Fund Elbow Grease, not Birthday Cake

My first rule of community-driven software development: volunteers will work on what volunteers want to work on.

My second rule of community-driven software development: volunteers are not fungible (see rule #1).

My third rule of community-driven software development: things that aren't fun tend not to get done.

My first rule of birthdays: cake is fun.

I've been reading an ongoing thread on a mailing list about funding the development and infrastructure of free and open source software projects. If you've read more than one thread like this, you know the discussion already. While it's possible to get a job doing what you love, most of us don't get paid to write software. We get paid to solve problems. Many of us are fortunate enough to be able to use and contribute back to free software, but few of us solely write free software.

That's probably okay. Most of the software I write for my businesses isn't that interesting to any one else anyhow.

Then you get to the idea that some pieces of software that serve as community underpinnings—the infrastructure plumbing that keeps the world humming—are so important that they deserve funded developers to ensure that things just work. From there you set up foundations and boards and run pledge drives and give out grants and, if you're lucky, sponsor a couple of developers to work on the software all the time.

The Apache Software Foundation has done this. So has the Linux Foundation.

(Even though many of the rest of us work on projects no less essential to the global software ecosystem, we're not that fortunate.)

I've been retraining myself to think like a businessman at least half of the time. Business, done well, addresses the problems of managing limited resources for the purpose of producing revenue. In programmer speak, I try to solve the most pressing problem in the most effective way to deliver working software as soon as feasible.

One of the hardest parts of running a small business is knowing when to pay someone else to do something you could do yourself. On the publishing side, I'm glad we did; we've paid people to do editing and design covers and validate electronic format conversions. I could do all of that, but that's a terrible waste of my time.

It's also not fun, and I'd keep putting it off—and that there is the hook.

Consider TPF's grants. The successful grants, the ones with real deliverables and real benefit, are those which wouldn't get done without the lubrication of money. While people like Nick Clark and Dave Mitchell (to name two names but not to diminish the hard work of many other people) have the expertise and desire to fix hard bugs in Perl 5, only the generous grants of tens of thousands of dollars free them to spend the time they need to look into these bugs and fix them.

After all, if it takes 40 hours to fix a bug in the regular expression engine or the interaction between string eval and closures, how much time can you realistically expect Dave or Nick to spend between working a day job and having some semblance of a social life apart from a computer?

If this were sufficiently fun (for whatever definition matters most) or easy (even if only in the sense that "I can debug this in five minutes and spend the next 55 polishing the solution for immediate integration!" is easier than "After 20 hours of diagnosis, I'm starting to get a handle on how things work. Now comes the hard part!"), it would have already happened.

Volunteers tend to do the fun things. That's adding features. That's reindenting code. Sometimes that's fixing easy bugs. That's rarely updating a web page or writing copious documentation or performing system administration or bisecting errors or setting up a huge test cluster. (All of those unfun things happen, occasionally. That "occasionally" proves that they're not fun. If they were fun, they'd happen more often.)

Volunteers tend to do the fun things. That's rarely maintaining code over a long period of time. (If you've solved your problem and moved on, what's your impetus to solve the problems of other people? Noble obligation? A sense of pride? Shame? Boredom?)

(This suggests that the way the Perl community manages Google Summer of Code projects is risky, at least if the goal is shipping working software that will survive even only until next summer.)

This all suggests to me that the best way to think of limited funding for community-driven software is leverage. It's elbow grease. It's hiring mechanics in dirty overalls to work hard and take things apart and put them back together and to get a thousand little details right. It has to be a little unglamorous and it has to be very, very focused on shipping real software and keeping it working in the hands of real users.

Sometimes, yes, funding is the best way to get something done sooner than it would be without funding. Money buys attention and time, of course. Yet if we apply money to get the fun things done—to buy birthday cake instead of elbow grease—we're only hurting ourselves.

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This page contains a single entry by chromatic published on April 23, 2012 6:00 AM.

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