Show Me The Money: The New Open Source Motivation

  April 16, 2014

If you think open source programming is still about developers working on projects for love or to scratch an itch, think again. A recent Linux Foundation survey found that today's free software developers are in it for the money.

One stereotype of an open source programmer is the guy in his parent's basement using EMACS to write obscure code for a GitHub game project. Another common image is that of a passionate hacker pounding away on a Linux kernel coding program, motivated by nothing but her sheer love of programming. People like that do exist, but they're not representative of 2014's open-source developers.

No one was more surprised by this discovery than was The Linux Foundation, which conducted a survey of 686 software developers and business managers at some of the world’s largest businesses. These included such companies as Cisco, Fujitsu, HP, IBM, Intel, Google, NEC, Oracle, Qualcomm, and Samsung. Most of the respondents work at organizations with $500 million or more in annual revenue (69%) and more than 500 employees (76%). In short, the people who responded to the market research survey were programmers and team leads from enterprise companies.

The report, Collaborative Development Trends Report 2014, looked at open source based collaborative development projects such as the software-defined networking (SDN) OpenDaylight, virtualization's Xen Project, and the OpenStack cloud project.

Given that these collaborative projects sprang from corporations’ needs instead of individuals’, some of the survey's findings weren't surprising. Today, enterprise business managers recognize open source software as a business imperative and are taking the lead in initiating open source participation, says the report.

For example, it’s no shock that 91% of business managers and executives surveyed reported that open source, collaborative software development was somewhat important or very important to their business. As Linux Foundation director Jim Zemlin said at the Linux Collaboration Summit in March 2014, "A new business model has emerged in which companies are joining together across industries to share development resources and build common open source code bases on which they can differentiate their own products and services. … In the past, collaboration was done by standards committees; now it's being done by open source foundations."

Ten years ago, as the Linux Foundation reported, open source software was largely a grassroots movement. “Developers undertook and contributed to open source projects and brought them into the workplace. Business managers oftentimes weren’t even aware that their products were being built with open source tools and components.”

That isn't the way it is now. Sure, developers do still get started by contributing to an open source project on their own time; almost 35% said they started contributing in their free time. But even more developers are introduced to open source projects on their jobs, with 44% of the respondents reporting job requirements were the primary reason they started contributing.

The situation definitely changed a decade back. Enterprise software developers with 10 or more years of experience were more likely to have started in their free time. Developers with fewer than 10 years of experience largely started due to job requirements.

That's right. Today, people get into open source because the job requires it. You can't get much more mainstream than that.

This has happened, the survey reveals, because of the rise of Linux and open source software within the enterprise. Sixty-one percent of the software developers agreed that open source software and/or collaborative development are “on the incline” to become the de-facto way to build software; almost 33% said Linux and open source “dominate” software practices today.

First people use open source. Then, some are motivated to contribute or even to create their own projects. As the report found, “For companies that have embraced Linux and open source software, collaborative development is the natural next step along the spectrum of open source participation that begins with consumption – using open source tools and components – and progresses to contributions with increasing levels of commitment through fixing bugs, writing code and finally starting and leading new projects."

It's not just open source projects in and of themselves that's driving this trend. The survey also showed that the use of open source software development tools is pervasive. Almost 96% use common open source software, such as Git and Subversion for things like version control. And both developers (93%) and managers (91%) use open source development tools to participate in the open source community.

No wonder open source jobs are hotter than hot. Nowadays, if you want to work in enterprise computing, it’s a necessary skill.

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