure the things that made the method special to begin with – the community – doesn’t get lost in the growth.

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In the early days, we found ourselves living a lot under this fear, and the idea that we were distributing our knowledge for free. With hindsight, in reality the opposite was happening, and open source gave us the ability to go very fast in building a startup that was sustainable from the beginning. Dokit itself is a platform designed to give its users the confidence to build, to assemble, to carry out repairs and to make entirely new inventions with the support of a community. In hindsight, we found ourselves doing the exact same thing by using open source as the way to build a platform. Just like doing a repair or assembling a physical product, it’s only when you have confidence in your methods that things truly begin to feel right. Now at the beginning of our third year, we’re starting to see growing global interest as industry responds to new generations of customers who want to use, reuse, and assemble products that respond to changing homes and lifestyles. By providing the support of a community online, we think we’re helping to create the circumstances in which people are able to feel more confident in doing things for themselves.

Author

Clément Flipo, CPO & Co-Founder of Dokit
[email protected]

Website

Dokit
https://dokit.io/