Dollars and sense: how to succeed in open-source development

Open source has become one New Zealand IT consultancy's greatest asset, reports Liz Tay

When New Zealand consultancy Catalyst IT started operations in 1997, its vision was to make open source software the preferred option for local businesses, and it was that vision that eventually led to the company’s success.

Catalyst’s biggest asset, says the company’s co-founder and director Donald Christie, has been its use of open source technology, which has enabled the company to deliver cost-effective, highly customised products to its clients.

Counting NZ Post, Telecom NZ, TAB, and the Electoral Enrolment Centre as clients, turnover is good and the company has zero debt, Christie says.

“If anyone says that you can’t make money doing open-source type work they’re just wrong,” he says.

Staffing, on the other hand, was a problem, as employees tended to be mobile and that was, at times, disruptive to the organisation.

The company, which currently operates under what Christie calls a meritocractic “management unstructure”, is also now having to deal with the management and internal communications issues brought about by growth.

While existing employees have recently shown initiative and come forward with management suggestions, Christie acknowledged a need to recruit project managers — either externally or from existing employees — to establish clear leadership.

“We’re trying to manage change and growth without losing some of the things that made us enjoy starting our own company in the first place,” Christie says.

Catalyst maintains a rather flexible recruitment policy of “never turning away a good person”. As a result, the company now has almost 80 staff, including six full-time directors.

Christie says potential employees tend to be involved in open source community projects, which can provide the recruiter with some measure of a developer’s skill level and how he or she interacts with colleagues on forums.

Participating in open-source projects can also facilitate a valuable maturing process, Christie says, through which young people can obtain skills that took him years to acquire — “like that being polite and respectful to people is good,” he says.

In its aim to attract mature, lucid developers who understand how open source projects work and are also able to work closely with clients, Catalyst has once again found its greatest asset to be its passion for open source. Christie recalls one employee who first contacted Catalyst because he saw how open source was promoted on the company’s website.

The work environment in an open source company should also reflect its ideology, Christie says, starting with the tools developers use inhouse.

“Nothing tells a developer more clearly that they are working in an open source company than pointing them to a Debian repository and telling them to set up their own desktop,” he says.

Last week Catalyst IT launched Open4Business, a directory and guide to open-source business software (

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