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Finding #9: Maintainers feelings in their own words

Chris Grams
by Chris Grams
on August 12, 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 last of nine key findings. If you missed some of the earlier results, you can download the full survey report right now.

In our first-ever Tidelift maintainer survey, we thought it would be nice to get some color between the data points. So we included several questions where maintainers could share their thoughts directly, in their own words.

And, as you might expect, maintainers didn’t hold back. Instead they gave us direct feedback on a number of areas that impact their work every day. For this final finding, we wanted to share their words with no filter, so you could hear directly from the maintainers who are responsible for the projects you use every day.

In their words, being a maintainer is:

A calling and a duty

  • “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.”
  • “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.”
  • “I consider it ‘charity work’ to help the world. Instead of volunteering at a soup kitchen or advocacy organization, I volunteer to help a bunch of software projects get a tiny bit better…”

A thankless pain in the !@#$%

  • “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.” 
  • “The meanness of some users is rather depressing…”
  • “Many open source users are self-centered assholes.” 
  • “I handle the majority of issue triage and it's rather negative by nature. Every bug report, feature request, whatever has that undertone of ‘the thing you've built *isn't enough* for me’. Even if I know that the authors are well-meaning and just want to see the project improve, it's hard getting away from the fact it was opened because something wasn't good enough.”
  • “I dislike how undervalued open source software is in the area of computational science. Apparently, people can make money doing all sorts of useless things on the internet and YouTube and so on, but not many people support scientific open source software.”
  • “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... :)”
  • “Some communities happen to be particularly annoying to interact with—I'm thinking of the cryptocurrency community, which seems to find my Tidelift-backed project useful.”
  • “I don't like how companies take open source for granted and while they're happy to take, never contribute back to help maintain the project. And no, I don't call giving a project a star or raising a ticket saying "I can't get it to work, fix ASAP" a contribution ;-).”
  • “My software is used by a number of companies who profit from it directly, and many of those companies contribute nothing back to me, while still pointing their users to my support channels when things go wrong. This blend of exploitation and draining of my already limited resources has proven to be so stressful that I'm not likely to ever make any later projects I work on that are user-facing (not developer-facing, i.e. libraries or tools) free and open-source.”

A source of guilt, despair, and loneliness

  • “[I feel] guilt when others have problems that I do not have time to fix or respond to properly.” 
  • “I dropped a bunch of projects over the years because it was thankless and frustrating. I still feel guilty about dropping them, like I broke a promise and am not reliable.” 
  • “It's hard to collaborate on some projects and I'm a lone wolf. I dislike this kind of work, because there's little human interaction.”
  • “I have a real sense of despair about ever properly transitioning my projects to new maintainers; I assume that one day I'll stop maintaining them and my reputation will take a nosedive as they all slowly break.”  
  • “I'm doing the lowest level maintenance until I either give up completely or find my mojo again.” 

A job (or volunteer labor)

  • “In the past, I did paid consulting on open-source work, but that started feeling like a second job.” 
  • “It's really hard to run an open source business, and taking on client work reduces the amount of time I can spend improving the project.”
  • “I feel lucky that my current open source project is the least stressful of all the ones I've worked on in the past, due in part at least to Tidelift’s funding.”
  • “I tend to reduce effort level / time I check in on projects, but continue maintenance at a slow pace. I tend to get invested in the social and community aspect, and the other long-term maintainers, so won't entirely quit, just take vacation for a while and come back... later.”
  • “You just have to be careful with your work-life balance: as long as it's not financially rewarded, you've got to be careful that your passion for the project doesn't make it into a second, unpaid job.”
  • “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.”

A learning and growth opportunity

  • “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.”
  • “Being part of a decades-long transition to see open source software become mainstream, including ensuring those who work so hard to provide value get paid for the value they provide.”
  • “I’m fairly introverted, and working on open source has given me a means to have meaningful social interaction that is comfortable for me.” “I struggle with getting out of my own way sometimes. I have to remember sometimes the point is to teach or mentor, not just do the work because you already know how to do it.”
  • “I don't have all the necessary skills to maintain by myself, but I haven't been able to recruit co-maintainers 😖 I also don't have the time to do it by myself..... But maybe if I had more of the necessary skills, it wouldn't take as much time??” 

But sometimes fun, social, and fulfilling!

  • “Work is acknowledged as such: there is no politics, no power plays, no people rejected because they don't have the right degree—if you work hard and well, you'll be recognized and included. It feels so nice! The community is also incredibly kind and benevolent.”
  • “As a long-time community member, part of my enjoyment is from the friendships and camaraderie of my communities.” 

So there you have it, what it is like to be a maintainer today, from the mouths of maintainers themselves. 

And with that, we conclude our first ever Tidelift maintainer survey. We hope you found these insights valuable. If you’d like to get future survey results like these as we get them, please sign up for updates from Tidelift below and we look forward to sharing more with you soon!