What success really looks like in open source
Nadia Eghbal

Great post!

One thing I noticed right away, that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while but haven’t gotten to, is the effect Eric’s Cathedral and the Bazaar still has on the miss-understanding of contributor motivations.

Eric lays out a bunch of intrinsic reasons people might be motivated to “volunteer” in open source. That leaves anyone paid to contribute in some way to be considered extrinsically motivated. But in modern open source this is just completely wrong.

In modern open source virtually every developer is an open source user, and those who are also contributors are a subset of those users. In many cases their usage is either directly related to their current employment or could be associated with some future employment. This means that the number of “unpaid” open source contributors is roughly equivalent to the number of unemployed developers in the industry (which is to say, insanely low). Furthermore, the decisions about what software to use and eventually contribute to is now mostly in the hands of those developers. Redmonk has been writing for a while now about how even in enterprise technology decisions are happening bottom up, not the other way around.

That means that nearly all contributors are “funded in some way” albeit indirectly but are also almost entirely “intrinsically motivated.” Their decisions about how much time to dedicate to contributing, which projects to use and of those which to contribute to, are partly or entirely personal decisions (not solely at the discretion of their employer) and barriers to entry for usage or contributions have a noticeable effect.

The people still following the motivations described in Cathedral, which was completely true in a world of proprietary software where open source was a fun but growing side project, tend to miss this. They want to put people in buckets of “paid” and “unpaid” and “volunteer” and “full time” missing the fact that everyone is both paid and a choosing to spend their time.

There are certainly difficulties and limitations in working with a community of contributors that is, in the majority, not paid to directly develop on a specific project. But projects that have been managing this well have seen far more contributions than they even could have in the old model, but projects that don’t manage this well are having a much harder time staying afloat than they did before. I think the beginning of turning some of them around might be breaking apart these old notions of contributor motivations and modernizing them a bit.