The "Third Drive" and Free Software Communities

March 27, 2010

Bearded guys having a cup of coffee

I ended up buying this book called Drive by Daniel Pink while waiting for my Dad to arrive in London at the Gatwick airport. It was the first time in a long time that I bought a book almost randomly, without any wider background info, reviews from other readers, etc. At first sight, it looked like one of those lame books about motivation but that was not the case. Even though the content of the book is not really new (to me, at least) the author has the merit of a bringing a well-structured and organized discussion about motivation in a way that it’s easier for people with the “carrots-and-sticks mindset” to understand the point of what really makes people tick in modern world.

The book is about the new motivation framework (or “operating system” as the author calls) that is getting increasingly stronger in today’s society. Instead of the usual rewards and punishments to keep people productive at work (what the author calls Motivation 2.0), modern organizations are starting to realize that what they actually need is to create an environment where people can fulfill their intrinsic motivations (the “third drive”) through three fundamental elements: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. The author calls that Motivation 3.0.

As a person who’s been involved in Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) for a long time, it was interesting to notice how those elements perfectly fit our communities and why we’ve been so successful in many ways. F/OSS owes much of its success to the dedication of autonomous contributors aiming to learn and improve their skills inside a community that have a purposeful set of goals. The fact that most people involved in our communities start as volunteers helps a lot in this regard as the volunteer work gives maximum freedom on how, where, and when to dedicate efforts, something that paid work usually lacks in a way or another (with a few exceptions of course). Considering that F/OSS communities seem to be getting increasingly more “professional” in the last few years, with companies hiring a lot of the most relevant (previously volunteer) contributors (see the case of Linux for example), I keep wondering what will be the impact of this in the shape of our communities in the long term. Nowadays, at least in the case of GNOME, it’s becoming more and more frequent to see new relevant contributors being hired just after some time giving good contributions. From my own experience, being paid to work on what you used to do as a volunteer (or even being paid to do something directly related to your contributions as a volunteer) definitely has an impact on your motivation and how you and others perceive your work inside the community. It’s not necessarily a bad impact but “something” surely changes. Luis has written some interesting notes about this topic back in 2006 when the number of paid F/OSS developers was probably smaller than today. I haven’t formed a clear opinion about this topic yet so I thought it would be useful to share some of the questions I’ve been meditating about:

  • Are F/OSS communities slowly becoming just a way to showcase one’s skills to be eventually hired by some nice F/OSS-friendly company? I’ve been contacted a few times by some guys asking how they could work inside a community to be eventually hired by a big company. This may sound silly but the fact that some people are seeing the F/OSS work this way is a sign of something I guess…
  • Does being hired to do F/OSS work actually destroy the intrinsic motivations of a previously volunteer contributor? How was your experience?
  • What are the main changes in a community composed mostly by paid developers? Dave has just conducted a GNOME census recently. I wonder what’s the ratio between volunteer and paid developers in GNOME nowadays. My impression is that we still have a lot of volunteers but the people doing most of the heavy development are paid directly or indirectly to do the work.
  • What’s the impact of having people doing volunteer work inside a community full of people being paid to do similar things. Is it bad for the motivation of our volunteers? I remember when I started contributing to GNOME 5 or 6 years ago I got the impression that the paid developers were some sort of elite, the “chosen “, or something like this. That impression vanished at some point and didn’t affect my motivation but I wonder how it affects others.

All in all, I’m personally a strong advocate of volunteer work inside F/OSS communities. In my opinion, the healthiness and strength of a community should be mainly measured by the number of volunteer contributors it has because those are the people who are surely giving their contributions based on intrinsic motivations. Passion, in other words.

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