2014-08-11

Co.Labs

How Open Source Helped Segment.io Grow A Healthier Company

The results speak for themselves: better code, smarter hires, and more new customers.



Segment.io builds tools to help companies more easily connect their websites to analytics and advertising platforms like Google Analytics, Omniture, and Chartbeat. And after making much of their work open source, the company says those tools have improved faster than they otherwise would--thanks to talent and customers who come across the company through venues like GitHub.

“It makes a lot of our tools more productive,” says cofounder Calvin French-Owen. "It encourages us to make Readmes for each one, and then just test the individual functionality of that module."

The company’s founders started focusing seriously on open sourcing their product a few years ago after noticing that an early version they released was racking up stars on GitHub. That signals users were bookmarking the code and interested in working with it, says cofounder Ian Storm Taylor.

“It started to gain some stars and we thought, this is a potentially cool idea, and maybe we should investigate and see if there's something there,” he says.

Since then, the company’s continued to make as much of the product as possible open source, and often receives code contributions from users and analytics providers who want to see the product better integrated with their favorite analytics tools.

“It’s probably split between the partners and the people who are just interested in using the services,” says French-Owen.

The Segment.io platform captures data from web and mobile users and sends it to any of more than 100 analytics services, making it possible to turn on and off different analytics services from a web dashboard without having to deploy new web code or wait for a new mobile app version to publish.

To manage all of those different product integrations, Segment.io uses a traditional, Unix-style development philosophy, chaining together short, simple, open-source modules that do one thing well, say the company’s founders.

Providers generally want to be integrated into Segment.io so that it’s easier for existing Segment.io users to add their services, French-Owen says.

"In general, companies like us because it sort of speeds up the sales cycle,” he says. “They can say, oh, you're already using Segment.io? Just turn us on and try us out."

And the company’s added more than 100 repositories to GitHub, ranging from software error-logging tools to web stylesheet processors.

“They range in size from a random tiny utility that we needed one day to projects that we’ve been working on internally and decided to release to a bigger public,” says Taylor.

Even the company’s press kit, giving reporters basic info about Segment.io, is stored as a GitHub repository, and the founders say GitHub’s used internally to manage wikis, trouble tickets, and other internal data.

Contributing to the open source community has also helped bring the Segment.io new customers, says marketing director Diana Smith--one project, called Metalsmith, which makes it easier for non-developers to build and edit simple websites, is in the top 10 sources of referrals leading to new customer signups, she says.

And, it turns out, being involved in open source helps bring in the kinds of employees Segment.io wants to hire, says French-Owen.

“The interesting thing: When we started, we just started open-sourcing things because we wanted to, more than because we wanted to attract a certain type of developer,” he says.

But since then, he’s seen that developers who fit well with Segment.io’s coding style and sharing culture are likely to be open source contributors and users themselves.

And the traditional open source ideal of building small, interoperable modules proved ideal for melding multiple analytics tools, like combining Optimizely’s A/B testing platform with other metrics, he says.

[Image courtesy of Segment.io]




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