Some extra points about intrinsic motivation and F/OSS communities

March 30, 2010


Joe Brockmeier (aka Zonker) made some valid points about my last post on intrinsic motivation, F/OSS communities, volunteer vs paid developers, etc. I thought it would be nice to elaborate a bit more on some of the points Zonker brought.

I wrote in my last post that the healthiness and strength of F/OSS communities should mainly be measured by the number of volunteer contributors they have. Zonker thinks this is a bit simplistic. And I agree. That’s what happens when you quickly write a blog post at 2:00 AM while trying to put a baby to sleep :-P Let me widen the perspective and elaborate a bit more. In my opinion, the healthiness of a community has to do with two things: Diversity and Flow. Diversity is about having a community with a mixed set of motivations and backgrounds (volunteers, paid developers from several companies, sponsors, etc). Diversity, when dealt with in a positive way, creates an atmosphere of creativity, with complementary talents being put together towards common goals. Flow has to do with having a cohesive group of contributors with a steady flow of new participants jumping in. In other words: having a constant input of fresh blood and new ideas in the community. That said, it’s important to understand that the presence volunteers and paid developers say different things about a community. The way I see it, a large or small number of volunteers is related to how cohesive, welcoming, open, exciting the F/OSS community is. On the other hand, corporate support (i.e. presence of paid developers) has more to do with how mature, stable, relevant the F/OSS project is.

Still on the volunteers vs paid developers subject, it’s also important to make some remarks about the nature of their contributions. As we all know, even though different F/OSS communities have a lot in common in the way they generally behave (meritocracy, openness, distributed, etc) they can be quite different in terms of organization and demands. For instance, a project like GNOME involves the usual coding (done by volunteers and paid developers) but also a bunch of other things that are quite important for the community: administrating Google Summer of Code program, being part of the Membership Committee, maintaining GNOME’s infrastructure, being part of the Accounts team, translating GNOME to no-so-common language, etc. Those are all done by volunteers because this is the kind of community work that companies are rarely interested in allocating resources to. So, in the case of GNOME, the presence of volunteers is especially important to get the project moving smoothly. For other communities, the demand for volunteers might not be as strong.

About the impact in the motivation of a volunteer contributor who gets hired to contribute, I think some more specific comments would be useful here. I definitely agree with Zonker that people who get hired to work on F/OSS generally keep the same levels of motivation in a way. They keep involved and engaged in the community. But there’s often a subtle change there. From my personal experience and from what I heard from several fellow F/OSS developers, once you get hired you tend to not contribute after work anymore (there are exceptions, of course). Sounds natural as you just feel like you worked on it enough during the day anyway. This fact may sound irrelevant but it’s a fundamental shift on how you perceive your contributions (Note that I’m not saying it’s necessarily a negative shift) Once your contributions enter the “professional” realm, they will obviously follow your employer’s demands. For instance, your employer might reallocate you to something unrelated to what you used to do in the community, you may get a new job (which may be unrelated to your F/OSS contributions) and suddenly you don’t have the time or energy to spend your free time on the F/OSS project anymore. The bottom line is: the more related your job is to your F/OSS contributions, the more likely that you won’t feel like spending time on it after work. At least that’s my impression. So, there’s definitely a change in the motivation dynamics there.

Anyway, just to be clear: my intention is neither to be against the presence of paid developers in F/OSS communities (as that would be totally silly) nor being “romantic” about the volunteers. I’m just trying to clarify the different dynamics of each type of contributor and understand how the increased number of paid developers will affect the shape of F/OSS communities in the future. Just thinking out loud about all this.

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