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Will the solo open source developer survive the pandemic?

Will the solo open source developer survive the pandemic?

Many important projects are maintained by volunteer developers who may now have more pressing needs than volunteering

Donald Fischer (Tidelift)

Donald Fischer (Tidelift)

Credit: Tidelift

Open source has been booming for decades, but it tends to do particularly well in times of financial distress. Like now.

As Drupal founder Dries Buytaert has suggested, “Open source communities have the power to sustain themselves during an economic downturn, and even to grow.” I worked for an open source company through the last recession, and definitely saw this.

But that corporate perspective may overlook — as Donald Fischer, CEO and co-founder of Tidelift, suggests — the “independent open source maintainers,” meaning the developers who write and maintain the open source code that many companies use to build their applications.

I wrote recently about how projects with millions or even billions of users — like Drupal or curl — are often maintained by developers in it for the fun. What happens when financial or emotional survival trumps fun?

Coding under duress

Aside from five years while I worked at Adobe, I’ve pretty much always worked from home. For 15 years this was a joy. The last several weeks have been anything but. I’m not alone in finding it rough-going.

For Julia Ferraioli, this isn’t because of “WFH.” It’s because of “WDP” [working during pandemic]: “I’ve been working remotely for 2.5 years. The past 2.5 months have left me more exhausted than ever before. This is your reminder that you’re not working remotely. You’re working remotely during a global health crisis.”

This same pressure applies to open source maintainers, Fischer says:

Today independent maintainers are, like many people, under more time and financial pressure than they were only a month or two ago. Most of these creators work on their projects on the side — not as their main day jobs — and personal and professional obligations come before open source work for many.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, this was a true statement. In my interviews with a diverse range of open source maintainers, from curl’s Daniel Stenberg SolveSpace’s Whitequark, most have contributed as a side project, not their day job.

In the case of Stenberg, it took 20 years before he could invest his talents full-time in curl. For Dries Buytaert, it was seven years. For Whitequark, as she told me, work stress at one time caused SolveSpace “development to slow to a crawl.”

It turns out that open source developers are people, subject to the same human pressures as the rest of us. The difference, of course, is that they also write the code the rest of us depend upon.

For free.

More time, less energy

It’s therefore not surprising that Jordan Harband, maintainer of more than 250 JavaScript packages, would tell Fischer, “I think people will have more time to contribute, but less energy to do so. Most of it will be tied up in dealing with the psychology of being stuck in your house, perhaps newly working outside of an office, or worse, not working at all, and trying to figure out how to pay the bills.”

Open source is still fun, in other words, but some of that “fun” might be swallowed up in the stress of the moment. So what to do?

One thing that gives me hope that open source communities will come through the pandemic stronger than ever is not a matter of “open” or “source,” but that last word, “community.” In my recent conversation with Stenberg, he talked about the energy and insights he gets from the curl contributor community:

It’s really the contributors that make up the best part of the community for me. They are the team I hang out with and communicate with, bounce ideas with, and try out things in order to figure out where to go next and how to fix the most complicated things. It would be a lonelier place with “only users” [of curl].... It would make me get bored quickly.

Because of that community, Stenberg not only gets ideas and insight, but also energy and support, including support to get through this seemingly interminable pandemic. The same is true over at SolveSpace. Whitequark recruited other maintainers so that she doesn’t have to shoulder the burden alone. Many projects are like this.

In short, while Fischer is absolutely correct that we should be concerned about the many individual open source maintainers, the great hope in this mess is that they’re not really alone. At least, not all of them. The strength of open source is community, now more than ever.

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