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The realization that she could just go ahead with what she wanted to do, Simmons says, was “awesome, but also frightening and exhausting.” She started her project in early 2009 and followed it through July 2010, when it was added to the core after intensive debate with other members of the community.

What Simmons designed would eventually become Bartik, the default theme for Drupal 7 (named for Jean Bartik, who was one of the programmers of the first electronic computer). Until the day it was officially added to Drupal, she says, she didn’t know for sure if her effort would succeed.

Simmons’s experience matches researchers’ observations of how open-source projects manage collaboration. Projects tend to put out information about what needs to be done and volunteers step up and say they can help, says anthropologist Diana Harrelson, a user-experience researcher and designer for the Web hosting company The Planet, who studied the community behind the open-source project Fedora as part of her work toward a master’s in applied anthropology.

Collaboration in open-source projects “is not a top-down or a bottom-up approach so much as it is coming in from all sides,” she says. “You’re working with peers, mentors, and mentees who all feel they have something to contribute and want to contribute in any way they can. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there.”

The key, according to Buytaert, is to create an environment where “everyone is a leader and a follower at the same time.” As different as that is from the traditional corporate model, it’s undeniable that open-source projects like Drupal have resulted in software that rivals the best commercial products. 

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Credit: Courtesy of Dries Buytaert

Tagged: Business, Business Impact, business, collaboration, open-source software

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