Open source maintainers feel stressed out and underpaid — and companies should 'do their homework' to support them

  • Open source startup Tidelift surveyed 400 open source maintainers for a new report.
  • The number one complaint among maintainers was not getting financially compensated for their work.
  • Experts say companies need to “do their homework” when it comes to supporting projects.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Open source maintainers —  the individuals who write the code, build the community, and troubleshoot the issues around open source projects that even massive companies like Intel, Facebook, and Nintendo rely on — are feeling stressed out and underpaid, according to a new survey.

Open source startup Tidelift surveyed 400 open source maintainers and found that more than half had either quit or considered quitting a project that they maintained. While 71% of the surveyed devs said they enjoyed making a positive impact on the world with their project, the report also found that 45% feel like managing a project adds to their personal stress and 40% feel like it’s “thankless work.”

The number one complaint? 49% of maintainers agreed that “not getting financially compensated enough or at all for my work” was what they disliked the most about maintaining a project. 

The disconnect between the importance of the work — open source software underpins huge swathes of modern technology — and the way the system rewards maintainers is something that experts say companies should “do their homework” to solve.

The world relies on open source maintainers, and they’re feeling unappreciated

There are thousands of open source applications that power the technology the world relies on, from browsing feeds on Facebook, accessing the web on Apple devices, or finding something to watch on Netflix. WordPress, an open source content management system, is responsible for more than 41% of all websites.

“Open source is the backbone of digital innovation,” Gartner analyst Arun Chandrasekaran told Insider. “Open source software (OSS) is used in mission-critical IT workloads by more than 95% of the end-user and vendor-side IT organizations worldwide, whether they are aware of it or not.”

Despite the value of open source technology, Tidelift’s survey found that almost half of open source maintainers aren’t paid at all, while only about a quarter of them earn more than $1,000 a year for their work.

“I have the privilege of being paid for my work, but others don’t, and it breaks my heart to see them struggle with the burden of unpaid labor,” one respondent to Tidelift’s survey said.

“Being an open source maintainer is like living Good Will Hunting in reverse,” another survey respondent said. “You start out as a respected genius and end up as a janitor who gets into fights.”

What’s the solution? Experts say that companies need to “do their homework”

Right now, there are a handful of ways that open source maintainers tend to make money. Some create “freemium” projects that give the basic version of their software for free and add a price tag for “premium” features. Developers can also donate their projects to non-profit entities to ensure their survival, like the Linux and Apache foundations, which will help manage the laundry list of tasks involved with running a project.

Donations are also a typical way that some maintainers generate revenue, through platforms like GitHub Sponsors, Open Collective, or Buy Me A Coffee. For example, the creator of the open source ecommerce project Use-Shopping-Cart, Nick DeJesus, makes money through through community donations and his corporate sponsor Stripe with GitHub Sponsors. It’s not all fun and coding, according to DeJesus: Maintainers are responsible for responding to issues, answering questions from their community, researching, planning and more.

It’s an imperfect system though: Chris Aniszczyk, CTO of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), has publicly written about how he thinks simply “tipping” maintainers isn’t sustainable and that companies should take more responsibility for supporting projects they use.

Forrester analyst Chris Condo agreed: His advice to companies is to “do their homework” in understanding how they could best support the project, whether through fixing bugs in the open source code themselves or making financial donations.

“Having an open source lead that understands the dynamics of open source projects and their communities is critical to creating an enterprise open source strategy,” Condo said. “They should ask questions to the maintainer regarding their plans for the project, who supports it, etc. Go in with your eyes open.”

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