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Finding #4: Open source maintenance work is often stressful, thankless, and financially unrewarding

Chris Grams
by Chris Grams
on July 1, 2021

Updated on July 13, 2021

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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 fourth 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 at the link below.

In our previous post, we explored what maintainers like about their work and found out that maintainers like making a positive impact, and that those who make decent money from their work—shocker—like that too. 

Next, we wanted to explore what they don’t enjoy about being a maintainer. Not surprisingly, when asked about what they dislike, respondents' quantitative and qualitative responses overwhelmingly said, “Stop taking advantage of me!”

“Not getting financially compensated enough or at all for my work,” with almost half of respondents citing it, is the top reason to dislike being a maintainer. This tracks with the fact that getting paid for their work ranks at the bottom of the list of things maintainers love. 

Tidelift_051321_SurveyMaintainerReport_09_Figure 4.1

Also not surprisingly, while 49% of respondents say not getting paid (enough) is a reason they dislike being a maintainer, only 34% say this if maintenance is an explicit responsibility of their full-time job. Furthermore, 36% of these full-time employed maintainers cite getting paid as a reason they enjoy being a maintainer if it is a core job responsibility, which is more than double the 15% that say this if it is not their core job responsibility.

Beyond financial compensation, the next set of things maintainers dislike about the work are that it “adds to my personal stress” (45%), “feel underappreciated or like the work is thankless” (40%), “users are too demanding and expect too much of me” (37%), “can be lonely” (36%), and “what used to be fun now feels like work” (36%).

Here’s more color, in the maintainers’ own words:

  • “I have the privilege of being paid for my work, but others don't, and it breaks my heart to see them struggle with the burden of unpaid labor.”
  • “While some people appreciate the work I do, some other people just are too demanding and entitled. That's not only harsh to deal with, but also sad.”
  • Being an open source maintainer is like living Good Will Hunting in reverse. You start out as a respected genius and end up as a janitor who gets into fights.” 


Dislikes differ based on where maintainers live 

While almost everyone, everywhere dislikes not being compensated enough for their maintenance work, there were some noticeable differences in other areas depending on where you live.

North Americans rank “adds to my personal stress” as the top reason they dislike being a maintainer. Europeans, on the other hand, dislike maintenance because it “can be lonely,” which was the third most-cited response versus the eighth most-cited response for North Americans. 

Tidelift_051321_SurveyMaintainerReport_09_Figure 4.2

Maintainers like more things than they dislike about their work

One silver lining in our findings? If you compare the things maintainers said they enjoy about their work versus the things they said they dislike, of the eleven possible choices we gave maintainers for things they like about their work, all but three resonated for more than half of maintainers, and the most commonly selected answer (making a positive impact on the world) was selected by 71% of respondents. 

Comparatively, on the list of dislikes, none of the ten choices we gave were selected by more than half of maintainers, with the most common response (not financially compensated enough / at all for my work) only selected by 49% of respondents.

So the optimistic finding behind our look into maintainer likes and dislikes is that, even given some of the challenges maintainers face, maybe there is more to like about being a maintainer than there is to dislike—that’s good news!

Still, if so many maintainers find the work stressful, thankless, and financially unrewarding, what percentage of them have quit or considered quitting? Spoiler alert: it’s a pretty high number. We’ll share more in the next post.

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