Building an Open SourceĀ .NET Foundation

By Beth Massi

It was April, 3rd 2014 when Anders Hejlsberg, father of the C# language, got on stage during the keynote at the Build conference in San Francisco and released the .NET Compiler Platform (“Roslyn”) as open source and made the first pull request. That same keynote, Scott Guthrie, Executive Vice President of Cloud & Enterprise group and one of the original creators of the ASP.NET web stack, announced the creation of the .NET Foundation. This was a pivotal point in .NET’s open source journey which spawned the avalanche of releasing software as open source at Microsoft. This is the story of the .NET Foundation.

on November 12th[2014], we announced .NET Core, a new open source project to build a cross-platform .NET, which started with just four libraries

The ASP.NET web stack had been open source since 2008 as well as the F# language in 2010, but with the C# and Visual Basic.NET compiler now open source, this opened the door for the entire .NET platform. Later that year on November 12th, we announced .NET Core, a new open source project to build a cross-platform .NET, which started with just four libraries. We wanted to “do open source right” by starting from the beginning in the open and we did it on GitHub. The announcement landed #1 on Hacker News for most of the day beating the Philae probe landing on a comet. It was a big deal.

Getting to that point was also a big deal. It took a lot of work from many people inside and outside Microsoft.

Looking at ASP.NET’s open source history, the source code was open and the community could contribute issues and code. However, the work from Microsoft wasn’t truly done in the open at the time. Bits were worked on internally and then “dropped” into the repo (Codeplex back then). Still, it was a first step into changing the way we built software.

We (the “Developer Division” engineering team at Microsoft) knew that we needed to change the approach to how we were working. We were coming off the Windows 8 hangover and most of the industry was moving to open web technologies and open standards. We needed to modernize our platform in order to grow. The only way we were going to succeed was with the help of the community.

So, why did we need an open source software foundation? It was S. Somasegar (Soma) that pushed this idea to us. Soma was the Corporate Vice President of Developer Division at the time and our executive sponsor. Soma believed that the survival of the .NET ecosystem depended on the open source community and we needed a foundation to foster it. He approached my manager, Jay Schmelzer, who owned the .NET Framework and languages and we started working. We looked to the ASP.NET team run by Scott Hunter, a separate team in the Azure group back then, as the role model open source project at Microsoft. Soma knew that we needed to change the perception of Microsoft in the open source world and the creation of the .NET Foundation and the open sourcing of the platform would prove to be a strong step.

We also had projects from the community as well as our own that needed help; not just legal and licensing help but basic development services like code signing and CI/CD. We also had customers that needed to trust and rely on .NET. I was the community manager for the .NET platform team before any of our stuff was open source. And I was on the v-team that stood up the .NET Foundation itself. We were going through a culture change internally and our customers needed to also come with us.

The challenge was to make sure we didn’t lose trust — to make sure our customers understood that open sourcing .NET was not the end of the platform, but the beginning

Many of our customers expected all the software they used to come from Microsoft. It was a direct result of us creating a hugely successful closed source ecosystem. Microsoft also didn’t have the greatest track record with some of the open source projects we did release — where they were basically “thrown over the wall” and abandoned. The challenge was to make sure we didn’t lose trust — to make sure our customers understood that open sourcing .NET was not the end of the platform, but the beginning. We had to get it right.

The .NET Foundation needed to be an independent organization, but it also needed heavy Microsoft backing so our customers would feel safe. We also wanted to bring in commercial partners to help us modernize the platform. Initially, Samsung and Red Hat joined us in those efforts, and then eventually we expanded these partners to form the technical steering group we have today.

Because we also had existing open source projects maintained by the community that already had their own governance models, we decided to build the infrastructure slowly and learn along the way. And let’s face it, we didn’t know what we were doing so we needed to go with a modest approach to governance. There was a joke at the time; create the “minimal viable foundation”. So that’s what we did. Believe me when I say there were some people that didn’t think we could do it at all.

We consulted lots of people. Robin Ginn, who was also on the .NET Foundation v-team, played a critical role introducing us to open source leaders. She was working for MS Open Tech at the time and has a vast network in the open source community. Many leaders including Miguel de Icaza, Ross Gardler and Jim Zemlin guided our thinking. As a community manager for a closed product line, I soaked up open source learnings like a sponge. It was a whole new world for me. The open source community is huge, and I had (and still have) a lot to learn.

First thing we needed to tend to when we were starting the .NET Core project was the licensing of .NET Framework

First thing we needed to tend to when we were starting the .NET Core project was the licensing of .NET Framework (our original Windows implementation of .NET). We needed patent clarification so we could assure the community that Microsoft would not come after anyone for using the code. .NET Framework’s code is source open, meaning the code is available but we didn’t take contributions back in the true open source sense (you can’t make PRs). We call it reference source. We changed the license for the reference source to MIT license so anyone could copy the .NET Framework code. This was important for the Mono and .NET Core implementations.

we literally had PRs coming in the moment we opened the repo

We knew we made the right decision right away. When we first started .NET Core the community was overwhelmingly helpful, and we literally had PRs coming in the moment we opened the repo. Within a couple of months, while we all were focusing on Linux, one person in the community, @kangaroo, added macOS support to the .NET Core runtime! We were deeply humbled by the energy. I recall someone saying that the community had increased our core team size by 60% right off the bat.

Of course, it all didn’t go smoothly. Engineering leads now had to be accountable for public code reviews. We needed to have the same processes for internal and external PRs. We needed to balance internal conversations with public conversations. We needed to change our marketing strategy. We needed to figure out how to explain completely changing a direction in designs (project.json to csproj anyone?). How do we get our customers to understand the “new way of software development” from Microsoft? Making a sausage isn’t pretty.

Exactly one year after announcing the .NET Foundation, we hired our first Executive Director, Martin Woodward. I was still working as the community manager and I was super excited to have someone that cares as deeply about the community as me join the team. Martin started in the Java community and had a lot of experience running open source projects and using open source software. He was a key person in changing our culture. He was actually backstage on April 3rd, 2014 at Microsoft Build making sure the Roslyn code went public on Codeplex without any hiccups, as he was the lead for Codeplex at the time. He also looked after the Microsoft org on GitHub and did a lot of other great stuff for our ALM business.

Martin worked to make the .NET Foundation real with an advisory committee and technical steering group. He created the dotnet org on GitHub and did a lot of the actual implementation of the “vision” of the foundation. Lots of paperwork. He wanted to democratize the contributions to enable anyone to contribute. He created value with project services like contributor license agreements, build and deployment services, code of conduct implementation, and conflict resolution processes. Basically, all the stuff that takes people away from making actual contributions (writing code, raising and discussing issues, writing docs…).

There were many sleepless nights looking after employee welfare and making sure we were building up the skills on our team to manage and work with the community together effectively

There were many sleepless nights looking after employee welfare and making sure we were building up the skills on our team to manage and work with the community together effectively. Martin wanted to make sure we could innovate quickly, but still have an SLA to make our customers comfortable. This requires employee resources way beyond just people writing code. We needed “social engineers” working in our repos. We needed to build a new muscle. But it allowed us to be extremely agile and get instant feedback.

He also started the vision to create a user group consortium, to bring all the .NET meetups around the world together to teach, learn, and collaborate. He also began a blueprint for a much more open membership model, as he knew eventually the foundation would need to scale. As community manager I worked closely with Martin. It was one of the best times and proudest moments in my career. We all worked toward making the .NET Foundation the center of gravity for .NET open source.

Then I moved to product marketing (EEEEEEEEEEKKKK!). I became the Product Marketing Manager for the .NET platform in late 2015. I decided to move to marketing for two main reasons. First, after being a community manager and developer advocate at Microsoft since 2007, it was time for me to try something new. Second, I felt that the engineering team had become good community representatives themselves as part of going open source. They didn’t really need me in that capacity anymore. Fortunately, I remained (and still remain) an important part of the .NET Foundation execution and strategy.

Today we have 56 projects in the foundation

In this new role, I worked with Martin to bring the .NET Foundation message to a much broader audience. In November 2016, at one of our big online developer events called “Connect”, we announced Google joining our technical steering group and brought in a bunch more projects. Today we have 56 projects in the foundation. I was also able to help the .NET Foundation by building strategic relationships and getting our presence into non-Microsoft events and placements.

In February 2017 Jon Galloway became the next Executive Director. Jon was a developer advocate and .NET expert for many years and it was a natural fit for him to continue to drive the .NET Foundation forward. Well-known in the .NET community, he has pushed to organize our user groups scattered around the world into one cohesive community. He’s brought on a huge amount of new innovative .NET open source projects, facilitated a partnership to provide free code-signing certificates and signing services to member projects, spoken at many events, produces a lot of technical content, and has been the keystone of “running the business” for the .NET Foundation.

We’ve expanded our meetups to over 200 groups in 50 countries, organized our largest online .NET Conf ever in September

We’ve continued to push the .NET Foundation forward with Jon at the helm. We’ve expanded our meetups to over 200 groups in 50 countries, organized our largest online .NET Conf ever in September, expanded our social and online footprint, conducted Hackfests and participated in Hacktoberfest, and are bringing on more projects and partners.

Jon’s passion for the community has clearly showed in the progress we’ve made. Jon is awesome at helping overworked teams streamline their processes and cutting out costs associated with building open source software. He wants project teams large and small to be successful. You’ll see that there are a varying degree of team sizes across the open source projects in the foundation today.

But there’s still only so much the foundation can do right now. The next step for the .NET Foundation is to scale. At the moment, Microsoft is the only company providing funding for the .NET Foundation and has two of the three board seats. Although one seat out of the three board seats is a community held position, and advisory council and technical steering group consist of strategic non-Microsoft partners, it’s time to go broader and get fresh ideas. It’s time to grow up.

Over the course of Jon’s tenure, we’ve worked to make the vision Martin laid out for an open membership model a reality. This week we announced membership model changes so that the community will directly guide foundation operations.

The Board of Directors will be expanded to 7 members, one seat appointed by Microsoft and the other 6 to open to the wider .NET community

The Board of Directors will be expanded to 7 members, one seat appointed by Microsoft and the other 6 to open to the wider .NET community for people to volunteer for a seat on the Board. Board elections will begin in January 2019, and any person who has contributed in any way to any .NET Foundation open source project is eligible to run for the Board and to vote. This new structure will help the .NET Foundation scale to meet the needs of the growing .NET open source ecosystem.

We also announced that I will be the one representing Microsoft on the new Board of Directors. When Scott Hunter asked me about it, I told him that I would be honored. I have to be honest though, I was a bit surprised. Why me? Then I spoke with Jon, Jay and Robin and they convinced me I should do it because I had the history and the passion to make the .NET Foundation the best it could be. I promise to always have the best interests of the .NET platform and community in mind when making decisions.

I am incredibly excited about the future of the .NET ecosystem. The platform is expanding and innovating constantly, our community is growing, and our customers are growing with us. I am thoroughly enjoying the ride and know that the future is very bright.

I encourage you to take a look at .NET if you haven’t yet. It’s a very different platform than it used to be and it’s all because of the community.

You can learn more about .NET Foundation on the website dotnetfoundation.org.