In a recession, who’s looking out for the open source maintainers?

Donald Fischer
by Donald Fischer
on May 12, 2020

As the global economy enters a recession triggered by many businesses, schools, and services shutting down to slow the spread of COVID-19, I’ve been reflecting on what these precipitous changes mean for the future of open source

While several people have written thoughtful pieces on how open source as a whole might be impacted, I’ve been wondering specifically about the effect these changes might have on independent open source maintainers. You know, the people who write and maintain most of the open source code you are using to build your applications?

Today independent maintainers are, like many people, under more time and financial pressure than they were only a month or two ago. Most of these creators work on their projects on the side—not as their main day jobs—and personal and professional obligations come before open source work for many. 

So how are they feeling right now? Since here at Tidelift we work with the maintainers of thousands of the most significant independent open source projects on a daily basis, we thought we’d just ask them directly. 

Jordan Harband, maintainer of more than 250 JavaScript packages and a long-time member of the committee that writes the JavaScript specification, says available time isn’t the only consideration factoring into open source contributions. 

“Contributing to open source is a privileged thing. Contributors need to have enough income to create enough free time to contribute, or a job that allows them to do it on company time,” Jordan said. 

“But everything is harder now, and the available energy supply many maintainers have to work on their projects on evenings and weekends is smaller than it was a few months ago. In the past, open source maintainers pitched our employers to ask them to cover some portion of our time spent on our projects as part of our salary. Now that budgets are tighter and many companies are focused on short-term survival, I'd expect many maintainers to have less time for their projects.”

Most crucial open source projects are maintained by volunteers

Usage of open source consistently booms during times of economic strain as organizations rush to do more with smaller budgets. At the same time, market upheavals create openings for new businesses. Shared open source infrastructure and application frameworks let innovators in every sector build and introduce products and services quickly and cost-effectively. They also permit engineering teams to focus developer talent on creating differentiated products or features, rather than recreating commodity technologies.

Corporations fund much of the development of some big infrastructure building blocks, like Linux, widely used NoSQL databases, Hadoop, Docker, and more. But corporate sponsorship has a much more limited role when it comes to the crucial open source components that comprise most business applications today. Nearly all of the work on projects like Babel, Beautiful Soup, and Material-UI—which are integral to application development at thousands of organizations across industries like financial services, healthcare, and more—is performed by independent open source maintainers. 

Given this, what will happen to critical open source projects when the maintainers behind them need to redirect energy to their day jobs as workplace demands intensify? Or when maintainers have other life commitments that cause them to set aside work on unpaid projects, potentially indefinitely?

“I think people will have more time to contribute, but less energy to do so,” Jordan said. “Most of it will be tied up in dealing with the psychology of being stuck in your house, perhaps newly working outside of an office, or worse, not working at all, and trying to figure out how to pay the bills.”

Backing independent creators to ensure project maintenance

Some in our industry predict we’ll see more open source contributions as engineers have more time at home

The maintainer of the Active Admin framework for Ruby on Rails applications and the byebug debugger, David Rodríguez, has already seen this effect. 

“I’ve found either the same level of engagement or more in terms of contributions to my projects since the COVID-19 crisis started, so the ‘people have more time’ hypothesis could make sense.” 

While at Tidelift we’d not be surprised to see some individuals step up their contributions, we expect maintainers of many other projects to put their work on hold as long as necessary to attend to other priorities. When any recession passes, we’d anticipate further strain on independent maintainers if their day jobs change—a dynamic some call the “bus factor,” but we call the “boss factor” to more accurately reflect the fact that independent open source projects are left in precarious condition when things change with solo maintainers’ full-time jobs.

Businesses that rely on open source to fuel their own development need to plan ahead for potential interruptions to the maintenance of critical open source components and get ahead of them. One way to do this is by aligning with maintainers to give them a financial incentive to continue to develop their projects on a predictable timetable. Another is to have processes in place to vet open source components across numerous parameters to understand whether they are well-maintained.

Hope for the future

Alex Clark, the creator and project lead for Pillow, the friendly fork of the Python Imaging Library, is hopeful that open source, including individual maintainers, will share in some of the growth that open source companies have experienced in past recessions. 

"For me the most comforting aspect of Tidelift's existence, particularly in the time of a pandemic, is just that: it's existence,” Alex relayed. “In the previous two recessions, when both Linux and then open source in general saw significant upticks in usage, no such companies existed.” 

“If companies like Red Hat (circa 2000) and GitHub (circa 2008) were super-successful in their respective time as a result of recession, then I hope companies like Tidelift (and individual developers like ‘Tidelift lifters’) are super-successful this time."

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