How Open Source Can Solve Some of the World’s Biggest Problems Faster Than Ever

What is Open Source? How did it help countries navigate the pandemic – and how can it foster secure innovation in teams? Pierluigi Cau, Director of Solutions Engineering APAC at GitHub answers all your questions.

By SGN | 23 Nov 2021

PG with his best friend, Dennis, in London in 2020.

My fascination with computers and technology started when I was six years old. One day, my uncle brought home our first personal computer – a lesser-known Italian-made system called the Olivetti Prodest PC128S. I still remember those late summer evenings back in the late ‘80s, falling asleep to the artificial lights of the CRT monitor and the bleeps and bloops made by those early basic video games my brother played, sitting at the small desk in our room.

How did you end up in Singapore?

In 2020, at the start of the pandemic, I relocated to Singapore with my fiancée. The move allowed me to be closer to my Asia-Pacific team at GitHub, which is currently spread across India, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Australia and Singapore.

PG and his fiancée savouring a bowl of Ban Mian, a popular Chinese noodle dish.

I had only visited Singapore briefly during a trip to Southeast Asia a few years ago. Yet I remember thinking to myself – this is a place I would enjoy living in. I found its diverse international community, futuristic looks, central location, tropical climate and rich cultural heritage to be truly a remarkable combination. After living here for over a year, I still feel the same way. I haven’t been able to travel around Asia, but I am hopeful that will change soon.

Of all the cities I’ve lived in, Singapore is without a doubt my favourite and the place I now call home. It is hard not to praise its hawker centers, the relaxing walks along East Coast Park, the beautiful weather and the openness of its people. I am fascinated by Asian cultures and cuisines and find Singapore a delightful place where I get to experience incredible food every day. I could not imagine living anywhere else at the moment, especially since I discovered fresh sugar cane juice with sour plum!

As Director of Solutions Engineering APAC at GitHub – the world’s largest and most advanced platform for developer collaboration – my team and I collaborate with large organisations in APAC, to be their trusted advisors in helping them achieve their DevOps and digital transformation goals. I’m particularly passionate about open source software and working with developers to drive team productivity.

PG presenting at an Open Source community event in Tel Aviv, 2019.

Today, GitHub is home to over 73 million developers, who build, ship, and maintain their software projects on GitHub and collaborate across over 200 million repositories from across the world. Based on our latest Octoverse report, 16+ million new users were added this year alone. In terms of active GitHub users, about three out of 10 (31.2%) are based in Asia.

With change comes resistance – organisations often operate in siloed systems / processes and individuals could have a ‘fear’ of the unknown. How do you and your team help organisations to overcome culture-related challenges like this and change the perception of a developer’s role?

Many businesses have accelerated digital transformation to address the impact of the pandemic. However, central to the long-term success of these transformations is building a culture of collaboration, which is often the toughest part. This is where open source comes in. We work with organisations to help them use the power of open source to drive growth and economic recovery.

One key element of this is bringing developers into the fold to foster greater internal collaboration. Business leaders can learn from some of the key fundamentals of open source – collaboration and innovation. These principles encourage teams to think outside the box and explore collaborative working methodologies that drive new ideas.

Collaboration is second nature to modern-day developers. In the same way that developers regularly assess processes to find out what is holding them back, business leaders can do the same to encourage a culture of perpetual growth. They can start by introducing pilot projects to experiment with more open processes before adopting innersourcing throughout the broader organisation. Adopting innersourcing, in layman’s terms, is like creating an open source community within the company itself.

Southeast Asian e-commerce specialist Tokopedia is an example of how to transform and be successful. The company was growing so fast its development team increased from 300 engineers to over 1,000 across multiple locations. It needed to move from using an on-premise system for application builds to a more flexible cloud platform such as GitHub Enterprise Cloud, where teams can easily work on code remotely at the same time. By adopting open source, the organisation was also able to successfully unify DevOps, security engineers and leaders, and overcome differences to build different feature sets and push out platform-level code simultaneously.

The pandemic is accelerating digitalisation globally. How has open-source software’s role and purpose transformed during this period of disruption, and how has it contributed to crisis-response?

Today 99% of all software projects contain an open source component. For this reason, organisations need to be aware of what is in their software supply chain. It’s no longer about how much open source code you’re using. It’s about what open source code you’re using.

Newer approaches to application security – such as DevSecOps and shifting security left – have enabled considerable improvements to both traditional and end-to-end security. A shift-left approach sees security embedded throughout the entire development process – from the first line of code to final production. This empowers developers to nip issues in the bud early, by monitoring for vulnerabilities and rectifying them as they happen. In this way, a shift left approach enhances the efficiency of product development and improves the security of the final output.

The importance of bringing people together to secure the world’s code together can’t be overstated. This is why in 2019, we announced GitHub Security Lab to bring together security researchers, maintainers, and companies who share our belief that the security of open source is important for everyone.

Tell us more about GitHub’s social impact mission. What are some highlights that truly showcase open-source’s potential as a force for good?

GitHub’s mission is to advance human progress through developer collaboration. Our part in that mission is to leverage an organisation’s assets in unique and powerful ways that can drive change for organisations in the social sector, including local nonprofits, international development organisations, and foundations.

One such example is social sector organisation Dimagi, which builds, maintains and helps governments and organisations deploy its CommCare app. Over 7% of the world’s population is registered in and receives services in a CommCare application, including COVID-19 contact tracing app deployments using CommCare. In a panel we hosted last May for GitHub Satellite, Clayton Sims, Dimagi’s CTO, discussed the trend of mature social sector tech companies now contributing to broader “infrastructure” open source globally.

The GitHub Social Impact Team has worked for the last few years to bring together the power and potential of our technology products and open source communities.

What are your thoughts on the digital and technology scene in Southeast Asia – and how do you think the sector is set to grow in the near future?

There is a lot of buzz around the digital and technology scene in Southeast Asia and Asia.

According to our latest Octoverse report, about 31.2% of our active users are based in Asia (the region has increased by 0.3% since last year). Every year since 2014, there have been more open source contributions from outside the United States, and Asia’s contributor community has consistently grown. This shows an important shift in the region, with users now not only consuming open source but actively contributing to it too.

I also expect we’ll see further adoption of automation as one of the key trends to emerge in the technology landscape. A lot of great things can happen when automation is applied in the right way. Repetitive tasks, redundancies and errors can be significantly reduced. This means developer teams can plough their energy into higher-value challenges, and drive innovation for their organisations.

In fact, according to our Octoverse report, using automation to remove friction and repetitive tasks meant teams could perform 27% better in open source and 43% better at work. Developers also reported higher fulfilment. Ultimately, automation boosts developer experience and productivity and helps create the right environment for them to innovate, solve challenging problems, and do their best work.

This is significant because, from a business perspective, workforce automation is integral in planning for the workforce of the future. A 2021 Report by Deloitte on the Future of Work in APAC has shown that one of the key priorities for businesses in APAC, where 60% of the global workforce resides, is to take proactive steps to apply automation and harness its benefits, leading to better outcomes for workers, businesses and society more broadly.

The Singapore government is supportive of open-source software, and such software has been actively applied in GovTech projects. What are your thoughts on the government’s support for open-source adoption?

There’s no denying that open source has greatly helped the public sector to navigate the pandemic. It has facilitated rapid collaboration across borders, demonstrating how an open collaborative model can be used to solve some of the world’s biggest problems faster than ever.

A common theme across governments everywhere is the struggle to modernise online services to improve the citizen experience – usually with fewer resources, small budgets, and legacy IT systems. Listening to citizens about what they need and expect from online services is crucial here – and open source can provide a transparent platform to facilitate this two-way communication.

Setting up the right collaboration forum, as well as using tools and external communities to foster shared learning and experiences, is key to the success of any government digitisation project. The open source community can provide a great platform for government agencies to share learnings and ship innovation faster. It is also a valuable source of tech skills and can ultimately help agencies gain speed to market despite ongoing tech skills shortages.

In Singapore specifically, open source has played a crucial role in helping the country overcome some of its most pressing challenges.

Singapore open-sourced digital tools such as TraceTogether (pictured above), a community-driven contract tracing digital tool. (Image source: CNA).

To help combat COVID-19, the Singapore government open-sourced a number of digital tools including TraceTogether, a community-driven contact tracing mobile app, and VigilantGantryan AI-driven automated temperature screening gantry. These solutions are prime examples of how open source platforms and communities can be used to access talent and skills, accelerate speed to market, deliver fast innovation with limited budgets, and support citizens when they need it most.

Ultimately, collaboration will drive future change, and the best collaboration happens on open source. Breaking down siloed teams, empowering people to challenge, test, break, fix and learn from other talented individuals and teams in a wider community setting is a sure-fire way to bring faster innovation to the public sector.

Finally, one last question – we read that you play the synthesiser and run independent electronic music label Upitup Records. How did you get started?

Growing up in Italy during the ‘90s, I was lucky to witness the democratisation of internet access. Also, during this time, experimental electronic artists such as Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and many more opened the doors to an exciting new world of digital art.

I felt the urge to be a part of this community of explorers and creators, and during my late teenage years, I started a “netlabel” with a group of friends, to share our own music with our network of friends all over the world. Back in the day, no content management systems were available specifically for our needs so I had no choice but to teach myself some PHP and MySQL and get to work.

Almost 20 years later, the website and content management system are still online.

What I found is that teaching myself web development in my late high school years boosted my self-confidence and helped set me off on a professional journey that continues to this day. When I’m not working or out riding my bike, I like to switch on one of my synthesisers and let my creativity flow.

I haven’t yet had a chance to connect with local artists, mostly because of the pandemic – however, I plan on exploring the scene once venues start reopening.

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About Pierluigi (PG)

Pierluigi Cau is Director of Solutions Engineering APAC at GitHub, where he leads the solutions engineering teams across the region. A strong advocate of DevSecOps adoption as a way to foster secure innovation, Pierluigi is also passionate about building products and fostering high performing, collaborative teams. Prior to joining GitHub, Pierluigi drove technology initiatives, leading several global developer teams at Scandinavian digital media holding, Schibsted Media Group.

In his spare time, he enjoys travelling and he is a music lover, having founded Upitup Records in 2003, an independent electronic music label providing free electronic music.

Connect with PG here.

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