Nivenly Foundation Seeks More Power for Open Source Creators
The ingenuity and hard work of open source maintainers have long fueled the software industry — think Linux, Kubernetes, TensorFlow, Jenkins, Python, Ruby and on and on. But project maintainers aren’t often rewarded for their dedication. Many are unpaid, suffer burnout, and can lose control of their projects if someone succeeds in monetizing them.
The Nivenly Foundation, a new organization co-founded by Kris Nóva — a principal engineer at GitHub and founder of Hachyderm.io, a social network on Mastodon — wants to advocate for independent maintainers and help them keep oversight of their projects.
The organization, which launched its website on March 1, is designed “to provide an exciting and equitable future for the next generation of technologists,” according to a statement released by the founders.
The new foundation’s mission statement, which appears on its website, lays out its principles, promising it will bring “sustainability, ownership, and control to open source projects and communities around the globe.” It will do this, the foundation said, by providing governance and legal support to open source projects.
Helping open source project members maintain control of their creation is a top priority, according to the mission statement: “We offset the negative impact of profit-driven economies through the use of a nonprofit association that protects and supports the contributors and maintainers of technical projects, establishing sustained independence from the corporations that use them.
“Nivenly believes that all members of a project should own the project and share in its success.”
A New Path to Influence in Open Source
In an interview with The New Stack in January, Nóva elaborated on Nivenly’s commitment to creating what its mission statement calls a “member-owned, democratically governed” organization dedicated to open source.
“Right now, the way that things are, there’s a small group of highly influential people who end up making most of the decisions that impact most of our life in these types of nonprofits,” she told The New Stack. “We’re trying to find a way to balance that out.”
The operating model of most open source nonprofits, she said, displays “a bias for corporations. “If you look at, let’s say, the Rust Foundation, or the .NET Foundation — or any of these household names that are out there doing really good things — most of them have some sort of like sponsorship model where you pay a certain amount, and you get a seat on the board of directors.”
This gives corporations “skin in the game,” she added. “I’m not necessarily saying there’s anything wrong with that model. What I’m saying is, that’s usually where we stop.”
By contrast, “what Nivenly is going to do different is, we’re going to add a second way of gaining that same level of influence in the organization, which is just by being a maintainer.“
First Projects: Aurae, Hachyderm.io
The first projects under the Nivenly umbrella both originated with Nóva, in a burst of creativity last spring.
The first, the runtime project Aurae, is a remote process execution utility that aims to be an effective way to schedule workloads, such as containers and virtual machines, on a single node, using a common API; the API is intended to work with a variety of orchestration systems and network providers.
Nóva presented a deep dive into the technology behind Aurae at the FOSDEM conference in February.
The second project Nivenly will support, Hachyderm.io, is a Mastodon server Nóva started at roughly the same time as Aurae. In the wake of billionaire Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter in October, Hachyderm saw an influx of new users, many from the tech community.
The social network Nóva started now has more than 45,000 monthly active users. The site is moderated by a small group of volunteers, and the operating costs of maintaining the site and its data center, she said on a December 22 edition of The New Stack Makers podcast, are one of the reasons why a nonprofit model seemed like a logical next step.
Foundation Leadership and Funding
Nivenly — “a silly name that like one of my friends came up with 10 years ago,” Nóva told the New Stack in January— begins with a leadership cohort of six people.
Nóva will serve as president. Another co-founder, Quintessence Anx, will lead the group as its executive director; she previously served in developer advocate roles at Logz.io, AppDynamics and PagerDuty.
Other co-founders include Dominic Hamon, senior engineering manager on the Google Play Console platform team, who will serve as Nivenly’s vice president, and Preston Doster, an architect on the platform engineering team at Twilio, who will be the foundation’s secretary.
Co-founders also include board members Molly Monroy, vice president at the tech marketing company Constantio.io, and Mekka Okereke, director of engineering for Google Play Growth.
Now that the board has met to establish bylaws and a governance structure, the foundation, which is incorporated and registered as a nonprofit in the state of Washington, is seeking nonprofit status under section 501(c)3 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service code. Nivenly has already secured its EIN taxpayer identification number, enabling it to receive donations.
The board has opted to run Nivenly along the cooperative model. People can purchase a general membership for $7 per month, which entitles them to vote in governance and the organization’s elections. Trade memberships are available to entities such as corporations, on a sliding scale based on the companies’ size, ranging from $7,500 to $60,000 annually. Membership is not required to use join Hachyderm.io.
When open source projects are brought to Nivenly, the project is allowed to appoint a set of delegates. “The project delegates are given a seat in the same senate as the trade members in exchange for their continued work on their respective projects,” the foundation website reads. ”The only path to a project delegate seat is by contributing to a Nivenly project. Project seats cannot be purchased.”
The organization’s next big decisions, Anx said in an email reply to The New Stack, involve its onboarding process for adding new projects, including the selection criteria.
Future Ambitions: Better Training
In the more distant future, the foundation also has ambitions to tackle what Nóva called “the gatekeeping of education problem” in the tech field.
“We really struggle to pass knowledge,” Anx told The New Stack in a January interview. “As an industry, we have some boot camps that are doing great things. We have some subscription services that are doing great things.”
But much seeking of knowledge is “reactive,” she said. Developers learn something as needed for a job, and the sources Google searches bring up can deliver knowledge in a piecemeal fashion, or not targeted to the student’s current level of knowledge.
She suggests borrowing from older industries and providing more wide-breadth training. “We can start to really dig into how we can train up in a more comprehensive way,” Anx said.
Nivenly’s financial model isn’t ready to support those ambitions yet, Nóva said. But, “our hope is that we can come up with a way of giving the community some equity in the knowledge base.”
She points to Wikipedia as an example of an open source educational resource: “The folks that contribute to Wikipedia contribute to a collective knowledge base, and nobody’s really getting rich off of Wikipedia and [it] just kind of exists for the sake of existing. I think we’re targeting that same style of collaborative knowledge base for our projects — and for the industry at large.”
Learn more about Hachyderm.io and its rapid scale-up in this episode of The New Stack Makers.