When Kevin, SARD’s Managing Director and cofounder (also my husband) started talking to me about open-source, I thought of it as something that ‘the cool kids over there’ were doing, not something I’d find myself directly involved in. Jump forward a couple of years and SARD has worked with Oxleas and Nottingham NHS FT to create two exciting NHSE/I funded open-source projects - Reality Checker and ESR Wrapper API, so I’ve had to get up to speed pretty quickly. However, what has become clear to me over that time is that there is a disconnect between the advocates of open-source and the non-techie world I come from.
Because of this, a few months ago, when Kevin came to our management meeting and suggested that we should develop more of our product suite as open-source, and that these products should be used to found a community (Public Money Public Code) that would help deliver Matt Hancock’s 2018 Tech Vision and had the potential to change the face of NHS Tech for good, his ideas were met with a fair amount of skepticism from my direction. What were the benefits? Why would our clients care if the source code that their rostering system is built on is open or proprietary? Why would opening up our code be a good move for SARD? Surely it would be giving away a huge part of what makes our company great?
We have spent the past ten years supplying our workforce software to the healthcare market and I think we all feel pretty pleased at where we’ve got to - we work in a company where we genuinely enjoy an excellent partnership relationship with our clients, we are small and agile enough that we can change things quickly to meet their needs and whilst we are not all off sailing around on our yacht in the Med (ah….foreign holidays, remember those?), we are able to pay the bills and keep our kids in Robux and Zoom Ballet lessons. Why would we want to sell the family farm? Open-sourcing sounded like a scary and risky move. But, much like when I had to admit I was wrong to admonish him for buying a few Bitcoin in 2011 or for filling our loft with bread flour and Pot Noodles in February 2020, Kevin now has me convinced that making software open-source not only better serves the public interest but makes good business sense. Why?
I’m writing this near lunchtime and my stomach is growling, so here’s a story about food: Making software open-source is like setting up a communal seating area (the source code) surrounded by independently run food huts (the software suppliers). There is absolutely no charge for a customer to sit in the seating area, they can relax there all day but it is in the commercial interests of all of the surrounding businesses to keep it clean, tidy and welcoming. With this being true, it is not only in the suppliers interests to maintain the area but to actually improve it - someone provides nicer chairs, another may put flowers on the tables, a third books a band to play live music. The improvements that are made to the area as a whole, make the dining experience better for everyone. It makes cooperation easier too. James and Sarah really like summer rolls from Pho-nominal but especially when washed down with lychee martinis from Cocktails and Dreams. Not a problem. The crowds start pouring in.
There is of course a chance that a potential customer will sit down thinking that they are going to buy a salad from The Crunch Bunch and instead get enticed by the delicious smell of molten cheese and the table service offered by Nice Slice Pizza. That puts the onus on the different suppliers to improve their offering to make the customer experience the best it can possibly be and for the best price. If the food, service or price isn’t right, the customer can make a switch without having to travel far (low friction data migration). Ultimately everybody gains and no one goes hungry.
The only party that is not so keen on this great new approach is Big Burger Inc. who have set up across the road with their own pay to perch seating area. Here, if you want to sit down, you have to eat; if you want more ketchup or an extra gherkin there is going to be an extra charge, or even a flat refusal (they’ve made burgers to that recipe for 20 years and they ain’t changing now) and when you get up and want to leave, there is a £5 exit fee to unlock the gate. Pretty dystopian in the hospitality world but these stories about proprietary software and vendor lock-in are all too familiar. But hey, Big Burger Inc. are welcome to come and set-up their own stand too! If they make the delicious food and supply the great service that customers will learn to expect, then there is still a lot for them to gain.
And that’s why I no longer think fellow non-techies, business owners or anyone else with an interest in improving the way things work should find open-source scary. Working together to build better software for the NHS is everyone’s interests. It will improve systems, improve service and drive up standards.