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Chris Grams for Tidelift

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The experience of being a maintainer—in their words

In late 2022, Tidelift fielded its second survey of open source maintainers. Hundreds of maintainers responded with thoughts about getting paid for their work, the security and maintenance practices they have in place for their projects, and where they need help most, along with a host of other interesting insights. In this post, we share the last of eleven key findings. If you don’t want to wait for the rest of the results, you can download the full survey report right now.

Some of the most impactful findings in our survey come not from charts and graphs, but directly from the words of maintainers. From general opinions on the maintainer experience to thoughts on the state of open source now and in the future, the maintainers we surveyed were not shy to tell us their thoughts.

Here are a few unfiltered insights:

On the relationship between open source and corporate users

“If you asked me this 20 years ago I might have something inspiring to say, but now that open source has ‘won,’ it feels like we’re just giving away our work to companies who profit from it.”

“It seems like companies are starting to understand how much they rely on OSS and are becoming more willing to contribute back where they think it could help the projects they depend on remain in a state that enables the use they depend on.”

“Funding for part and full-time OSS contributors and maintainers is our biggest barrier right now. We’re very happy to ‘put in the work’ so to speak in order to earn that funding, but outside of one corporate sponsor I have not found a good way of funding our OSS projects.”

“I have a business built to support the OSS projects I have that are used by very large companies. It would be nice if the culture in OSS shifted such that companies saw value in paying to support OSS projects they depend on.”

“Recently the security side of things (stream of CVEs/vuln reports) has been a major stress factor: there are skewed incentives in reporting potential vulnerabilities, leading to pressure from scared users, for maintainers to do essentially all the work validating/ disputing findings and either fix the issue (if valid) or debunk (with lots of effort if invalid) the report.”

On the impact of open source and being a part of it

“Open source is providing the tools and protocols that currently power and will continue to power the software we use now and into the foreseeable future. Being a part of that, and helping shape both the status quo and the next generation of applications is hugely rewarding.”

“Endless possibilities of creation, even simpler work due to a myriad of tools and significant improvements of platforms like GitHub.”

“In a negative way, I fear that open source is a huge attack surface for malware and malicious actors.”

“Each day we see more and more open source alternatives that are better than their commercial closed source equivalents.”

“I’m excited that the biotech and pharma industries are beginning to see the value of open source scientific software and contribute to it.”

“I believe in the tenets of free software—I believe that this approach to software is the only viable way for the world of computing to thrive. I enjoy being part of that future.”

“Not all employers make things that matter to me or the wider world. Work is very limited. Being able to start something is important since I am able to work on things that make my life better and in turn share them with others.”

“[Open source] allows me to work on a large project I could never do by myself, even if I was paid for it. It lets me outsource knowledge and effort to people that know more than I do about various parts of the project. I think finding ways to enable people to contribute in ways like that to projects that can get a lot of use is exciting to me.”

“Open source is changing not only development practices but also transforms business expectations in other industries.”

On the challenges of being a maintainer

“If I got paid enough money to quit my day job to work on OSS full time I’d love love love that. Things would get done so much faster on my library, etc. But alas I’m well paid at my job and like the lifestyle that being well paid affords. And even if I could find a benefactor that’d pay me as much or more than my job currently pays such an individual could, at that point, have an undue influence.”

“I feel the visibility of big projects are amplified, but the work of small but often essential maintainers is not recognized. #frustrated”

“Hopefully keeping some of the remote-friendly/virtual things we’ve learned over the pandemic so far to better enable people from systemically under-represented regions in the world, and shift the balance of power away from the global North/West and the white cis-male dominated North America sector of the industry. Things like Outreachy having a cohort right now with significant representation from African countries.”

“Open source has been established as a mainstream thing and that helps. Tidelift, GitHub Sponsors and other efforts could pave the way for actual independent paid-for OSS maintenance, outside of ‘benevolent employment’ (companies that subside OSS by employing maintainers for non-related work).”

“I feel like not having enough time to implement all the ideas I have is leading me to getting burned out. I have a lot of ideas that I keep thinking about all the time, but I don’t have time to implement them.”

“I am paid well enough for my job, so I don’t do it for the money, just for the sheer pleasure of sharing what I make… Although, truthfully, I might feel different if I wasn’t paid as well as I am. Selflessness can only take you so far if you can’t afford to buy shiny toys once in a while.”

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 second Tidelift open source 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 give us a follow and we look forward to sharing more with you soon!

We hope you found some useful and actionable information in this blog post. To read the previous ten other findings, download the full survey results today and watch our webinar where resident data nerd, Chris Grams, unveils the top findings from the survey.

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