A recent study has put a spotlight on a worrying trend in software development. Open source project maintainers are not being paid for their work.
Or, if they do get paid, on average, they can expect to earn $1000 to $10,000 a year. At the upper end of the scale, for some, this is a welcome bonus. But the fact is, these people are not being paid by their employer. They maintain open source code in their own time, and receive very little reward for doing so.
Why does this matter? Open source is not like Instagram, YouTube or other platforms for posting user generated content. Code released as open source finds its way into larger and larger projects. Enterprise IT is built on a foundation of open source and a lot of the most innovative work is being done at the grassroots level.
A new study from Tidelift should be of concern to anyone in a position of authority, who wants to use open source to help their organisation be more innovative. The Tidelift study found that more than half (59%) of maintainers surveyed have quit or considered quitting maintaining a project. The more projects a maintainer is responsible for, the more likely it is that they have considered quitting. Over two thirds (68%) of those who managed 10 projects or more have quit or considered quitting.
Open source project work is stressful. Those who maintain the codebase, have to maintain code. This means dealing with irate users who contact them when something breaks. Less than a quarter of their time is spent actually writing new code. A maintainer has to maintain the project, which means they spend around a fifth of their time reviewing contributions, issues, and generally responding to users. Around 14% of their time is spent resolving conflicts and handling bugs. With projects that have run for a while, the maintainer also ends up dealing with managing technical debt and improving existing code. For many, all of this is done for free.
Clearly, there is a very slim chance to become exceedingly rich, as was the case with the founders of Instagram and YouTube, but somehow, enterprise open source doesn’t seem to attract the same kind of kudos.
One could argue the case that open source has become as significant as the written word. Those who maintain open source projects are the poets and philosophers of the digital age. Should we not reward these individuals?