Open Source Software and the University Role

When you ask most people, the common perception of the role of a university is to teach students, perform research, and help the community. The latter is certainly one that I find many people (especially in university roles) don’t throw up as an answer, despite it being an important role of a university. It’s clear that this mentality runs rampant amongst individuals, especially software developers, at universities because of the lack of open source (or freely licensed) software that is provided by universities across the nation. Certainly, some have contributed more than their fair share (Virginia Tech, University of Washington, just to name a couple). However, many others, especially those who pride themselves on being one of the world’s most premiere research institutions, fail to meet up to the same standards as others. It’s about time that developers start banding together and becoming more creative and collaborative across the campus so that we can keep things moving forward. Working at Texas A&M University has been both a rewarding and a frustrating experience. I get to see the good side of developers keenly interested in working together with other developers from clear across campus to get a project completed and helping both sides share data each critically needs. But I also get to see politics at its finest stopping great knowledge-sharing from happening. Furthermore, I also see managers and VPs looking at their pocket books and thinking they can score some extra money for their budget if they charge for access or collaboration. This is hardly the way or means that people in the same enterprise should be treating one another.

Perhaps this is due to the nature of Texas A&M being a decentralized IT infrastructure. The IT landscape is a nightmare which results in (likely) excess of waste, the introduction of security vulnerabilities, and the slowing of knowledge transfer and the interest to keep up with the times. It’s apparent that the university is clearly not interested in keeping fresh and staying ahead of the curve (much less at least with the curve) when one looks at Texas A&M’s web presence. There is an abundance of web sites that are inaccessible, horribly out-of-date, and just look plain aweful. Certainly, the employees that are maintaing these web sites are under-staffed and struggling to keep up with the management’s project demands, but I’ve also come across my fair share of cases where the employees running these sites or handling IT administration know close to nothing about software development, search engine optimization, social networking, etc. gets off soapbox and back on-topic

If one were to Google Texas A&M and Open Source as keywords, your search results are going to come back rather slim (mostly results from the library about articles on open source software). There are very few open source software projects that are housed at Texas A&M, and of those that are, they are merely tiny projects dedicated to a niche.

Yet, most of the software used across the enterprise has been developed in-house. Whether it’s content management systems, news propagation and delivery applications, timesheet management applications (the list goes on), it’s been written, re-written, re-invented, and done a couple of dozen times by a couple of dozen different developers on-campus who were not aware that someone else was either in the process of writing the software or had already written it.

However, collaboration is not a/the mere solution to this problem. Those groups that are interested in collaborating sometimes get resistence or have their requests filed in /dev/null by others. Many are simply not interested in collaboration at the enterprise level. Some because they don’t see the benefits from such a collaborative effort and others because they think they don’t have enough time to work with other developers across campus. The numbers will clearly indicate the benefits to managers, departments, and developers when the effort is truly put towards a development community. Furthermore, the sheer need for developers involved to be interested in change, not simply doing it because that’s the “hip thing” to do on campus, is critically important.

I’ll probably be blogging about this more, stressing the importance of the University to adopt and nuture the idea of a developer community helping to put out open source projects in order for TAMU to put the big red thumb tack on the map of open source providers across the world.