I’ve been reading papers on “sustainability” frameworks of shared definitions, and was struck in many of the sections on Stakeholders. We think about the various FOSS projects, about the big industry players, about the rest of the user base commercial companies, and even about public policy. And yes, we do talk about “pay the maintainers”, and there are several organizations solidly devoted to that problem.
But what about volunteer individual coders as a class?
Much of open source contribution is done in small chunks by individuals “scratching their own itch” to fix a bug or add a new feature they happen to need. While some of this is done in conjunction with a job or a college class, some of it still done just because the coder wanted to get it done, not necessarily to get paid or a better grade.
A poor definition of this class is “everyone who’s contributed to open source without directly getting paid for it”, which doesn’t help much, but does give perspective on the scale. And most people working in software are likely to go back and forth from paid work to some kind of volunteer work (either piecemeal fixes or as part of a larger effort) many times in their career.
How can we classify all these individuals?
- Software industry career workers, who will likely have many different roles in a career. They may sometimes lead projects, and often will make significant investments over time. They may often have a holistic perspective on FOSS components in relation to their business, so often are very conscious of what they open source, and what is proprietary.
- Software industry-adjacent workers, who will work on specific bugs or features their industry needs from time to time, but primarily focus their work on custom features internally (i.e. possibly not contributions).
- Academic, scientific, and policy/government workers who build software. When they open source something – depending on institution policies – they are more likely to be careful to ensure an entire package is included, so that their work can be easily reproduced elsewhere.
- College and high school students looking for learning opportunities or connections in industry. Only part of the driver here comes from curriculum; much of the drive likely comes from where the students first feel they can make contributions and get some feedback or recognition.
- Hobbyist hackers who have a passion for their work. Yes, they still exist, although it’s certainly a rare individual here who truly drives an entire project these days. But where hobbyists show up, they can be an important part of maintenance and quality control. Hobbyists are likely software industry professionals who truly do open source at night, separately (in some cases deliberately) from their day jobs.
- Who am I missing? I know there will be a handful of other sub-groupings that could be useful to consider tracking.
What messaging can we use to encourage individuals?
These groups are obviously quite diverse in other characteristics, and include millions of people, so it’s difficult (except perhaps in public policy spheres over years) to directly influence them. But we certainly need to include this concept in discussions about sustainability.
One potentially practical task is to find ways to promote messaging that can continue to inspire newcomers to open software (or science, or government!) that yes, it is important they contribute, even in a small way. Helping FOSS organizations, projects, and communities find even slightly shared ways to both be friendly, to explain how to do things in their world, and to provide the general encouragement to newcomers seems like a useful practice area to help nudge the actual FOSS world into better sustaining itself.