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VARs should look to F/LOSS to prevent decay

One domain above all has truly captured our interest as of late, and that is the far-reaching implications of community contribution to Free/Libre & Open Source Software (F/LOSS).

F/LOSS itself is backed by ideologies that are significant though nuanced. For example, there is an important difference in philosophical approach to Free/Libre Software and Open Source Software which can lead to interesting discussions regarding approach, licensing, and contribution (we may articulate these important distinctions in a subsequent article) - though our interest in this domain extends beyond these ideologies and so this article groups these movements together to focus on implications to the Value-Added Reseller (VAR) community.

What exactly is a VAR, and what do they do?

Value-Added Resellers (VARs) have historically played a prominent role in Information Technology by enhancing the value of third-party offerings through the resale of additional products and/or services of relevance. These upsell products and services may come in the form of additive hardware & software, installation & configuration services, consulting services, troubleshooting, etc. Through broad experience, these VARs provide strategic solutions that tend to earn them the honorary title of 'trusted advisor' by their customers. For the last several years I've been a member of this VAR community and I can earnestly say that I introspect daily on how I can do more for my customers, and many of my peers behave similarly.

Customer needs are clearly shifting

According to a book by Carlota Perez titled Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages, starting from the Industrial Revolution the world economy has transformed approximately every 50 years due to new technological waves that combine with innovation ecosystems and financing. Each of these technological waves has redefined the means of production so fundamentally that it triggered an explosion of new businesses followed by a sunsetting of those businesses that thrived in the previous wave.

Between these two waves is what Perez termed the Turning Point, historically marked by financial crashes and recoveries. This is when businesses either master the new means of production or suffer a substantial decline.

This turning point is contributing to a significant shift in expectations across all industries. Companies are investing more heavily in domains such as developer experience, product mode, domain-driven design, mastering team topologies, inner-source usage, and making significant commitments to developing in-house capabilities and talent. At a point in history when we are experiencing both a high technical skills gap AND a high technical skills shortage (again there are nuanced differences), I applaud the efforts of these in-house strategies.

What does this all mean for the modern VAR

Enterprises are innovating at the pace of historically software-first organizations and they are looking for partners that have shared values, keen insights, and can participate/lead in transformational domains. VARs need to be ready to ‘carry the boats and the logs’ with their customers in a true partnership and to do that they need to uplift the composition of their talent and offerings to align with their customer's evolution. Pre-packaged SKU-based offerings are (thankfully) losing favor relative to socio-technical-themed consulting.

In an economy where information asymmetry has all but eroded, expertise has been disaggregated, and execution is being brought in-house by necessity, we need to have a mechanism to elucidate and measure a VAR's value when it comes to delivery.

How to measure a VAR in this evolving value economy

Coming back to F/LOSS. F/LOSS communities foster continuous engagement, encourage productization of peer software development, promote group activity and successful advancement of ideas via asynchronous mediums that cross cultures and geopolitical boundaries, and the idea of F/LOSS is becoming integral to global business and political processes. For these reasons, it is no wonder that F/LOSS is the subject of academic interest and has been for years. It is also the reason why we should be measuring a VAR by these underlying constructs and principles.

By adopting these principles the modern VAR can realize several key advantages:

  • Ensure that deliverables always reflect their current position on topics

  • Ensure standards are in place while curtailing drift that inevitably lowers quality

  • Ensure credit is attributed to employees based on contribution

  • Ensure the highest quality deliverable through approvals facilitated by appropriate flow processes

I encourage you to initiate a dialogue with your VAR around the specifics of how they are driving innovation and excellence while riding commodity curves regarding delivery costs. Specifics are the key here!

Here are a few examples of topics that can be compared to F/LOSS programs:

  1. How does your VAR model its core offerings? Some VARs model offerings after large F/LOSS projects with the Benevolent Dictator for Life (BDFL) being a formal Practice Leader, core contributors being principal architects in that particular practice, and contributors tending to align with field delivery teams.

  2. Does your VAR issue Balanced Employee IP Agreements (BEIPA) to internal employees to promote a culture of contribution and to ensure that employees can claim a portfolio for their personal development?

  3. Has your VAR established standard artifacts across core projects to include a CONTRIBUTING file to articulate project contribution expectations, a CODE OF CONDUCT file that articulates expected core values (important due to the asynchronous nature of global teams), a CHANGELOG to provide other internal engagement teams a human-readable summary of releases (for applicability to other customer projects), and an AUTHORS file (or maybe they use Developer Certificates of Origin (DCO) in place of AUTHORS)?

  4. Do they use git-based systems for their core offerings and initiate the use of DCOs to certify contributors and set to fail any commit in a Pull Request that doesn’t contain a valid Signed-off-by line (ok, kinda specific)?

  5. Is your VAR able to actually show you these core offerings and demonstrate how these efficiencies translate to delivery savings (resource usage, time, costs)?

  6. Does your VAR measure and reward contribution via multiple categories to ensure broad employee engagement that transforms the company culture (feature release, testing & bug fix, technical writing, tech debt management, project management, marketing, best practices).

These are just a few vignettes to start a dialogue. Every industry is vulnerable to disruption, VARs included. Fundamentally, success is achieved through alignment, so ensure your chosen partners espouse similar values to you and your company to maximize value realization.

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Satbir Sran -, (202)-431-0558

Darren Boyd -, (408)-204-9779

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