Funding open source development may not be as complicated as you think

Commentary: Developers want to write more open source code, and their employers want to use more open source. Why can't we have both?

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Image: SIphotography, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Open source may (sometimes) be a labor of love, but there would be a lot more love if there were a lot more money. Despite the mythology around open source, for decades much, if not most, of the world's best open source software has been written by those paid to contribute. Hence, for organizations that want more open source software, there's one clear way to get it: Pay for it.

That won't pay the rent

While the world is awash in tens of millions of developers, virtually none of them regularly contribute to open source. Yes, most developers (68%) believe open source code is of higher quality than proprietary code (according to a TideLift survey) and, yes, virtually all developers (and their employers) end up using open source (according to a survey by The New Stack). Even so, according to the 2019 Stack Overflow survey, which polled over 85,000 developers, just 12.4% of the developers surveyed contribute to open source at least monthly; while another 23.1% contribute less than monthly but more than once each year, a whopping 64.4% either never contribute or do so less than once per year. 

It's not hard to discover why.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The problem is money. Developers, like everyone else, need to pay their rent/mortgage, buy food, etc. While the idea of spending all their time giving away code may sound nice, it turns out to be a poor way to take care of their lower-level Maslowian needs. In addition, while many developers like to code as a hobby (80% acknowledged this in the Stack Overflow survey), "it wouldn't be a hobby if it were aligned with corporate time," as database guru Mark Callaghan stated. Summarizing key findings in the TideLift survey, analyst Lawrence Hecht has stated, "Four-fifths of respondents would spend more time contributing outside of their day job if they were fairly compensated for their work, with 25% estimating they would spend an additional 20+ hours per week."

Employers, are you listening?

Making open source a job

Put another way, nearly every organization on earth benefits from open source, but almost none of them pay for that privilege. This isn't to suggest that profit-seeking corporations should be turned into 501(c)(3) charities, but rather that corporate self-interest can often align with open source contributions. 

Yes, it's great if companies allow their developers to spend some amount of "free time" on "free software." But even better, as Lech Rzedzicki has suggested, is to directly pay developers to work on open source projects of value to the company (and its customers): "If you make it more direct, you could get better quality open source projects, with maintainers, better documentation and actual budget to do boring stuff like fix old bugs." 

SEE: Open source vs. proprietary software: A look at the pros and cons (TechRepublic Premium)

Open source involvement also turns out to have other benefits to employers, as Kenneth Paul Bowen has highlighted: "Employee retention and skill development via company supported open source contributions aligns well with most company objectives." That idea of using open source as a path to upskilling jibes with the Stack Overflow results, which found that 41% of developers used open source contributions as a way to learn (this number goes up to 43% when considering professional developers). With 68% of developers surveyed indicating that they're actively looking for new work, or at least open to inbound offers, it's critical to provide the right work environment.

Developers want to work on hard, interesting problems--if they can do so and open source that work, such that others get to see and benefit from their work, even better. 

In sum, far too few developers actively contribute to open source software, but this isn't necessarily their fault. Given just a little bit of encouragement and cash from their employers, they'd happily do more.

Disclosure: I work for AWS but my work is in not directly or indirectly related to the contents of this article.

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