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Finding #3: Maintainers enjoy making a positive impact and those who make money enjoy it

Chris Grams
by Chris Grams
on June 24, 2021

In early 2021, Tidelift fielded its first-ever comprehensive survey of open source maintainers. Nearly 400 maintainers responded with thoughts about how they fund their work, what they enjoy about being a maintainer, what they don’t like so much, along with a host of other interesting insights. In this post, we share the third of nine key findings. If you don’t want to wait for the rest of the results, you can download the full survey report right now.

In finding #1, we learned that almost half of open source maintainers get paid nothing for their work and in finding #2 we learned that more than half of maintainers are earning less than $1K per year. So if they are not working for money, what motivates maintainers today? That’s where our survey went next: we wanted to know what maintainers enjoy about their work and why they keep doing it.

Tidelift_051321_SurveyMaintainerReport_09_Figure 3.1The vast majority of maintainers reported that “making a positive impact on the world” is one of the things they enjoy about being a maintainer. Seventy-one percent of maintainers chose this option, and it was far and away the most commonly cited thing respondents like about their work.

The second most popular choice, chosen by 63% of maintainers, was “allowing me to fulfill a need for creative, challenging, and/or enjoyable work.” 

Ranking third on the list of what maintainers enjoy about their work, 59% chose the option “getting to work on projects that matter to me.” 

One maintainer said: “Being an open source maintainer, is indeed something I feel proud of… It matters as I know I have made a change and helped those who are starting out in the same field.”

Another said, “Maintaining open-source software gives me a sense of purpose, and lets me devote time that would've otherwise been spent doing nothing into giving something back to the greater community, all the while giving me a chance to learn new best practices, programming languages and software libraries, making me a better developer.”

Perhaps if education were its own answer choice, it may have been the top vote getter, because 74% of respondents cited either “I enjoy learning” or “improving my coding skills and knowledge of software” as what they like about being a maintainer. 

One maintainer explained: “I learn not just about software, but also intercultural communication, people, and how technology impacts people in different ways across the world. It makes me a more globally-aware person.”

Interesting note: some people shared that they actually aren’t sure they enjoy being a maintainer. Rather, they feel like they are doing their civic duty. Here are two quotes:

  • “I think ‘enjoy’ is a stretch. I do it because it needs to be done, and I'm glad it's having a positive impact, but I'd rather not have to do it.”
  • “Not sure if it's ‘enjoy’, specifically, but I feel a great sense of obligation and responsibility to the [community name withheld privacy purposes] user community....Someone's gotta deal with that, and no one else is, soooo... :)”

Enjoyment differs based on where maintainers live 

In an interesting development, where a maintainer lives impacts how they feel about some aspects of being a maintainer. North Americans are more likely to care whether or not their work is being used in an important organization or project—that ranks #4 for versus #8 for the study as a whole. North Americans are less likely to see maintaining as a positive way to improve coding skills and knowledge, ranking that seventh. Tidelift_051321_SurveyMaintainerReport_09_Figure 3.2

Respondents from Asia enjoy improving their skills but the general love of learning is the second most positive idea they associate with being a maintainer. 

More money = more enjoyment

We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out the enjoyment option that ranked dead last: getting paid for maintenance work. Some might look at this and assume it means that money is not a motivator for maintainers, that they are doing the work only because they want to make a positive impact and challenge themselves. 

This assumption is dead wrong. 

Instead, money is not something maintainers enjoy about their work today because not enough of them are earning enough for it to be a motivator.

When you dive into the details, it turns out that money is a very important motivator. 

  • Only 18% of those getting paid less than $1,000 say getting paid is a reason they enjoy being a maintainer. 
  • That rises to 30% for those making $1,001 - $10,000. 
  • And explodes to 61% for those earning more than $10,000. 

Tidelift_051321_SurveyMaintainerReport_09_Figure 3.3

What a shocker! Those who get paid more enjoy getting paid. Those who get paid less don’t. Whouda thunk?

Here is our proof that money is a reason to enjoy being a maintainer—for the lucky minority getting paid a lot. Over the coming years, we certainly hope more maintainers get paid more for their work, so this continues to rise up the list of things all maintainers can enjoy. 

All the more reason to support efforts to pay the maintainers. Let’s give more maintainers another reason to enjoy their work by ensuring they are fairly compensated for the value they create.

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