Feeds

Amazon's 'schizophrenic' open source selfishness scares off potential talent, say insiders

Moles blame Bezos for paltry code sharing

Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable

Exclusive Amazon is one of the most technically influential companies operating today – but you wouldn't know it, thanks to a dearth of published research papers and negligible code contributions to the open-source projects it relies on.

This, according to multiple insiders, is becoming a problem. The corporation is described as a "black hole" because improvements and fixes for the open-source software it uses rarely see the light of day. And, we're told, that policy of secrecy comes right from the top – and it's driving talent into the arms of its rivals.

Over the past three months, The Register has interviewed numerous Amazon insiders* about the tech giant's attitude toward open-source software, and how the cash-flush business interacts with the tech community.

The impression built up is of a company that harvests code from vast fields of open-source software while obscuring its code donations and distancing itself from the wider world of computing.

"Amazon cannot exist without open source," said one former Amazonian.

"All of the standard web technologies were in there," said another ex-employee. "We had everything from Perl to Java to C++. In a number of cases where performance [was] really important, we looked at the [Linux] kernel ... We really ran the gamut of usage."

But you wouldn't know this from Amazon's public contributions to open-source efforts: as far as El Reg can tell, the internet titan has submitted patches and other improvements to very few projects. When it does contribute, it does so typically via a third party, usually an employee's personal account that is not explicitly linked to Amazon.

These code contributions include additions to Apache Hadoop, jQuery, the Linux kernel and Ruby, we understand.

"Within Amazon it was well known that [CEO] Jeff Bezos didn't think that Amazon would gain from participating in open source except in very limited ways at the fringes of its tech," said one ex-Amazonian. "Amazon really kept its code closed."

Of course, the web giant is under no obligation to share its enhancements for open-source-licensed software if it's not distributing the code beyond its walls (or if the license doesn't require it to in any case).

This secretiveness may give Amazon a competitive edge in the short term, but – crucially – there's evidence that it could be damaging the company in the long term because few of today's most talented technologists want to work at a company that shuts them off from the wider technical community.

Many companies choose not to donate code and instead involve themselves in the community in other ways, such as attending or organizing conferences and publishing academic papers, but here Amazon is withdrawn as well.

"When I arrived [at Amazon], one of the things that was very striking was very few people went to conferences except quiet observers," explained another. "We lost a number of key technical prospects in terms of hiring people."

Where employees from Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Oracle, IBM, and others regularly speak at conferences and meet-ups around the world, Amazon's employees are instead trained to fade into the background at conferences, revealing little about themselves or their employer.

Your El Reg correspondent saw this himself when he attended Symposium on Operating Systems Principles (SOSP), the influential computer-science confab, last year. That was a week spent walking the halls of the cavernous Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania, brushing shoulders with luminaries from Google, Microsoft, Cambridge University, Carnegie Mellon, and others.

Though there were a large number of Amazon.com and Amazon Web Services developers there, none of them spoke up in group sessions or made explicit reference to their company. The only Amazon-related presentation your Reg writer saw was given by Peter Vosshall, a senior engineer at Amazon.com, and this was more about the culture and management of a technical organization than a disclosure of precise techniques.

This secretiveness, "comes from Jeff," claimed another source. "It's passed down in HR training and policy. It's all very clear."

Though a select few are permitted to give public talks, when they do, they disclose far less information about their company's technology than their peers. El Reg has been to numerous obscure presentations by Amazonians where the audience is left dissatisfied by the paucity of the knowledge shared.

"Amazon behaves a lot like a classified military agency," explained another ex-Amazonian.

Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

More from The Register

next story
NO MORE ALL CAPS and other pleasures of Visual Studio 14
Unpicking a packed preview that breaks down ASP.NET
Cheer up, Nokia fans. It can start making mobes again in 18 months
The real winner of the Nokia sale is *drumroll* ... Nokia
Mozilla fixes CRITICAL security holes in Firefox, urges v31 upgrade
Misc memory hazards 'could be exploited' - and guess what, one's a Javascript vuln
Put down that Oracle database patch: It could cost $23,000 per CPU
On-by-default INMEMORY tech a boon for developers ... as long as they can afford it
Google shows off new Chrome OS look
Athena springs full-grown from Chromium project's head
Apple: We'll unleash OS X Yosemite beta on the MASSES on 24 July
Starting today, regular fanbois will be guinea pigs, it tells Reg
HIDDEN packet sniffer spy tech in MILLIONS of iPhones, iPads – expert
Don't panic though – Apple's backdoor is not wide open to all, guru tells us
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Seven Steps to Software Security
Seven practical steps you can begin to take today to secure your applications and prevent the damages a successful cyber-attack can cause.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.