Google blew it with open source layoffs

Google has made impressive inroads against cloud leader AWS by aggressively open sourcing projects such as TensorFlow and Kubernetes. It’s true AWS makes more money than Google (or anyone else) by operationalizing this open source code, but Google’s open source strategy continues to deliver impressive dividends.

That’s why it’s so baffling that the company has laid off some of its best and brightest in open source. People like its longtime open source chief Chris DiBona. Or Jeremy Allison, Cat Allman, and Dave Lester, as Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols reports. As an interested onlooker who wants Google Cloud to be successful, I think this is an incredibly naive move. I don’t understand it. At all.

Making the Google world safe for open source

I’m not talking about the open source “celebrities” who travel from one open source conference to another, giving speeches based on past accomplishments while offering little in the way of current relevance. The open source world has plenty of that kind of person, and although I wouldn’t wish unemployment on them, or anyone, you could see how a company might decide that laying them off would save some money without disrupting any meaningful work.

That’s not the decision Google made.

Chris DiBona, for example, established Google’s Open Source Programs Office (OSPO) 18 years ago. Though DiBona isn’t the sort of person to take credit for the open source work Google has done over the years (hugely impressive in quantity and quality), he’s arguably done more than any other Googler to lay the groundwork for Google’s open source contributions.

I’ve known DiBona for many years. Back in 2006, he took me to task for hand-wavey suggestions that Google could and should be open sourcing more of the code powering its cloud services. He was right, and I was wrong. His willingness to speak up changed how I viewed open source forever. His advocacy, which helped me appreciate Google’s thoughtful, pragmatic approach to open source, is priceless, yet Google apparently felt it could save a few bucks and release DiBona and others.

Allman helped run Google’s wildly successful Google Summer of Code (GSoC) for many years. One person who directly benefited from GSoC commented, “Your work at Google has created massive positive impact on thousands of people around the world through GSoC, particularly in the developing nations. I was one of those kids at some point.”

And so on. It seems as if several members of Google’s Open Source Programs Office were let go. It also seems like no one counted the cost of saving those pennies.

Strip mining the open source cloud

Again, I’m not arguing for Google to keep open source celebrities who attend conferences and tweet. I’m arguing against getting rid of key people who established, and still maintain, the scaffolding upon which all of Google’s open source and, by extension, cloud hopes rest.

For example, back in 2019, Google used open source as a cudgel to smack the other clouds for poor partnerships. It announced partnerships with seven open source data companies. (Disclosure: although I didn’t work for MongoDB then, I do now, and MongoDB was one of those seven.) More recently, Google helped create the Open Source Security Foundation to improve security in key open source projects, thereby making these open source projects safer to use. In fact, open source permeates pretty much everything Google does in its cloud business. While much is kept closed (like BigQuery), much more is open.

The strategic benefit of open sourcing software like TensorFlow or Kubernetes is that it allows Google to influence industry direction. The same is true for projects Google didn’t start but actively contributes to. Take a stroll through the Cloud Native Computing Foundation’s Devstats pages and you’ll find Google is a significant (if not the biggest) contributor to projects such as Envoy, etcd, Knative, Istio, and more.

Maybe the thinking behind the layoffs is that, now that open source contribution has become standard operating procedure at Google, there’s little ongoing need for the influence of Googlers like DiBona. But this ignores the fact that he and the others who were let go have done the behind-the-scenes architecting, strategizing, lobbying, and executing to make open source essential to how Google functions today. You don’t lay off that much experience without repercussions.

Open source has been essential to Google’s strong showing in the cloud wars. To keep that momentum going, Google needs more open source expertise, not less. Yes, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is scraping by on a mere $46.34 billion in profit last quarter. But if the company hopes to continue to use open source as a tailwind, it should reevaluate how it’s scoring its open source talent, and it should remember that it ends up saving far more than it spends with effective open source policies.

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