Snake Oil, Open Source and the Key to Building Healthy Applications

Wizard of Oz - Snake Oil Salesman

Wizard of OZ - Snake Oil Salesman

It may not seem like it at first, but open source software carries a number of correlations to the negativity surrounding the tonic, elixir, and medicine business of the past.

As custodians and leaders in this area, if we lose sight of this, it’s quite likely a similar fate awaits. That’s because an informed public can be just as easily misinformed, and misinformation can lead to fear, rational or otherwise.

“Open Source” Components in the 1800s

My great grandfather, for all intents and purposes, was a medicine man. Now most will lean towards thoughts of a man pulling a cart by horse, going from town to town, and then selling the latest cureall. This was not the case, though I’m sure he’d been accused of such things none the less.

No, the great Wayman patriarch was a man before his time really. He lived off the land, and could walk through a forest and point out a plethora of plants that could be used as antibiotics, drawing salves, or even something to simply freshen your breath. As I understand it, the world was quite different for him.

In the mid 1800s, there were still small towns and cities where medicine and a good doctor, any doctor, was at least several days ride away. That’s by horse, not car. The need often arose just for something to make one feel better, though at times circumstances were quite dire, and an immediate solution was necessary.

At some point others caught on to this. Business, as they say, was great. Simply assemble some free plants together, give it an interesting name, and make sure you can exit stage left before anyone in town is the wiser. Sadly, what had once been legitimate soon became mired in the falsity of grand tales and promises that could not be kept. Worse yet, the right combination of ingredients could be deadly. Holistic medicine, and the abuse of both resources and an uninformed public eventually led to a near extinction of this practice; it never really recovered.

Unfortunately, with little regulation and insight into the products and materials procured for these tonics, quality and safety became concerns. Cures, as they were described, never quite cured, and ailments just kept on ailing. It doesn’t work well for business if you fix a headache, but blind your customer in the process. Needless to say, before long, trust in those offering natural-based approaches to medicine, eroded.

Whether it was a problem with supply or the manufacturer, it didn’t matter to the consumer. Anyone trying to sell a story on the positive benefits of natural medicine found it harder and harder to do so successfully. Even when legitimate practitioners, and there were some just like my great grandfather, assured others of the safety, there was hardly any incentive to believe. Trust had been broken, allowing rumor and suspicion to run rampant.

Beyond Snake Oil

Just as Great Grandfather Wayman scoured the forest for just the right plant to draw venom out of a snake bite, something still being researched in India today, so do we as modern developers and development organizations search for something just as useful. That software, while it might find itself included as part of the latest flatulence app on your smartphone of choice, may not be the right choice for components used in professional applications built for the banking and medical industries.

That’s not to say there is anything wrong with that. But understanding what the assembly of those ingredients mean to your customers, and how safe it keeps them,and you, is important. Security and license related issues are just the thing that could turn a solution with good intentions, into something dangerous to everyone involved.

So what do we do sans medicine man? (No, not that medicine man).

Building Healthy Applications

Most importantly, we make sure we are as knowledgeable about what’s going into our products as we can be.

For my great grandfather, that involved applying time-tested information that had been gathered for thousands of years before him. It also meant he sought out experts and kept detailed journals of what worked and what didn’t. He made sure only the right ingredients, and the absolute best available, went into what he created. Of course, as much scientist as naturalist, he was always looking for new discoveries as well.

The same options are available in the creation of open source applications. Products like Nexus Professional, serve as a connection to a forest full of resources, while integration with tools like CLM allow for the inspection and retrieval of information about those resources. That means the entire team from developers to leadership understands what is going into the products they develop.

It doesn’t stop with tools either. Policy and process around the usage of resources needs to be interwoven into the life cycle. In this way, the products we create are safe, healthy, and of great benefit to our customers.


That was my great grandfather’s same goal, and a noble one at that. He wasn’t a mystic, in spite of the accusations to the like I’m sure he faced. He also wasn’t simply out to make a profit, but rather focused on helping people in whatever way he could. Not to mention, he had the good Wayman name to protect, and for that I’m most thankful. Sadly that eventually succumbed to a mix of external ignorance and fear, his success only living on in our family stories.

For this reason, I caution you to be wary of suffering the same fate. We must find ourselves encouraged to forge a new path, and bring to light exactly what it takes to build secure and healthy applications that improve people’s lives.


About the Author

Jeff WaymanAs a member of the Product Owner team for Sonatype’s CLM suite of products at Sonatype, Jeff Wayman provides the connection between Customers, Product Management, and Engineering. This includes interacting with external and internal customers, gathering and building requirements, and creating and maintaining documentation and communications for Sonatype CLM.

Jeff is an expert in process analysis, functional design, requirements documentation, technical writing, and content management techniques and methodologies


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Jeff Wayman

Add one part expounding the values of word-nerdiness with another part fulfilling the responsibilities of a Conduit of Goodness between Engineering and Marketing. Next mix in a healthy helping of leading the overall direction for product marketing, and then bake for about four-plus years.

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