How to explain Open Source to your grandma

If you’re involved in one of these new digital jobs (e.g. software development, as I am), you may have found yourself in the situation in which you have to explain some aspects of it to your grandma. Since I represent the only ‘everyday chat’ for my grandma, I have. Many times.

They say

If you understand it, you can explain it simply.

Cool story, bro. But try to replace your usual target with your grandma. That takes the challenge to a whole new level.

Turning something so ethereal, that can not be touched, into something understandable by a 85-years-old, who’s only ever known a job for something rather tangible, is not an easy task. But to me, it’s something definitely worth training on.

One day I was really excited about something related to Open Source (ain’t we all? 🍻), so when the everyday grandma chat time came, I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about.

So it began. ⚡️

Sure enough, I was not allowed to use the standard definition of “open source”. Wiki states:

Open-source software is computer software with its source code made available with a license in which the copyright holder provides the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose.

Yo, grandma, are you still following? I guess not.

And let’s be honest, that definition doesn’t do justice to what open source really is, to me at least. It’s sharing, it’s improving something all together, just for the sake of the thing itself; it’s rather romantic if you think about it. Alright, back to grandma.

So, how do you make open source physical, available, so that she can understand it? I usually try to disguise my job as a more conventional one, wether it be plumber or carpenter, which happens to be the one I chose in my attempt to explain the magical world of open source.

Granny, let’s say I’m a carpenter. While I’m working on the furniture for a dining room someone asked me to produce, I stumble across the need of inventing something that allows people in the room to sit down. So I come up with a chair. It’s a rather simple chair, with no armrests and nothing fancy, but it suits my need: allow people to sit down. Yay, problem solved 👍🏼. Now, I can keep my brilliant invention secret and be jealous about my precious (💍, get it?), OR I can share it with the world of carpenters.

Why would you share it?

Because it could help someone solving the same problem I encountered. Because after, say, a few days, or months, or even years, my chair could come back to me with a good ol’ pair of armrests, that were made by another carpenter out there in the world. Someone who borrowed my chair, worked on it and shared its improvements back in turn. That can happen over and over, the more problems my chair solves, the more people will work to improve it, maybe giving it a more comfortable back or more functional legs. That way we can develop together the best chair possible for that particular situation. And because it feels so good to take part in something like that.

It may be hard to believe, but that day my grandma understood the concept of Open Source. Now, that may not be the most precise and technical explantation ever provided about it, but it made her smile, and took her a step closer to understand why I do love what I do and “why do you stay up at nights doing what you do in your office?”. That makes me smile. 😊

Besides, explaining everyday software development stuff to my grandma really strengthened my ability to teach things and speak about what I do. Go give it a try, then if you can get your grandma on board you’ll see speaking of your job with your boss or your sales accountant will become a breeze (and they’ll appreciate it, I can guarantee 🍻).