Thoughts on Open Source Software

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free”

It sounds like a pretty good piece of advice to anyone wanting to make Open Source Software today; turns out it’s a line from Heath Ledger’s seminal turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

Is it crazy to want to work on something and then give it away for free? No, not at all. If anything it’s a chance to get software out there into the hands of many people, and a doorway to new opportunities. I can vouch for this from experience.

However, Open Source Software is a factor of people and time, and getting the balance right is challenging. Getting a group of people to work together in a company is hard enough, imagine trying to convince them to do that in their spare time.

Time is the key factor. How much time do you have spare these days? A couple of years ago I’d think nothing of spending a few hours a night working on OSS, but back then I was single. Once you get a girlfriend, and look to move country, oh and you say yes to a book deal, time evaporates rather quickly. You hope then to be able to delegate the workload to the rest of the group around your project…

That is if you have a group of people to depend upon. Chances are a project rests solely on your shoulders, and you are now the key person in the Bus Factor — if you get hit by a bus, or simply burnout and say “stuff this”, the project you were supporting becomes abandon-ware.

People start to ask if the project is dead, and you feel somewhat guilty because in some respects they’re right. It’s now just another piece of software in the vast collection of software that has been written and disappeared into the night. It’s time in the sun gone. Like humans, software is destined to eventually die.

And now you ask yourself — should I bother to spend anymore time doing this?

Those are my thoughts and words on it, and I suspect that I’m not the only one who feels this way. I think a lot of people are waking up to the idea that you can’t just work on a piece of Open Source Software for nothing — the passion you had for it at the start isn’t going to last forever, and once that’s gone, what’s left to keep you involved in it?

Money. The money that means that you can live comfortably and support those around you, but more importantly, you might get back your time — because ultimately that is what I care about the most right now. You can buy a lot of things in life, but time is not one of them.

At some point you’ll come to a realization that time is running out for everyone, including you. If you’re going to spend time writing Open Source Software, it’s because that’s what you want to do.

One day I hope to feel that way again.