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Continuous Innovation: Startups and Open Source software

by on March 26, 2010

What follows is tangential in the sense of following a tangent:

In my forays down the rabbit holes of general internet inquiry I am struck by and remember the posts or comments that actually get to a point. Too often a post never delivers on the promise in its title or its lead graph (this reality is as evident in print and official journalism as blogging.)

One advantage of the blogging paradigm is that a comment can occasionally redeem the promise of an unrealized catchy title. In those cases a tangent emerges in which a comment tropes on a theme in a post, and the comment takes the promise of a title or a first graph in a completely different and frankly more interesting direction than the original post.

I do, dear reader, have an example in mind and a point or two to make, so please bear with me while I give you some of the background.

A few weeks ago, Chris Dixon wrote a post (cutely titled Every Time an Engineer joins Google a Startup Dies )about how innovation which he defines narrowly as the creation of new consumer products is best fostered by new startups and entrepeneurs. The post was somewhat rambling and was more in the way of a polemic that attempted to say that there is no “reason we should assume venture-backed innovation can’t be dramatically increased.” Huzzah to that. There was not, however, in my opinion too much more of interest to the post. It was the title, nonetheless, that sparked an interesting comment on software engineers, innovation, and startups versus big companies (Google).

Here is the comment in near full form: one user named Krave wrote:

The question we’re trying to answer is: does an engineer generate more value (defined as innovation, rather than just money) inside of Google, or out? On the plus side, being outside of Google gives you infinitely more freedom to maneuver, fewer organizational taxes, exposure to a broader range of the stack, and an increased probability that your ideas will at least enter the world rather than being trapped inside of a closed organization. But being inside of Google gives you an insanely good infrastructure to build on, an incredible interchange of ideas and knowledge with world-class people inside of the organization, and the ability to share the things you do launch with a large built-in audience. It’s hard to say either side is an obvious winner here. From the engineer’s perspective, they have a much higher expected value payout at Google, I’d think, and a much easier lifestyle.

Now my interest is piqued. And if it is not immediately evident how much the comment troped on or tweaked the original post, I will simply point to the fact that the commenter makes a value distinction between innovation as innovation and profit. Cdixon makes no such distinction. I like the question as a question so much that I’m going to repeat it in a slightly different form: Does an engineer generate more real world and public innovation inside or outside of Google?

There is no coherent or complete answer to that question, but I find it interesting nonetheless, because it is a question asked in an environment and a culture, the “net”, in which innovation is “continuous.” Software engineers are constantly tweaking and troping upon previous innovation. Innovation in software is now continuous, I argue, in no small part due to the rise of Open Source and Free Software. That may seem obvious to many a software engineer and I would argue that that thesis is central to the success of Google as an enterprise (more on that later.) If I were to put on my sleuth or literary critic hat, I would say that neither Cdixon nor Krave are software engineers. If they were, they would both be seeing much more innovation both inside and and outside of large institutions than they are. Krave as an ex-Googler, at least gets what the “engineer” might find of value inside of Google and some of what they might gain from being outside of such an institution.

But neither of them get what the innovation and incentive landscape looks like from an engineer’s standpoint, nor what the landscape is starting to look like from the standpoints of entrepeneurs, investors, and users. The innovations are so continuous that from an engineer’s viewpoint, whether one is inside or outside of a large institution, innovation is not only possible but in many way’s inevitable. And that continuous innovation is exciting, interesting and motivating to engineers. There are numerous Open Source projects that have not yet found wide commercial application or production use but that display tremendous amounts of innovation.

My response to Krave is as follows:

There is certainly a tradeoff for an individual engineer who contemplates the inside or outside of Google question and there is quite a bit of innovation that takes place at Google that only exists as innovation within the technical culture of the company itself, as Krave pointed out. With an infrastructure and an elite audience, certain kinds of higher order problems that are satisfying to work on and that motivate the proverbial engineer are easily at hand.

However, Google itself and every clever Internet institution of the last twelve years is built upon an existing infrastructure of free and open source software and common knowledge that is in a state of continuous innovation and that thrives both inside and outside of institutions. Much of the engineering and intellectual “infrastructure” has been virtuously externalized as open source “artifacts” that startups and large institutions use as a base upon which to innovate. This underlying reality of what I’d like to call continuous innovation is much bigger than Google or even the sum total of startups.

I’ve consistently chosen start-ups as places to work because they have been environments that have embraced the use of open source “artifacts” to innovate in the sense that Chris Dixon means it. However, innovation in the sense that an engineer qua engineer might mean it, is inspired and is thriving extra and intra institutionally. Institutions here are the universities, the big companies, and the startups as well. Innovation in that sense is its own drive and reward, and it could be said to be using the cultural institutions as much as the institutions are using it to achieve quite extraordinary things. The big companies, IBM and Google, etc. are as much a part of the open source ecosystem as the startups and the universities.

To get back to the thrust of what krave said at the end and what is I think of direct interest to Chris Dixon and other entrepeneurs who are not quite yet hip to continuous innovation: Startups are a particular instance of innovation, with a unique set of problems and opportunities. How efficiently startups manage to leverage existing “artifacts” (i.e. Free and Open Source software and common knowledge) will determine their capacity to innovate successfully.

New commercial products and services are foam upon a sea of continuous innovation that is Open Source software and knowledge in the commons.

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One Comment
  1. respondent permalink

    Good article. thank you

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