Say enough things in the press and odds are you’ll start a controversy, especially if you’re me.
This time, I knew I’d struck a nerve in a recent reference to “amateur open source” and a reference to the “Open Source Hare Krishnas” who occasionally heckle me in the audience because even Hare Krishna’s are writing me to say that I’ve misunderstood the true nature of Krishna (!). The context was a luncheon keynote (podcast) at the Massachusetts Software Council “Open Source Summit” on June 24th and Sarah Lacy’s July 8th Business Week article, The Myth of Open Source. And finally slashdot picked it up in what resulted in a 400 post thread that mostly gets it and is mostly positive.
The fact that my presentation’s title was the Business of Open Source, given in front of an audience largely consisting of business executives and that the second was a piece appeared in Business Week, should have offered some indication that the observations therein address one very particular segment of the FOSS community— FOSS developers and software publishers who aspire to earn a professional living by targeting the Enterprise IT market. I put a disclaimer (which you can hear in the podcast) that I was going to talk about how to make money at open source. There are other business models of FOSS (which I discuss in the podcast) but I was going to focus on POS as a viable subset of FOSS.
NetworkWorld’s Open letter to the open source community (what users want) does a good job of explaining that this is a market with specific expectations like professional-grade support, regular road maps whose schedules actually get followed, the knowledge that the software product is not going to stagnate or fall by the wayside because the key developers have scratched their itch and moved on or worse, have been hired by the proprietary competition. These users want to know the proverbial “one throat to choke” when it comes to support issues and they want the assurance that the FOSS software they are using is supported by an extensive SI and OEM/ISV partner network.
Even before the slashdot fiesta over the weekend I was discussing with Nathalie and Adrian Brock about answering the private emails and blog of Pamela Jones of Groklaw. When PJ blogged about the podcast and then privately with nath, it really touched me. Here is someone that is pure "volunteer", I paid attention to what she was saying. She simply points out that I could do a better job at communicating by using the word “Volunteer" Open Source as opposed to “Amateur” Open Source. I agree with her because I was talking about “amateur” to indicate work from which people do not intend to earn a living. She is right in pointing out that there is no need to disparage those who write open source software without compensation. A better word is volunteer, I agree, as amateur, at least in the US has a connotation of "low quality".
So here you go PJ, from now on I will be using the word "VOLUNTEER" open source. Peace.
Something that some people don't know about Jboss is that we ALL STARTED AS VOLUNTEERS. Some people wrongly assume we started as a company that embraced FOSS for marketing purposes. While the marketing is great make no mistakes. We DO NOT HIRE someone that has not started as a volunteer. I and ALL of the JBoss developers came out of the volunteer open source community. We strive to mix the altruistic ideal (you need that if you are going to work as a volunteer, like we all did) and the reality of feeding the kids. Except for those people who can afford to work full-time with no pay or who work on projects that don’t require full-time commitment, most of us need to deal with rent. Making money at open source is still a taboo myth, WHY? What is so wrong with wanting to earn a living at what you do? Why do people equate OSS with non-profit? why?
Now, as somebody who came out of the volunteer FOSS world, this is my experience. There are two dynamics that come into play in Professional Open Source: 1) You are writing mission-critical software for Enterprise IT, which means the only way your software is going to transition from being a developers’ toy to gaining market traction in Fortune 1000 run-time deployments is to stand behind this software with a full-time Professional commitment 2) After 18 months of open source development, your enthusiasm starts to SERIOUSLY cool (for insiders we call this the SMD moment) —yes, your project or contribution has been well-received, but working a full-time job and writing FOSS on nights and weekends is beginning to take its toll; odds are you are tired, spending no time with your spouse/partner/family/friends, to put it simply you have no outside life; and if you happen to have quit your day job, guess what? The bills start to pile up and the rent/mortgage needs to be paid. In fact the more succesful you are the worse this is, but that is also your silver lining...
When people (mostly those in the business community who have never worked as a developer, let alone a FOSS developer) talk about free FOSS development, they all get excited since what they hear is "free developers". You can see the dollar signs in their eyes as they think "ONE THOUSAND DEVELOPERS WILL WORK FOR US ***FOR FREEEEEEEEE***". Most people equate FREE SOFTWARE == FREE DEVELOPERS. We don't! we pay our top contributors, we hire them. Without financial compensation comparable, if not superior to, what they could earn in the proprietary software world, most of the top FOSS developers move on or simply cannot sustain the time commitment to FOSS projects demanded by the Enterprise IT consumer.
For the 124509th time: FREE SOFTWARE != FREE DEVELOPERS
Who likes free? The people receiving free? Or the people giving free? THINK for a second, with your business brain... If you are on the receiving end of free, you never get enough, you want more, you love it!; but if you are on the giving end, odds are you love it too (we wouldn't do it otherwise) but you get tired of giving at some point specifically when you reach critical mass and you get 100 mails a day asking for free help NOW! "because it will be good for your visibility" (how many times have I recieved that email, I still do today!).
Also the reality of Enterprise IT FOSS software is that most of the core development is done by a handful of people, the top 5% of the development ranks. I ***LOVE*** THESE PEOPLE, I WANT THESE PEOPLE TO GET FULL TIME COMPENSATION AND A NICE UPSIDE AS WELL. They need to be full-time paid professionals, these are the guys we hire at JBoss. They may work for a Professional Open Source company like JBoss or MySQL, first-generation OS packager like Red Hat, or their work may be subsidized by academia, governments or corporations in the loss-leader open source model practiced by companies like IBM, but the point is that somebody is paying the bills; there is no free lunch. Romantic myth perpetrating the contrary (FREE DEVELOPERS!) are disgusting to me, which is why I come across as strongly as I do. OUR MODEL AT JBOSS IS THAT THE BEST VOLUNTEERS BECOME FULL TIME EMPLOYEES HERE, which is why Jboss looks like it is developed by Jboss employees, a great contributor will become a Jboss employee with stock options and the whole nine yards.
Development in FOSS is not free, not even significantly cheaper than proprietary it is just more efficient because we fund those "mythical man month" developers and leverage our large community to do QA, distribution and further development. The free and “massive community” element comes into play when you are talking about those Enterprise IT projects and products with significant market share where the tremendous QA from the community in the form of patches and bug fixes leads to highly stabile projects. A lot of people on the slashdot thread picked up on that fact
What does a Professional Open Source Community look like? At JBoss, We started with volunteer OS developers, myself included and today, depending on the maturity of the project, our outside contribution (by non-JBoss employees) is around 15%, with mature project like App Server having less outside contribution and newer projects like Portal having a much higher rate of outside contribution. As the project matures, we tend to hire on the top volunteer contributors. That is the point, you go from volunteer to getting a reward. But some people think that is dirty? THAT is the communistic taboo I will fight, there is nothing wrong in making a great living at software. There is a low barrier to entry to start contributing, and we benefit from George Bernard Shaw’s observation (as shared by Pamela from Groklaw) that “talent shows up where you least expect it.” However, to keep our talent on a full-time basis, we pay them. Over time, we have had 500+ contributors to our software projects, 100+ RW (read-write) Committers, 30+ core (full-time, JBoss Inc.) contributors on App Server, which is our most mature project.
Our communities are structured, energized and viable. We sustain ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE more activity and innovation than our FOSS peers in EE development. We measure CVS, mailing list activity, number of downloads, number of bugs etc. Because the CORE IS PROFESSIONAL you are looking at active communities that benefit from that funded engine. Many of our projects, we have 25 under POS management at Jboss, were brought on board because our customers asked for the project to be animated by us, that was a sign of stability and longevity. If a volunteer project needs POS we will usually move and structure it. Tomcat is a good example, started as POS at SUN, languished as pure volunteer (Remy didn't have the time) and is AGAIN a great POS success since Remy and his crew have joined Jboss. Same with Hibernate, Jgroups, JBpm, Portal etc etc
One parting word of advice to developers who do aspire to earn a living from their FOSS contributions, along the Professional Open Source model. Devote serious thought to your license because it can seriously impact whether you will be able to earn a living writing and supporting your software. If this is your ambition, I seriously recommend GPL-style licensing (JBoss projects are LGPL) because this licensing family encourages a positive feedback loop and discourages forking. While competing software vendors, for obvious reasons, love BSD-style licensing and will encourage you to adopt these more liberal licenses, the impact for the FOSS developer is that IF you are writing BSD-licensed software AND YOU ARE SUCCESSFUL, your only option may be to go to work for your proprietary competitor who is only to happy to incorporate your work in their proprietary product. Beware of the man offering you candy.
So to the volunteer out there that is working on FOSS projects and wants to make a living at it, take POS as example. It is one career path for you to think about. We have proved you can make money and earn a living in that model. Do not despair. Do not pay attention to the criticism and the noise that is trying to tell you that money is dirty. Go and do what you have to do. We all wish you good luck, you are already one of us.
REMEMBER WE LOVE YOUmarcf