On open source

05 Sep

Last week I read a great article on contributing to open source by Alvaro Videla. He makes many great points and I am in agreement with most of it. This made me want to properly explain my point of view with regard to open source and contributions. Unlike most open source evangelism articles I will not talk about ideals or any of that crap, but rather my personal feelings and experience.

I have been doing open source work for quite some time. My very first open source project was a graphics driver for (the very early version of) the PCSX2 emulator. That was more than ten years ago, and there isn’t much left to look at today. This was followed by a PHP framework (started long before Zend Framework was even a thing) and a few other small projects. None of them really took off. It’s alright, that’s pretty much the fate of most open source projects. You spend a lot of work and sweat and get very little in return from others.

This sounds harsh but this is the reality of all open source projects. If you are thinking of building a project and releasing it as open source, you should be prepared for that. This is how most of your projects will feel like. Don’t release a project as open source thinking everyone will pat you on the back and cheer, this won’t happen. In fact if your project is a too small improvement over existing software, what many people will do is say you have NIH syndrome, regardless of the improvement you bring. So you need not to rely on other people in order to get your enjoyment out of building open source software.

In my case I get enjoyment from thinking about problems that need solving. Often times the problems are already solved, but nevermind that, I still think about them and sometimes come up with something I feel is better and then write code for it. Writing code is also fun, but not as fun as using my brain to imagine solutions.

You don’t need thousands of users to do that. So are users worthless to me then? No, of course not. In fact they are an important component: they bring me problems that need solving. So users are very important to me. But that’s not the only reason.

I got lucky that the Cowboy project became popular. And seeing it be this popular, and some of my other projects also do quite well, made me believe I could perhaps work full time on open source. If I can work full time then I can produce better software. What I had one hour to work on before I can now spend a day on, and experiment until I am satisfied. This is very useful because that means I can get it almost right from the beginning, and avoid the million API breaking changes that occured before Cowboy 1.0 was released.

To be able to work full time on open source however, I need money. This is a largely unspoken topic of open source work. The work is never free. You can download the product for free, but someone has to pay for the work itself. Life is unfortunately not free.

Large projects and some lucky people have their work sponsored by their employers. Everyone else has to deal with it differently. In my case I was sponsored for a while by the LeoFS project, but that ended. I also had the Farwest fundraiser, which was a success, although the project stalled after that. (Fear not, as Farwest will make a comeback as a conglomerate of Web development projects in the future.) After that I set up the sponsoring scheme, which I can proudly say today brings in enough money to cover my food and shelter. Great!

This is a start, but it’s of course not enough. Life is a little more than food and shelter, and so I am still looking for sponsors. This is not a very glorious experience, as I am essentially looking for scraps that companies can throw away. Still, if a handful more companies were doing that, not only would I be able to live comfortably, but I would also be able to stop worrying about the future as I could put money on the side for when it gets rough.

A few companies giving me some scrap money so I could live and work independently is by far the most important thing anyone can do to help my projects, including Cowboy. Yes, they’re even more important than code contributions, bug reports and feedback. Because this money gives me the time I need to handle the code contributions, bug reports and feedback.

If Cowboy or another project is a large part of your product or infrastructure, then the best thing you can do is become a sponsor. The second best is opening tickets and/or providing feedback. The third best is providing good code contributions.

I will not expand on the feedback part. Feedback is very important, and even just a high five or a retweet is already good feedback. It’s not very complicated.

I want to expand a little on code contributions however. Not long ago I ran across the term "patch bomb" which means dropping patches and expecting the project maintainers to merge them and maintain them. I receive a lot of patches, and often have to refuse them. Causes for refusal vary. Some patches only benefit the people who submitted them (or a very small number of people). Some patches are not refined enough to be included. Others are out of scope of the project. These are some of the reasons why I refuse patches. Having limited time and resources, I have to focus my efforts on the code used by the larger number of users. I have to prioritize patches from submitters who are reactive and address the issues pointed out. And I have to plainly refuse other patches.

I believe this wraps up my thoughts on open source. Overall I had a great experience, the Erlang community being nice and understanding of the issues at hand in general. And if the money problem could be solved soon, then I would be one of the luckiest and happiest open source developer on Earth.

Think about it the next time you see a donation button or a request for funds or sponsoring. You can considerably improve an open source developer’s life with very little of your company’s money.