The Stack Overflow Podcast

How should tech titans act when productizing tiny open source projects?

Episode Summary

What's the best way for massive tech companies to act when they decide to turn tiny open source projects into products and services they sell?

Episode Notes

We break down some thoughts on this issue, which came to light after a tweet from Tim Nolet.

Later in the episode we talk about the debate raging right now around elections and technology. What role should software play and where is regulation appropriate? 

Last but not least, we consider what the next US administration might do with regards to regulating big tech. Will they lean towards a European model or continue to be more hands off? 

Shout out to our lifeboat badge winner of the week, Kin3Tix, for helping to identify good tutorials for SDL 2.0 for C (Not C++) programming.

Episode Transcription

Paul Ford It's not cool to take somebody's project, throw your giant global mega brand on top of it and say ''Here, pay us money to use this.''


Ben Popper Are you struggling to deploy cloud native applications to a hybrid cloud? Do you want to become familiar with Kubernetes and Istio? IBM Cloud has a set of free, hands on training, ebooks, and an always on free tier of services to help you learn. Visit to learn more. That's 

BP Good morning, everybody. Good morning, Paul and Sarah.

Sara Chipps Good morning, Ben, Paul! How's it going?


BP Oh, the energy. Bringing the energy. Yes!

PF I'm trying to bring it up a notch. You know, it's just, it's important. 

SC Much appreciated. Needed. 

PF Bringing it. Here we go! Here we go!

BP Welcome to the Stack Overflow Podcast!

PF Alright. Well, here we are. Here we are. Let's talk. Let's software.

BP Let's do it. We got a tweet here from Tim Nolet. And he is Founder and CTO of Checkly, HQ, delightful active monitoring for modern devs. Living in Germany, it seems like. He says, ''Oh @awscloud I really do love you! But next time you fork my OS project and present it as your new service, give the maintainers a short "nice job, kids" or something. Not necessary as per the APLv2 license, but still, ya know'' So, what should people expect when their open source project gets gobbled up and just made into a micro service by one of the tech titans? 

SC Oh, well, I think the basic you expect, I think something that's so glaring here. So to be clear, so he's talking about puppeteer, and he's talking about headless testing. So the ability to test in the browser without actually having to manually, you know, click through your--


PF Incredibly useful, right? Because you can take, so for example, you can script it from inside of a programming language, you know, in JavaScript, and you can have it take screenshots for automated testing, or you can automate filling out forms, again, like just millions and millions of dollars of testing labor can be accomplished using something like puppeteer.

BP This is something you too have used or something similar?

SC Oh, yeah.

PF Yeah. Because I mean, it's just one of the uses I had for was observing client websites, I would take screenshots every hour, and then automatically compile them into a little movie with FFmpeg. 

SC Ohhh cool!

PF And then I could, yeah, you could watch the movie and see how the site was going like, ''Oh, look, there's a glitch there or like, Oh, well, okay, that headline shouldn't have been--'' you know, it's really good. You can also observe competitors that way. Anyway, it's a piece of infrastructure. It's a great piece of code. There's been a lot of things like it, but it's pretty good.

SC Yeah, it's great. I think that, for me, the biggest glaring issue here, and actually, you might not agree, but for me, it's like both in both examples. They're using, you know, Y Combinator, as the example, like the test code, and then--

PF Oh, wait, we should pause. We should pause. It's not puppeteer, it's puppeteer recorder or headless recorder. It's I mean, what it sounds like. So it's puppeteer, I think it's actually a Google product. And headless recorder is is the open source--

SC Is the open source project.

PF That lets you track events and generate puppeteer scripts.

SC Yeah. So in both cases, the cloudwatch synthetics recorder is the product from Amazon. And I think this is a screenshot from their documentation that has is using the same example of going to Y Combinator and doing testing, and then grabbing the same elements for testing. That, to me, that's just kind of lazy. 

PF This is the classic problem. Okay, so I want to actually work this through from first principles, which is clearly we all love open source. Amazon loves open source. I don't know, I'm sure, I'm sure it contributes. Google contributes quite a bit like chromium, right? Like, now Google didn't used to, right? Google used to be like, ''Oh, hey, we'll help ourselves.'' But now, the same with Microsoft. Wow, big players. I don't think the problem is one of intention. I think it tends to be one of scale. Like, I think AWS it's so hard for giant organs to participate, because then they always fear being opened up to liability or other responsibilities and so on. Like, what would a mature adult do in this situation? Because corporations act like giant toddlers, right? Like, Sara, actually, you be an open source developer. I'll be a mature adult.


SC Okay, just coding away just coding and typing. Contributing.

PF Sara, how you doing? 

SC Good. How are you?

PF Uh, you know, it's great. Whether it's fall. I love it. Love it. Anyway, look, I got in touch. Because I'm over here at a giant company. And we'd love the thing you built.

SC Ohhhh! You're welcome, yeah. 

PF And so we've been using it a lot and we're thinking we're gonna build a service on top of it. And right before you go, like, well, what's up with this? Like, I'm not even gonna try to rope you into this because we have to build it on our platform, which has all of its like custom layers and stuff. But we're definitely going to use your code and I was, I just wanted to have like, so you know, obviously it's open source. And there are people around me saying, hey, just take it, who cares? But that's a bad, we want it, we want to be involved with the roadmap, and we'd like to figure out a way to work together. And I was wondering if we could have a couple conversations about that?

SC Yeah, definitely. Definitely. I'm super interested.

PF So you know, the first thing I want to know is actually how much effort you put in on on your thing every week, what would you say?

SC Well, I have a full time job. So I spend about, you know, like, 15 to 20 hours a week, probably.

PF Oh, you know, that's, are you happy in your full time job?

SC I mean, I guess yeah.

PF Okay. Okay. So well look, I think one thing we could do, you know, for us, obviously, I can write you a check. And, you know, it could pay for some of the time that you're doing freelance. But you know, what I found in the past is that there's a little friction if suddenly, AWS is paying you, but you have this other job that you like, not AWS, but big companies, some big companies. And so so, you know, we could find all kinds of way to partner and promote this, but we definitely, you know, we want to, we want to have this be a healthy, proactive relationship in which you feel that you're being acknowledged, and you're getting some of the reward. And that's what's tricky, though, is if you're having this conversation as an adult, you're assuming the other person on the other side is also going to be that way. But if you're a big org, you're going to go well, then they're going to ask me for 5% of all profits.


SC That's exactly what I was thinking.

PF Right? Like that, and the reality is they really well might. It's kind of easier to ask for forgiveness, like what's gonna happen to AWS, this guy's gonna tweet and then they're gonna continue to sell the service. 

SC The plausible deniability is like if they just change the elements they're testing.

PF Ehhh, you know, Sara, that's a lot of work. We're busy, you got to stand up, there gonna be five new AWS products today. 

SC That's true.

PF I honestly think you can probably just push an AWS like a new service into a repo. And they're like, 'Oh, cool.'

SC Yeah! Reach out to marketing. Marketing watches the repositories, it was like, ''Alright, let's get to work.''

PF Because if you look at them, they pick those icons at random. You know, there's like they have a special pile in a folder. And they're just like, ''Yeah, that one has like a circle and two lines. Use that. That's cool.'' No so it's really, it is actually hard because the big orgs have they're so out of scale, and you have to reuse the open source products. They're dependent, usually on the work of one individual who's volunteering time. And so, right. There's no good practice here. And there's no, I mean, have you ever seen any patterns of this kind of partnership really working?

SC Yes. But only that it's a, it's not a little money thing. It's a big money thing, right? It's a, you know, like a corporation pays a developer to work on an open source project. I think this is the model that I've seen use the most.

PF Oh, yeah, like Guido van Rossum went to Google for a long time to work on Python. 

SC Yeah, exactly. Yeah, there's a lot of folks like that. And so I think that's why a lot of the open source orgs exists to facilitate that. In this case, in this in our pretend world, I was really happy with my job. And so I didn't want to go to work at AWS unclear, it doesn't seem like they had this conversation with the gentlemen.


BP Do you have like, the ability to do something like a one time like, you could use this one time commercially, like a one off, you know, if you wanted to test it, but you couldn't use it repeatedly, commercially, and therefore, like, it would only be for other people who want to use it for open source or something like that? I mean, there's nothing like that you couldn't say like any company worth over a billion dollars isn't allowed to use it. like, that's the issue, right? Like, are there other parameters?

PF Well, those filters are tough. What is the, there's the GPL, it really makes it hard to commodify without giving everything away.

SC Yeah, there's open source licenses that allow you to use a product as long as it's not for profit.

BP Mhmm. 

PF That's right. But it's very, everything is hard enforcement is hard, etc. And really, what's what's happened is giant organs have these kind of governance processes that make sure that they never use anything that has those licenses, as opposed to using those licenses and giving the code away. They don't want to change the processes. And so it's a bad look.

SC Yeah, that's a big one.

PF That's, that's what's happened here, we have a bad look. And someone will reach out and something and something and so on and so forth. There isn't a protocol for this. And this happens a lot.

SC Yeah, you're right. It's kind of like the consequences. Everyone on the internet is mad for a day, and then it's forgotten.

PF That's the thing. Amazon, what are you gonna do? No one is going to walk away from AWS as a result of this, right. So there's no real risk database. There's a slight--

BP A little damage to your brand as to in terms of hiring feature developers or something along those lines. But yeah, not too much. 

PF I mean, people probably feel a little gross. Yeah, that's about it is kind of it's not cool to take somebody project, throw your giant global mega brand on top of it and say ''here, pay us money to use this.''

BP Alright, I have what feels like kind of a self promotional slash self help tweet here, but I want to walk through it and see if you guys have known people who have kind of cool approaches to work or interesting techniques when it comes to how they manage their time. ''How I code for eight hours a day with ZERO procrastination. Two years ago, I use the Pomodoro Technique, I could perform three to four hours of deep work per day, it was great until I found the 52 plus 17 system, and it changed everything. So it's just like Pomodoro. But it makes you two to three times as productive. And it's nothing complex. You get rid of all the distractions, you pick one important task, you work for 52 minutes until the timer rings, and then you get a 17 minute break. That's it. That's the secret.''


SC Yeah, this seems like a different version of Pomodoro that works for him. 

BP It's a three minute difference. [Ben laughs]

PF I mean, I was excited with 52 because they're like, ''Oh, my God, I'm gonna get a playing card.'' Yeah, and that's gonna tell me what I'm gonna do next, like I was, I thought I was gonna get some, some you know, coding stuff out of the 52. But I guess it's just minutes.

BP This is Oblique Strategies for Pomodoro Technique. 

PF You know, we've been trying something with my kid to help him focus during work.

SC Ohhh what is that?

PF Intermittent rewards. So what you do is you get there are random timers you can get for your mobile device, both platforms have them. And basically, you say, I need this to happen every five minutes, which means that every two or eight minutes or seven minutes or you know, whatever, a little alarm will go off and it will say something. And so in our case, it says, ''focus check'' The randomness is really key. When it says focus check, and the child is in seat focused on remote learning laptop, not flopping on floor, hasn't tried to switch away isn't doing something else.

SC If I could tell you how many times a day I'm flopping on floor.

PF Exactly. Very loudly, a single m&m goes into a jelly jar. 

SC Wow!

PF You didn't get to eat it right then, you get to eat it after the hour. And if you're not focused, no m&m goes off, you hear it, you go, ooh, I didn't get that m&m. That's too bad. It is not. It's not instant progress. But it's actual incremental progress. Like it is it is working. It's just--

BP it's a bit Pavlovian, but it's working. And in the pandemic, that's all you can ask for. Yeah.


PF Pandemic is Pavlovian man. I'm just like, whatever, whatever will keep people in good cheer. That isn't like substance abuse is really good.

SC Yeah, seriously. I mean, in this thread, though, there are also some good tips like going for a walk and getting hydrated. Like I found those things, especially in these past months, like, I drink a gallon of water a day. And that makes me feel good. And sometimes when I feel crazy, I like to go for a walk. And sometimes that's not enough.

BP Sara, I couldn't agree more. Oh, this thing that says when you take the break, that's not looking at Twitter and YouTube for 17 minutes? Because that actually makes things worse. 

SC Oufff, yeah, it really does. It really does.

PF What's nice here is like actually taking a break every hour. And then you just, look, what this is about is training yourself, right? And so at the end of that 17 minutes, probably about minute 12. You've had a little breath, you've taken in some air, you've thought some thoughts that aren't about the thing in front of you in the computer, and then you go, okay, in a few minutes, I'm going to be getting back to it. And you're kind of preparing yourself, and then you get back to it. And off to the races. Right, you're off to work. But before you can start to fry, you're on your little break.

SC Yeah, but one thing I've been thinking about a lot lately, and this is a little bit tangential, but talking about the Twitter thing is, I've been wondering if like, Twitter can ask themselves the question of, should humans be able to yell into a global void, you know, because like, they're the only platform that really lets you do that, like yell into a global void. Like everything else, you need to be friends with someone or you need to be in a group and all those things. But truly, it's just a global void that accepts all of your thoughts and feelings. And I think it can be a bit stressful.

PF Really?

SC Take that home with you. 

PF Take that out a notch, right, which is, or up a level, which is, it's very stimulating humans like it. They like to feel that they have power and control. And one of the ways they do that is by yelling at the other humans and telling them how bad they are.


SC Yeah, that's a that's a big one.

PF And then some people post repost amazing TikTok videos like the one I saw the three guys dancing and they're like asking the cat to come in and the cats like no, and then it starts staying up like that is absolutely top notch. Let's just rebuild the internet around. You know, you go up a level right like that is so rewarding for Twitter, because it generates so much attention. The drama generate so much attention. And they get so much money from the from the advertising, right. So like, how do you blow that up? How do you change that?

BP Yeah. I mean, like, what's interesting is I went and saw this play a while back about Rupert Murdoch and sort of like how he rose to prominence first in Australia, and then in the UK, and then in the US. And like newspaper publishers have always had this same balancing act of like, how much do I want to stir the pot and publish things that are specious and get people agitated at one another? Versus how much time do I want to spend cleansing your timeline with good news or like educating people and like you know different papers have gone in different directions or whatever. And I guess the issue is like, when you get to a social media platform that now most of them are by far bigger than the newspapers or the media outlets in terms of how much people consume. They don't have editorial departments. They don't consider themselves part of the Fourth Estate, they just look at engagement statistics and try to increase them. Right.

PF Well, and there's no actual, yeah, I mean, it's changing a little bit with the way that people are shaping with trending and so on and so forth. Some of the big orgs, but when you have a self reinforcing thing like that, it's going to spiral really, really quickly. And then the minute people learn how to game him, because human beings are bad about differentiating between what seems real and what isn't, which is why we have Snopes. Right? Yeah, something that's incredibly gratifying and hits all of your emotional hot buttons, especially in like tweet form, or wall post form, kind of compressed. It's just like rocket fuel for your brain.


SC It really is. I was thinking about this this week, I was talking to my dear grandmother who's turning 90 next year. Shout out mom mom.

PF Hey, mom mom! Number one listener. Mom mom. 

SC Mom mom does not have the internet, has not participate in the internet. But I was thinking when we were talking about it a little bit, when she was saying that she knows she's lived in the US her whole life. And she's never seen it be so polarized. And I was imagining like a book coming out 20 years ago that described a world where everyone gets news that reinforces their personal beliefs, and imagining it would turn out any other way. It's kind of like a recipe for this.

PF No, but you know what the reality is like the MIT Media Lab back in the 90s. Right? There's like, everyone's gonna have the newspaper that's just for them. And it was all so great, because there was so much news. That was the big problem. There's so much news, that we needed to have customized newspapers. And nobody really predicted, not nobody, but for the most part, the people in power, and the people who are doing this stuff didn't really predict that total ideological segmentation would be the natural result, because everybody was together. Like you just didn't think like, ''Oh, my God, you know, we can split human beings.'' It didn't feel like it would be so rewarding financially.

SC Yeah, you're not optimizing for clicks when you're architecting that in your head.

PF No. And actually, there was no way for papers to do that. And also the voices that right now are really, really loud were not welcome. Except maybe every now and then on the editorial page. And even they're mostly to point at and laugh at. Yeah, yeah. And now they're like, yeah, actually, that didn't feel good to us. Now, that goes two ways that goes for really progressive, like, you know, people who are fighting for, you know, their rights. And it goes for people who believe in things that the mainstream find completely unpalatable. Like the mainstream news never had room for either side of that, and and kind of everybody went into their corner and said, actually, I'll just talk to my friends, thank you very much. I enjoyed it.


BP The one thing that that comes, that strikes me is that not only do we have disagreements, and we like live in a filter, bubble, or whatever, but there is such a divide in terms of people who are like ''the earth is flat'' you know, things where it's just like, the realities are so far apart, that there's no way to have a reasonable disagreement with them. Because it's like, one is magic and the other is, is, you know, reality. Like I was that always the case? Or did there used to be a bit more of a center? You know, we could disagree about issues, but at least we all think gravity exists and the earth is flat.

SC Yeah, well, the thing I really want to point out to people, though, when they have this conversation is if you had if you were signing on to your Facebook today, and the only news that you saw was ''actually we have determined that the world is flat'' right? Like you would start to question like, if that was all the new and that's the thing, it's like, that's what people are seeing in their feeds.

PF We're gonna just be having these fights for the rest of our lives as well. 

BP Speaking of that, we've seen that the EU has kind of taken a stronger stance on regulating big tech has issued fines and, you know, put out new edicts and laws to try to force them to share more data with people to have give people more control over their data. Recently, there's been a lot of cost fat in the US to, you know, we don't know how the election is going to turn out. But just gaming things out, if we were to get, you know, a single party, and they were able to make a lot of legislation, you know, controlling the presidency in both houses. What do you see as the writing's on the wall? And how would that change tech? What's been interesting for me, I guess, being inside of Stack Overflow, I didn't know this before coming to a tech company, is that the programmers or the engineers, at least at Stack Overflow, are some of the staunchest advocates for like, user privacy and protecting, you know, people against tracking and things of that nature. Maybe that's a unique to Stack Overflow, or maybe that's more widespread, I don't know. 

SC Well, in my experience, I think it is more widespread because people are aware of just how easy it is to manipulate others with their private data. 

BP Mhmm. 

PF Yeah. 

SC Yeah. And so like, once you know that, you're like, oh, I need that. There needs to be rules around this.


PF I do feel like that the Eric Schmidt comments about, you know, just, you know, what do you have to hide that kind of stuff, I feel that that conversation is completely over. I mean, actually, you know, thanks to the National Security Agency for making that happen, because once we realized that the government hacked us all, everybody got a little more serious. And it stopped becoming kind of ideological and became practical. If a blueish wave comes the arguments for regulation, will probably get some pretty serious years, right. Like, I don't know if I can handle anymore like Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg in front of Congress saying nothing, like, I don't know if I can do it. Yeah, look, we are headed for a very likely we are headed for an increased regulatory environment for the big players, I think, you know, talking to a friend, and what they had to say was, they're gonna welcome it, because it'll increase their competitive moat, because they'll be the only ones who are at the scale to really comply with the regulatory framework. So like, nobody else will be able to get in there. Right. And obviously, the pain needs to end, we can't have this as a society. 

BP That's actually interesting point that that is the point that I've heard made, I've been paying a little bit attention to the world of agriculture, is that when you do go to protect people, so like, we're like, Hey, we don't want people to have rotten meat or you know, buy spoiled milk, when they go to the supermarket, they should be able to trust that the food is safe, right? So you put in a bunch of big new regulations, big AG, hey, we're gonna we're gonna take care of you and protect them from you know, harming the consumer. But then if you're a tiny, small farmer, suddenly you have to get FDA certified and take it down to the planet, all these things, and it makes it economically, like you said, untenable for the little players to compete with the big players, because there's this regulatory overhead. So that is a double edged sword that I don't think maybe people will consider as much.


PF Oh, I, you know, we get, my firm gets invited to pitch on government contracts, and it's so clear that we're throwing in is like number five on the list. And that the person who, you know, has kind of probably written the RFP, that agency or that or that firm, it's going to get the work. And it's just like, there, there's a tremendous set of hurdles that a regulatory framework introduces always right. That's the whole point. And then the people who are the most efficient and can most experienced at gaming them are able to win. This is what, so you have to spend, you know, $40,000 for professional expeditors to do things. Or so it's like, well, that's fine. If you have $40,000, you know, so what if you look at a Google or you look at a Twitter or Facebook, like if they lose a billion dollars in profits, but that means that no one else can make that billion dollars? Like why not?

SC Yeah, I'm sure the telephone industry had to go through the same thing. Right? Yeah. Yeah. Like at first, like, you could call anyone for any reason and all the things and then all of a sudden, people were calling and scamming people and then all that kind of thing.

PF I mean, the thing to remember with the telephone company, is that up until the year 1984, it was an absolute monopoly. YRight. Like it was a government supported monopoly. And we everybody kind of made their peace with it. And at&t, which I love, because they had the stock ticker was T, just like nah, though, just T. Yeah. And, and so, you know, they broke up kind of under pressure, and they wanted to get into computing and kind of they were under pressure from the government, they finally said, like, alright, we're gonna break up. And, you know, obviously, global telecom is a set of unbelievably huge industries. But no, I mean, there's a real pattern there. But that was decades and decades of pressure as a as a monopoly provider that they finally buckled under. The thing is, is that the Bell System for all was a monopoly. And it was locking down innovation in a lot of ways, although it created a lot of things like Bell Labs, Unix, the internet.

SC Yeah! I like those things.


PF Yeah those are great. So there's just, but it was not it was destructive to American business. But this is like a little different, because it's so destructive to American culture, political process, democracy. So like is at&t for all of its faults was rarely a true direct competitor with the government as a force of power in America, right? Like it? It didn't, at&t couldn't really decide who was going to become the president.

BP Yeah, I think that's a good point. I mean, like, they were holding things back. And obviously, there was more innovation, maybe to be unlocked with competition. But when we talk about, you know, what is the impact of social media been, it has been this very destabilizing impact on our politics and our mental health. And, again, getting back to the newspaper analogy, it's like, you know, newspapers can be held more accountable, like the, you know, a journalist will be fired for plagiarism, you know, somebody will be sued for libel. None of that happens when Joe974, you know, is posting like every single person is sort of immune to that as a poster, but they can still go viral and still spread a message to 500,000 people in their state that you know, then gets believed and translated into how people vote or whatever.


BP Alright, is that time of the episode. We're gonna shout out some life voters to kin three ticks? Are there good tutorials for STL 2.04. C programming, not c++ emphasized. So there's some great resources and tutorials linked here if you're interested in learning more, we'll put that in the show notes. 

SC Yeah, that's hard to find sometimes. The c++ ones are always the first ones that come up, right? 

PF Yeah, that's right. 

BP And then awarded 14 hours ago to war bear 0129. How to convert byte array to string in Go. And you've got some simple simple code here. So you can check it out. If that's a problem that's been bothering you. Lots of answers on this one. And in fact, this question has been answered twice, but that's okay.

PF Good work everybody to work, everybody. 

BP Good work everybody. Alright y'all!

PF Alright, everybody go vote!

BP Everybody go vote. I'm Ben Popper, Director of content here at Stack Overflow. You can find me on Twitter @BenPopper. And you can always email us We've gotten some emails recently. We're gonna shout them out on an upcoming episode.


SC Awesome. And I'm Sara Chipps. And I'm the Director of Community here at Stack Overflow. If you have any questions about voting, you can go to and it will help you walk through and make a plan.

PF And I am Voting McVoterson, of Vote of Vote Overflow and if you would like to vote with me, you can vote me at vote. 

BP Alright. 

PF Alright, friends. 

SC Awesome. 

BP I'll see you in Slack.