Worried about trusting your infrastructure to a bunch of shaggy college kids who might bolt at any moment for a yearlong backpacking trip to Switzerland? Don’t worry. Even if every one of them left for the Alps tomorrow, 90 percent of the open-source community would still be checking in to one of the community’s Internet hangouts (SourceForge.net and Freshmeat.net are the most popular) to see what’s new.
Turns out these people have real jobs?58 percent of the open-source community is made up of professional IT administrators and programmers (with 11 years of professional experience, on average), and 30 percent of them will have to answer to their bosses if they don’t write open-source code. That’s right: Open source is their job, according to a recent survey of 678 open-source developers that was conducted by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
The most successful open-source projects are those that solve a problem that the community’s biggest constituency?IT admins?are encountering in their day jobs. “To form a successful open-source community, you have to have an overlap between people who want to solve a problem and people who have the skills to solve that problem,” says Dan Frye, who leads a group of 250 IBM programmers who work on Linux full-time.
Though most projects focus on the IT infrastructure, some flock to gaps you might not expect. The open-source GIMP photo-editing software got started because Adobe took too long to build a Unix version of Photoshop. Clearly, the community isn’t afraid to reach beyond its most direct areas of expertise.
That’s because they are all hungry to learn. Ninety-two percent said that was their primary motivation for working in open source, according to BCG?and to write code that gets respect. In this way, the open-source community resembles the scientific research community. You rise or fall based on the quality of your contributions, and you can see everything that has already been done. “You can stand on the shoulders of others” and let their work inform your own, says Jeremy Allison, who leads development for Samba, the open-source file and print server for Windows.
But it can be brutal out there, even for the coders who have won the respect of Linus Torvalds, who flames regular contributors to the Linux kernel. “It requires the willingness to be judged by people you don’t know, and that takes a thick skin,” says Frye. But in the end, everyone agrees, good code always wins.