Software

Who contributes most to open source? The answers will definitely surprise you

Microsoft gives the most to open source projects based on volume of contributors, but if we look at the percentage of a company's employees who contribute, the numbers change dramatically.

By at least one measure, Microsoft is the world's top corporate contributor to open source. With more than 4,000 employees actively contributing to open source projects on GitHub, Microsoft has nearly double the number of contributors of open source heavyweights like Google (1,850 contributors) and Red Hat (1,549). This, however, doesn't tell the whole story.

After all, if the mark of a truly charitable person is not how much they give away, but rather how much they keep for themselves, perhaps the right way to measure the strongest open source companies is to figure out what percentage of their employees actively write open source software. By this measure, neither Microsoft nor Google make the grade.

Open is as open does

As I've written, it's non-trivial to get a completely accurate count of who does what on GitHub. In the analysis undertaking by one of my colleagues, Fil Maj, inspired by the work of Google's Felipe Hoffa, he used the GitHub REST API to pull public profile data from more than 2 million GitHub users, filtering out anyone who contributed fewer than 10 commits in 2017.

Talking to developers at my own company, some developers opt not to include their employer in their profile—for a variety of reasons. Others have multiple accounts for the different types of work they do with GitHub. For these and other reasons, getting a 100% accurate count is impossible. It's also not perfectly representative of value. After all, not all open source contributions are created equal. A few significant contributions to Kubernetes, for example, are worth more than a myriad of contributions to some no-name web utility.

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Even so, there's value in understanding which companies give most. "Most," however, is a relative term.

Who gives most?

As noted, if we simply count known active contributors, Microsoft is way out in front. But what happens if we measure the percentage of employees who actively contribute, balancing total employee numbers against total GitHub contributors? Suddenly, the podium finishers look very different.

Which companies proportionately give most? Mozilla, not surprisingly, tops the list:

  1. Mozilla (39.9%)
  2. Pivotal (18.27%)
  3. SUSE (17.64%)
  4. Red Hat (12.68%)
  5. Unity Technologies (12.9%)
  6. Square (11.25%)
  7. Thoughtworks (8.28%)
  8. Shopify (7.67%)
  9. ESRI (6.87%)
  10. Microsoft (3.1%)

Microsoft still makes the top-10. However, it now rounds out the bottom of the list, rather than the top. (Note that GitHub, acquired by Microsoft, formerly dominated the top of the charts with a whopping 54.63% of employees contributing.) This is pretty impressive given that the company employs more than 130,000 people, many of them in areas (like sales and marketing) that have little to do with software development. But it does change the picture.

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Another result that stands out to me is Pivotal, with its second-place position. Given its proprietary provenance with VMware, it's significant that so many people at Pivotal actively contribute to open source. The same is true of Square, which isn't a "tech company" at all, yet clearly understands the importance of software. The same is also largely true of Unity Technologies, a video game developer that makes open source such an integral part of its software development strategy.

Given that enterprises are desperately seeking developer talent, as a recent Stripe survey shows, perhaps the fastest way to get more developer talent in-house is simply to use and contribute more open source software. As recent academic research has shown, the more developers contribute, the greater the value that accrues to their organizations.

Your company should be contributing a lot more open source software, with significantly higher percentages of employees engaged in open source projects. It's for your own good.

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Image: iStockphoto/ijeab

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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