How Can Open Source Sustain Itself without Creating Burnout?
The whole world uses open source, but as we’ve learned from the Log4j debacle, “free” software isn’t really free. Organizations and their customers pay for it when projects aren’t frequently updated and maintained.
How can we support open source project maintainers — and how can we decide which projects are worth the time and effort to maintain?
“A lot of people pick up open source projects, and use them in their products and in their companies without really thinking about whether or not that project is likely to be successful over the long term,” Dawn Foster, director of open source community strategy at VMware’s open source program office (OSPO), told The New Stack’s audience during this On the Road edition of The New Stack’s Makers podcast.
In this conversation recorded at Open Source Summit Europe in Dublin, Ireland, Foster elaborated on the human cost of keeping open source software maintained, improved and secure — and how such projects can be sustained over the long term.
The conversation, sponsored by Amazon Web Services, was hosted by Heather Joslyn, features editor at The New Stack.
Assessing Project Health: the ‘Lottery Factor’
One of the first ways to evaluate the health of an open source project, Foster said, is the “lottery factor”: “It’s basically if one of your key maintainers for a project won the lottery, retired on a beach tomorrow, could the project continue to be successful?”
“And if you have enough maintainers and you have the work spread out over enough people, then yes. But if you’re a single maintainer project and that maintainer retires, there might not be anybody left to pick it up.”
Foster is on the governing board for an project called Community Health Analytics Open Source Software — CHAOSS, to its friends — that aims to provide some reliable metrics to judge the health of an open source initiative.
The metrics CHAOSS is developing, she said, “help you understand where your project is healthy and where it isn’t, so that you can decide what changes you need to make within your project to make it better.”
“We spend… a lot of time just defining metrics, which means working in a Google Doc and thinking about all of the different ways you might possibly measure something — something like, are you getting a diverse set of contributors into your project from different organizations, for example.”
Paying Maintainers, Onboarding Newbies
It’s important to pay open source maintainers in order to help sustain projects, she said. “The people that are being paid to do it are going to have a lot more time to devote to these open source projects. So they’re going to tend to be a little bit more reliable just because they’re going to have a certain amount of time that’s devoted to contributing to these projects.”
Not only does paying people help keep vital projects going, but it also helps increase the diversity of contributors, “because you, by paying people salaries to do this work in open source, you get people who wouldn’t naturally have time to do that.
“So in a lot of cases, this is women who have extra childcare responsibilities. This is people from underrepresented backgrounds who have other commitments outside of work,” Foster said. “But by allowing them to do that within their work time, you not only get healthier, longer sustaining open source projects, you get more diverse contributions.”
The community can also help bring in new contributors by providing solid documentation and easy onboarding for newcomers, she said. “If people don’t know how to build your software, or how to get a development environment up and running, they’re not going to be able to contribute to the project.”
And showing people how to contribute properly can help alleviate the issue of burnout for project maintainers, Foster said: “Any random person can file issues and bug maintainers all day, in ways that are not productive. And, you know, we end up with maintainer burnout… because we just don’t have enough maintainers,” said Foster.
“Getting new people into these projects and participating in ways that are eventually reducing the load on these horribly overworked maintainers is a good thing.”
Listen or watch this episode to learn more about maintaining open source sustainability.