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Why Don't You Contribute to Open Source?

  • Kiev, Ukraine
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programming

In my How Much Do You Cost? post last year, I said open-source contribution is a very important factor in defining who is good and who isn't, as far as programmers go. I was saying that if you're not contributing to open source, if your GitHub profile is not full of projects and commits, your "value" as a software developer is low, simply because this lack of open-source activity tells everybody that you're not passionate about software development and are simply working for money. I keep getting angry comments about that every week. Let me answer them all here.

Kung Fu Hustle (2004) by Stephen Chow
Kung Fu Hustle (2004) by Stephen Chow

The gist of all those comments is this: "I don't contribute to open source, but I'm still very passionate about software development". Then, there is a list of reasons why the author of the comment doesn't contribute:

  • I spend my free time with my family.
  • I'm already busy in the office; why should I do extra work?
  • I'm well-paid; why should I do anything for free?
  • My employer doesn't allow me to contribute to open source.
  • My company won't pay me for writing open-source code.

Good excuses, but let's try to look at it from a different perspective.

Today, it's not possible at all to create software without using open-source components. I'm sure nobody will argue with this. Only something very basic and simple can be created without code reuse. Nah, I'm wrong. Even super small pieces of software can't be created without open-source "neighbors". You need at the very least an operating system and a programming language. In most cases, they are open source (Microsoft is an exception, and it must die).

Thus, no matter what software you're creating, you're using modules created for you by others. Someone else spent his or her time to help you.

Now, you're not giving anything back. I'm curious, why is that?

There could be two reasons. The first one is that you just don't care. They give you something, and you're not giving anything back. You simply don't feel like being a player in this market. You take their libraries, reuse them in your product, collect a paycheck, and go home. You don't care what will happen with the industry, with those programmers, with the language you're writing in, with the platform, etc. You don't want to improve the libraries, you don't want to create and share new ones, you don't want to report bugs and feature requests, and you don't want to send patches and pull requests to them.

I do understand that. Millions of programmers are like that; you're not alone. But please, don't tell me that you're passionate about software development. Just admit that you don't care. It's not a crime, after all. You're not stealing anything (although I actually think you are, but that's a different story).

That was the first reason why you may not contribute. However, in most cases, my typical opponent tells me he or she does care, but just can't. There are obstacles, right? Your family is taking all your free time, and in the office, you simply are not allowed to work on something that is outside of your business scope. I can imagine that, but let's see what's happening behind the scenes.

You're telling me that your company doesn't care about the software industry, right? They don't allow you to give anything back to the open-source community. They want you to use those free libraries and give nothing back. And it is their corporate strategy. I doubt that's the case. Did you ask your CTO about it?

I strongly believe that in 95 percent of cases, when you explain that your software seriously depends on a few open-source libraries that may need some improvements, your boss will have nothing against you becoming a contributor. Try it.

Sometimes, the boss says he or she doesn't care about any open source and wants you to focus on your product. Maybe this happens rather often; I don't know.

In that case, my next question is philosophical. You're working for such a person and such a company. You're accepting their paychecks. Aren't you a part of this team and this mentality? If you don't walk away, you accept this attitude. You're part of it. It's you who doesn't care, not just them. Because of your existence, they have an ability to not care.

Tomorrow if they ask you to use stolen software, you may say you had no choice: "My boss asked me to do this. I did care about copyright and strongly believed that software authors must be paid, but I had to steal, because that's what my company asked me to do". Does it sound like a good excuse?

The same story goes for open source. If you do care and you're passionate about software development, you will either contribute actively or walk away from the company that doesn't share your passion. What, you can't walk away because of some reasons? Then don't tell me about your passion. Simply admit that you're too weak to follow your passion.

Again, it's not a crime. It's just who you are.