Square reaffirms open source commitment with latest release

Summary:"There are real arguments to be made for a company to open source everything," suggests the co-founder of a startup bought by Square last year.


Open source has become one of the most buzzed-about topics in tech this year -- a theme that some companies have embedded into to their company cultures and business strategies while others are jumping on the bandwagon to craft an image.

Square has actually been onboard with open source for a few years now, having opening up more than a quarter of a million lines of code for more than 60 projects at a rate of every 2.5 weeks on average.

Now the payments platform is gearing up to push out another 250,000 lines of code from one unit alone.

The beefed-up release stems from Square’s acquisition of photo sharing app Viewfinder in December.

Square reps affirmed that the purchase was primarily focused on talent, picking up a team of just under a dozen engineers. Speaking to ZDNet exclusively last Thursday, Square chief technology officer Bob Lee stressed the talent and brainpower the New York City-based team possesses, noting his previous collaboration with Viewfinder’s co-founders when they were all previously colleagues at Google.

Lee, who has been at Square for roughly four and a half years now, emphasized Square’s commitment to open source while also touting Viewfinder’s technology assets.

“We didn’t want to let the code languish,” said Lee, “This is two years of work from some of the best engineers in the world. It would be a shame to keep it to ourselves.”

Peter Mattis, co-founder of Viewfinder and now a software engineer at Square, acknowledged that while the product itself didn’t succeed, there were many good ideas within the source code.

Much of Viewfinder’s code being open sourced this week revolves around general purpose infrastructure. Other gems in there include client libraries for syncing data across mobile devices as well as frameworks for building back-end data storage on top of Amazon cloud data products.

“We didn’t want to let the code languish,” said Lee, “This is two years of work from some of the best engineers in the world. It would be a shame to keep it to ourselves.”

Despite the bevy (if not overload) of photo sharing apps available these days, Lee noted that there is a “lot of complexity” that goes into building a photo sharing app, remarking that this heavy load of code is “really like art to us."

At Square, some of the Viewfinder bits already being implemented include data storage code being worked into Square’s iOS payments app.

"Open source is a really great way to pull resources with other great companies like ourselves,” Lee remarked, explaining it frees everyone up to focus more time on building features that differentiate products rather than “wasting time on multiple build tools when we can all use the same build tool.”

Lee also stressed the value of open source in attracting and retaining top engineering talent, possibly reflecting a larger skills gap and competitive scene playing out in Silicon Valley and beyond right now.

Lee went so far as to peg the quality of the engineering team and designers as the secret to Square’s success. He also suggested that open source also provides the opportunity of showing rather than telling during the recruitment process.

Mattis concurred, adding that "there are real arguments to be made for a company to open source everything,” citing the benefit of offering prospective hires with a glimpse into the technology already being deployed.

To open source skeptics, Mattis argued that the downsides to open sourcing hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of lines of code are minor at best.

“A lot of people approach open source with ‘How do we give away a piece of the castle?” Lee speculated, “Actually, I think it’s the opposite. There’s a pretty low risk that you’re going to give something away that’s important.”

Mattis concurred, adding that "there are real arguments to be made for a company to open source everything."

Lee lamented that the hardest part about open sourcing projects is simply squirreling away enough time to do it. Mattis admitted that Viewfinder’s code should have been published publicly “a few months ago,” reflecting on the inevitable time-consuming changes that came with the merger.

“There are only so many hours in the day,” Mattis quipped.

Square doesn’t break down the number of employees it has on payroll by department, but rather simply offering a workforce count at approximately 800 and counting. Square has engineering staff on hand at each of its offices, some of which are dedicated to sole projects while others have multiple assignments.

The Kitchener-Waterloo location in Canada, for example is dedicated to the Square Cash project, the Pay-by-Gmail challenger unveiled in February . The Atlanta team is primarily concerned with maintaining the digital payments infrastructure, while engineers at the San Francisco headquarters are all over the map.

The same goes for the rapidly expanding team in New York City as Square prepares to move into a new space just one mile north of Wall Street this summer .

Interested developers and engineers can look for Viewfinder’s code on Github this week.

Topics: Open Source, E-Commerce, Mobility, Start-Ups, Developer


Rachel King is a staff writer for CBS Interactive based in San Francisco, covering business and enterprise technology for ZDNet, CNET and SmartPlanet. She has previously worked for The Business Insider, FastCompany.com, CNN's San Francisco bureau and the U.S. Department of State. Rachel has also written for MainStreet.com, Irish Americ... Full Bio

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