Thought Leadership

Chip Childers: Navigating the Open Source Ocean of Innovation

The Open Source Ocean of Innovation

Family, friends and a Texas Instruments computer all helped shape Chip Childers, but it was his love of programming and the joy of creating things he could share with others that urged him forward into enterprise tech. Currently serving as Vice President and Chief Open Source Officer, he directs VMware’s open source compliance, strategy and innovation efforts supported by VMware and the OSPO community, who are an integral part of fostering collaboration within the company and the broader tech community.

LISA: Everyone has an “origin story:” the event or moment or teacher that got them pointed toward a pursuit of interest or career. For some, that moment was decades ago, for others it was more recent. What was your defining moment? Was there a pioneer in technology who influenced your thinking or direction when you were just starting out?

CHIP: I’m not sure I have quite as much of an origin story that is specific to my career, since my love of technology really started when I was a child. I’m not the type of person who really thinks too much about how a specific individual from the industry may have influenced me, but I do think about the people who have personally helped me grow into who I am today. Of course, family played a massive role for me. Outside of family, I would have to say that it was probably two friends of mine who helped grow my interest in technology during high school. They were slightly older, but they introduced me to Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and (later) to Linux.

LISA: I’ve noted on your LinkedIn profile that you “learned to code as a professional in 1998,” and “open source also played a key role in your career.” When did you develop a passion to be a technologist and what attracted you to open source?

CHIP: I was really fortunate in my younger years to be gifted a Texas Instruments computer that really opened up my eyes to the world of programming and to the joy of creating things that I could share with others. This was back when the most common way to share code was to publish it in magazines or just pass around printouts. When you wanted to build off of another developer’s work, you would start by retyping the program from your paper copy. When you wanted to share with a friend, you would pull out the typewriter (I didn’t have a printer!) or save the program to an audio cassette (which was more common than using floppy disks). I suppose that was my entrance into open source software, in a much less structured way from the open source methodologies we use today.

The transition from hobbyist to working with software as a profession was a fairly natural step, although I went to school for television and film production. I’ve always had both a creative and analytical way of thinking, and I love when those two traits are combined. I found a career in technology during the first internet “boom.” This was a time when advertising agencies and software consultancies were merging to form “interactive agencies.” From that professional starting point, I’ve grown to see how creative the entire software development profession really is. Having family members who do engineering work in the physical world, I’ve also come to appreciate how much modern software development is a blend of engineering and art.

LISA: On your Twitter profile, at one point, it said, “Remember when you could play songs with your hard drive?” What songs and bands did you play on your hard drive?

CHIP: This is a bit of a humorous memory from the time when hard drives were much more mechanical, but I wouldn’t claim to have mastered the art of making computer components do much beyond a basic rhythm. It was really meant as a reflection on how much technology has changed, even over a few short years. Very little in our modern personal computing devices is mechanical … perhaps only cooling fans. The memory harkened back to the whirling and whining of the early x86 machines, with the hard drives, floppy drives and dial-up modems. Computing was loud back then.

If you want to experience the full glory of various mechanical computer components orchestrated into a musical ensemble, you can’t get much better than the Floppotron!

LISA: You co-founded the Cloud Foundry Foundation (CFF) in 2016 and served as its Chief Technology Officer and Executive Director. What are your observations in making the transition from the foundation side to the vendor side and how has your CFF experience informed your role at VMware?

CHIP: I’ve actually seen all sides of the open source ecosystem, having been a user, working for vendors, and both volunteering and working within open source foundations. Experiencing the open source process from all of these perspectives has given me a very pragmatic approach to thinking about both the strengths and weaknesses of open source in our industry. I suppose the primary takeaway from my time at the CFF was a reminder that enterprise technology exists to be used, and that solving problems for users has to be the focus of any open source project’s efforts. This lines up very well with VMware’s long history of focusing on solving problems for customers.

LISA: You’ve been impressed with the potential and body of work that VMware open source community leaders and contributors have built. Could you provide an example of what most surprised you in this regard?

CHIP: Specifically, I’d point to our leadership in helping to secure the industry’s software supply chain. Threats are increasing, customer expectations are rising and the software industry is responding. Open source and open standards are where the work is getting done. What impressed me the most is how VMware has embraced the need to help move the entire industry forward.

LISA: In the article you authored for the Open Source Blog, you talked about the future for VMware and open source. You stated what’s needed is a continued investment and a continuation of community collaboration based on what you call “intention engagement.” Could you elaborate?

CHIP: The key to successfully working with open source is to be intentional: intentional about why you are using a project, intentional about why you are contributing to another, and intentional about what open source projects and communities you build yourself.

Engaging authentically and sustainably in open source demands that you start with a plan: know why you’re engaging and your desired outcomes. It also demands that you are intentional about what projects you rely on. While we will continue to actively encourage and support upstream contributions by our entire VMware engineering community, we also want to be sure that our larger-scale engagements are aimed directly at helping our customers be more competitive and innovative.

LISA: Could you discuss the importance of taking a long-term strategic view when it comes to open source contributions?

CHIP: I tend to view the broader open source ecosystem as an ocean of creative chaos, with various ideas being explored and experimented with in overlapping communities of individuals and organizations. Understanding how to navigate these churning waters is critical, and it requires taking that long-term perspective. Some technologies will rise in interest and community gravity quickly. Other projects will stay isolated to the creator. And as with all technology, new ideas rapidly replace older ones frequently. Companies like VMware need to take the long-term view toward contribution, in order to ensure that we are serving our customers by bringing them solutions based on the very best of what the open source community has to offer.

LISA: Could you touch on how open source enables speed at the enterprise level to improve a solution? In other words, how does open source drive product innovation?

CHIP: Tactically, using open source accelerates a product’s time to market. In fact, I would argue that the amount of enterprise software that includes no open source component is rapidly approaching zero. That is just the minimum way to use open source.

Products get much more interesting when open source is used to deliver new and advanced technologies or when it is used to build a community / ecosystem around a product. Both of these approaches increase the value of a product to more than what the vendor itself is able to deliver.

LISA: Open source software is increasingly shaping enterprise software architectures and its use has become imperative for business growth. What traits do you believe are essential for an OSPO to succeed in this rapidly evolving industry?

CHIP: Open Source Program Offices (OSPO) can take many forms. In a company like VMware, which builds infrastructure software products, we see the role of our OSPO as supporting three main areas: risk management, community strategy and ahead-of-roadmap contributions. These three areas of focus are complementary to each other.

Open source comes with risks, just like everything we do. Our OSPO is responsible for managing our compliance programs, from license compliance to approvals of contributions. We work with our product development teams and the security organization around best practices to help reduce risk from vulnerabilities.

We also measure the health of the projects that our products rely on, and this is where our community strategy focus area brings its deep experience to our product teams. We help coordinate across the various product teams that may rely on the same strategic open source projects.

The final area that we focus on is in contributing to upstream projects ahead of our product team needs. This is partially an exploration of the “ocean of chaos,” feeding valuable market insights back into the business. It is also very much about helping create the technologies and standards that our product teams can build on top of.

The VMware OSPO is far from the only part of our company that is active within open source communities, so we focus on helping the entire company engage with open source communities in an authentic, transparent and pragmatic way.

LISA: As a leader, have there been instances when you’ve leveraged open source and the community in unexpected ways to manage today’s business challenges, say, in talent retention, agility or resilience?

CHIP: I have to chuckle at this question a bit … because it’s hard to see your own work as being unexpected!

LISA: What comes to mind when you read this quote by Mark Twain: Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.

CHIP: As humans, we are all working our way through a limited budget of heartbeats. I won’t claim to be the most adventurous person around, but I’ve learned to invest my time doing what I enjoy doing. There are so many opportunities, but only so much time in the day, week and year. In my work, I have had the privilege of being able to select roles that present interesting challenges and opportunities to learn and grow. I don’t have much patience for wasting time, and yet I approach complex challenges with patience.

So, I guess my reaction to that quote is that it’s a cautionary tale, which we should all strive to avoid allowing to be true in our own lives.

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Chip assumed his role at VMware in July 2022, bringing more than 20 years of experience in enterprise infrastructure and cloud computing. Most recently, he was at Puppet Labs where he served as Chief Architect and led their innovation program, incubated multiple new products, and aligned their open source strategy to evolving business needs. Previously, Chip co-founded the Cloud Foundry Foundation and served as its Chief Technology Officer and Executive Director. Prior roles include product strategy and engineering leadership positions at an early-stage startup, global service provider and digital agency. He is also a member and past officer of the Apache Software Foundation.

Stay tuned to the Open Source Blog and follow us on Twitter for more deep dives into the world of open source contributing.

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