I also blog frequently on the Yesod Web Framework blog, as well as the FP Complete blog.

An extra benefit of open sourcing

December 13, 2016

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This isn't any deep thought, and I'm sure others have mentioned it before. But I haven't seen it called out explicitly, so I thought it was worth getting it down.

Recently I was working on a customer project which required a specific feature (generate a Docker image with some libraries precompiled into it). I'll probably blog more about the specific case later, and give credit at that time to the company that gave permission for the code to be open sourced.

It turns out this is a problem that various FP Complete engineers have solved for customers (and internal purposes) a few times already. Creating a single open-source tool that can be shared among projects is a clear win, and plays to all the strengths of open source software. (And in this case, the initial version was really simple to implement, so it was almost a no brainer.)

Not long after I released that first version, I needed to update some Docker image build code for a different customer, who until now had been using a custom solution. So I moved them over to the new tool, added some features that they needed, and got to the goal of a working Docker image quicker than expected. Yay code sharing! And now others can take advantage of this work, and contribute patches that both projects using it will be able to take advantage of.

However, these are all the standard benefits of open sourcing. In this process, I rediscovered something I've seen happen multiple times:

When you're forced to separate out a tool or library, you create a more general solution, and make your code more maintainable in the long run.

When you write a "throw-away" tool or a "internal" library, odds are you won't think very hard about an extensible interface. You may embed assumptions into its design. And then the code will sit in a closed-source codebase for months or years, likely without anyone touching it in the interim. When it turns out one of your assumptions was wrong, or the interface needs to be extended, it's often times much harder than updating a general purpose tool or library.

That's not to say that everything that can be generalized should be generalized and open sourced. There are some thing which are so specific to a project that it's unlikely that any other use case will exist. Or that the cognitive overhead of figuring out a good interface is simply not warranted.

But for those sweet-spot cases where the overhead of doing something general isn't too high, you have the prerogative to open source, and there's likely at least one other person or project in the world who can use it, you'll often thank yourself in the future for having taken out the time to open source it.

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