OpenSource Tipping Point

07 Feb 2016

In the last couple of months there have been lots of people talking about problems in OpenSource. And I think this tweet sums it up pretty well:

But what exactly is the problem with successful open source projects? Why is it so bad to have one?

Let me start with a small disclaimer. My perspective comes from a lot of experience with a couple of projects I was lucky to be part of in my career. Some of them a bit bigger, like TV-Browser, to really small ones like Git-Commit-Notifier.

For me there are two kinds of OpenSource projects. Those run by companies and those run by people in their spare time. Project run by companies have their own issues and because of that I won't talk about them here. I know that this distinction is not easy to do. Lots of projects move from one group to the other or are in between. But let's focus on the hobby OpenSource projects.

So why do you start to write code in your spare time? There are several reasons. Most of the time it's to solve an issue that you see. A missing piece of software, a task that could be automated. Or to finally work on something you love after that 8 hour job writing code in a language you don't like. Some people don't get why we do it. But on the other hand they also don't get why some people collect smurfs. Everyone has their hobby. And that's how it should be.

For 99% of the OpenSource projects out there life is pretty okaish. If you are lucky you will get some pull requests once in a while. The project is solving the issue you wanted to solve and you have fun while working on it. But for the other 1% live can get really nasty.

With success you automatically face a few issues.

The first one is assholes. There are people out there that don't understand that you work on that project in your spare time. That they are not entitled to get any support from you. You don't have to implement features someone demands. They haven't payed anything, you haven't promised anything.

You might think that this is something we should take for granted. But sadly not. This example demonstrates this pretty nicely. If you are really unlucky, like me, you attract some lunatics that will hunt down your phone number and call you. At 2 o'clock in the morning. And scream into the phone demanding something to be fixed by the end of the day. Yes, this happend to me. At least once every other month during my active time on TV-Browser.

The only solution to this is a Code of Conduct, pointing people to that and closing the issues. Without a Code of Conduct you have no rules, nothing to show them.

The second problem is the feeling of pressure. When people are starting to use your little pet project and you have 100.000 users, it gets harder and harder to release a new version or deploy your app. The little monster on your shoulder will start to say "have I thought about everything?". You will get bug requests and think "shit, now 100.000 users have this problem". The automatic reaction is to jump to your computer and fix it. Because you feel that you have to. Your users depend on you. And that is the ticket to burn out. Like here.

Sadly there is no good solution for this. Some people develop a thick skin and ignore it. Schedule their open source time into the calender. Or formalize the development process with a team and roles. It all depends on the project and the people participating in it. And yes, stopping the project is a valid option, too. Your health and well being is way more important than helping 100.000 users to fix this minor bug in your open source project.

The last important issue I see is money. I don't think in the way Nadia is. When I say money is an issue, I don't think in forms of revenue or salary. Most open source stuff is done as hobby anyway. Sometimes a business comes out of it. But for most this is not what they aim for. As I said, sadly hard to understand for lots of people.

What I mean with money is costs. You build a library distribution system for this little toy language. A year later that toy language is the hot shit and people hammer your small private server. This is usually an interesting moment for the community of that language. Is there someone willing to step up and pay the servers that are needed? Who is responsible for this important infrastructure of that new language? It would be awesome if there was an public entity paying for those servers. Having that kind of service in the hand of a private run company can be problematic. In the ruby world we have RubyTogether for this. Which is awesome.

Sometimes I think that we should have something more global. A VC tax that goes directly into an entity that pays the bills for all open source projects. I know that this has issues, too...but one can still dream wink.

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