Welcome to To Be Continuous, a show about Continuous Delivery and software development hosted by Paul Biggar, Founder of CircleCI, and Edith Harbaugh, CEO of LaunchDarkly. In this episode, Edith and Paul talk about the clash in OSS between developers looking to get paid and software companies looking for things for free.
This podcast is brought to you by Heavybit, a program that helps developer-focused companies take their product to market.
Edith: So Paul, what do you like about open source?
Paul: So I guess that depends on whether we’re talking about writing open source or using open sources as part of a company. Writing open source, I like just having all my code out there.
And I’ll do that as often as possible. Anytime I start a little bit of code, a little library, I’m looking to open-source it and have a readme and have it out there for other people to use. I had a very long discussion, which I eventually won, about the …
Edith: I like the way you think of all discussions as win or loss.
Paul: Well, yeah, yeah. It was more on the argumentative side of discussion. But with the other co-authors of the PHP compiler I wrote, which was originally GPL. And I argued very strongly that I actually don’t care if people give back, I just want people using my software. So to me, open source is a way of having people using my software.
Edith: That’s really interesting. So, I liked what you said at the beginning about, like, you liked open source ’cause it meant getting stuff out sooner. ‘Cause I’m a big fan of that.
Like, I always say you should just publish stuff. Like, my co-founder John said something really good at our team meeting last week. He’s like, if it’s 90 percent done and you don’t publish it, it’s actually 0 percent done.
Paul: It’s 0 percent done, yeah.
Edith: Yeah, and that’s a hard lesson, ’cause you always try for perfection lately.
Paul: Right, right, right. Well, I think there’s also some really hard downsides about that. So when you publish something before it’s ready, before you really —
Edith: Well, ready.
Paul: Well, there’s ready ready, but let’s say ready is, let’s say you publish it before you clarify what the software is to do, or the values or the mission of the software.
And then you get contributors who are saying, ‘Oh, this is great, but I really want it to do this other thing,’ and you’re like, ‘Well, that’s not exactly what I was going for here.’
Edith: Well, I’d say most open source projects are so lucky as to get contributors at all.
And then people came along and they wanted to do other things with it. They’re like, ‘Okay, let’s add a binding for this other thing.’ I was like—
Edith: Well, that’s kind of like a pivot.
Paul: It is, it is, but I really was not interested in it.
I’d rather someone took it over, took over the project and actually ran with it where they wanted to go, and I can stick on the old version, or I can see if the new version solves it for me, but I wasn’t interested in becoming a maintainer in this thing, I was interested in solving my itch.
And I just happened to open-source it, because I felt it might be useful for other people.
Edith: So Paul, I hate to say this, but I agree with you.
Paul: No, not again.
Edith: Not again. No, I mean, I think what you said is exactly right, that you said, I did this for this reason, and I want somebody else to take it over now.
I think where open source runs into issues where people are like, it’s only this purpose and you can’t do anything with it besides my original thing.
Paul: So you think that’s a good thing, or you think that’s a problem? Or it causes problems in the community?
Edith: I think open source is so misused for so many different purposes that it’s hard to even say. Like, so, in Europe, people say open source is good because it means free software.
Paul: Libre or gratuit?
Edith: I’m sorry?
Paul: Free as in beer or free as in, what’s the other side of that?
Edith: There’s no such thing as a free lunch, is that what you’re talking about?
Paul: No no no, like people say open source software, it’s like free-as-in-beer software, as in software that has no cost vs. software that has no price tag vs. software that is, they use the French word libre for—
Edith: Oh yeah, that’s what I was talking about. So I remember I went to Europe in, I think it was like 2004 or 2005, and they just had this big push for open source, ’cause they thought it meant free.
Paul: Oh, this is like the German government and that sort of thing.
Edith: So literally like, so I went to this customer and they’re like, ‘So it doesn’t cost you any more to give us an extra copy.’ So why shouldn’t just everything be free?
Paul: Oh, right, yeah, well.
Edith: And so I think open source has been misused by many businesses who think of it as just like, hey, we get all these developers working for free.
Paul: So I think that the main advantage to business of open source is not that it’s free, but it’s that it’s low-risk.
Paul: Lower risk. So it removes—
Edith: Ah, I would argue—
Paul: Well, so, what I mean is that it removes a certain element of risk from it. So there’s, Joss Belsky wrote a blog post about how you shouldn’t use, I think it was a database that you didn’t have the source code to.
Edith: Well, so I’ll argue the reverse, and I think open source is sometimes more risky. ‘Cause I talk to people now who are like, nobody’s maintained this open source project that I depend on.
Paul: Right, right, right. But that vs. a closed-source version.
Edith: Well, so the opposite risk is that you end up that you are responsible for this open source project, and you’re like, well, actually, I just wanted to use this thing. I didn’t want to do the maintaining.
Paul: So absolutely, you don’t wanna end up the only person that, well, it’s actually fine to end up the only person which is using this thing.
Edith: Well, no, it’s not—
Paul: It’s not ideal.
Edith: It’s that many people are using it, but nobody is paying money, and then you’re stuck.
Paul: Because no one is maintaining it.
Edith: No one is maintaining it, and you depend on it.
Paul: Right, so, but imagine that no one maintained it and all that you could get was like a binary block. That’s the real problem. The company goes out of business. You have random database version seven, the binary, that only runs on 32-bit, that you’re maintaining, like, companies are literally maintaining COBOL—
Fortran things from 30 years ago. It sits in a machine, you can’t touch it, you can’t fix it, you can’t apply security updates to it.
Edith: Yeah, that’s fair. So Tim Chou, who is, he’s an awesome guy, he was early Oracle, he said that people don’t buy, when they buy software, they’re not buying it what it is today.
Edith: ‘Cause basically, anything that you’re buying today, you could just hire 20 engineers that could build it. What they’re buying—
Paul: Yeah, you could just copy it.
Edith: Yeah, what they’re buying is the promise of stability, that it will continue to be maintained. That there is a vision. And that’s actually, I went over to a big customer who won’t let us use their name yet, but they said they love LaunchDarkly because we thought every day about feature flags.
Paul: Right, right, exactly. This is why people buy SAS, because, because people think all day about CI, about QA as a service, about queues, or whatever it is from various Heavybit companies that I just shilled for, they’re, you can probably figure out yourself which ones they are by looking at the homepage.
Edith: Well, and Paul, by the way, thank you very much for wearing your LaunchDarkly t-shirt today. It looks very handsome.
Paul: The, I definitely agree that the benefit of the thing is that you use it every day. But you can do that with open source as well. You can have open source software that, so, for example, our front end is open-sourced.
Edith: Oh, I’m absolutely a fan of open source. Like, we use open source every day. Our client libraries are open source. I’m not saying that it’s, I don’t think it’s a religious thing vs. open source vs. not, I just think that many times people assume open source is something that it’s not.
Paul: Yeah, fair enough, fair enough.
Edith: I mean that if you have open source, that just means that developers spring out of the ground willing and happy to update your software every day.
Paul: A mixed blessing, definitely. If it even happens.
Edith: Like, I remember, so I remember when Sun, so I used to work on a, I used to be at Epicentric, and we had a portal server, and we were killing Sun. Absolutely killing Sun. And this was in 2003, so what they said is, ‘Oh, we’re gonna make our portal server open source.’
Edith: And so somehow this whole thing, we’re like, everything will be open source, and like, developers will spring out of the ground, and it’s like, well, no, developers, they don’t wake up every day like, ‘I’m gonna work on your thing.’
Paul: Right, right. They will if it’s sexy or exciting. There’s lots of developers who are showing up at Mozilla just to contribute. And in fact, they’ve fought through incredibly large hurdles to contribute to Mozilla’s software.
Edith: Well, that’s fascinating, ’cause I see so often the reverse, where people, so what do you think about Mozilla made people want to contribute?
Paul: I think the fact that it was an open-source-first company, and that it was a nonprofit, and it was all about the free and the open web and that sort of thing. Also, people had had very good experiences with Firefox for, like, a decade at this point by the time I was there. Well, maybe seven years, but, you know.
Edith: It’s fascinating, ’cause I went to dinner last night with the CEO of MySQL, and I don’t know if I should say this, but he said—
Paul: This is Marten Mickos?
Edith: Yep. So he gave a talk—
Paul: He has a new startup?
Edith: Called HackerOne?
Paul: Oh, he joined HackerOne.
Edith: Yeah, he’s the new CEO. So the dinner was kind of like a debutante ball for him.
Paul: Nice, nice.
Edith: So what he said was that somebody had asked him flat out how much of MySQL was actually from contributors. He said 1 percent.
Paul: Seems about right.
Edith: He said the open source was more just a branding thing. Like it wasn’t actually like a productivity thing. It was more just a branding thing.
Paul: So you have this in Mozilla as well, that any time that there’s a really avid contributor, that Mozilla would hire them.
Edith: Yeah, that’s what he said.
Paul: Right, and if Mozilla didn’t hire them, very often they stopped being a contributor. Like, it was a real sort of a double-edged sword.
So someone who did it for six months, they were doing it for the love of the game. They weren’t doing it to be hired at, at least I think for the most part, they weren’t doing it to be hired at Mozilla. And then six months in, someone’s like, well, you know, you’re doing a really great job, wouldn’t you love to work on this full-time? They’re like, yeah, that’s so exciting. They’re flown out for an interview. And then it’s like, you know, actually, I don’t think so.
Edith: Wait, they didn’t wanna work for Mozilla, or Mozilla didn’t wanna hire them?
Paul: Mozilla didn’t wanna hire them. I mean, this isn’t a particular case. But you know, some subset of people, Mozilla didn’t wanna hire. And then what happens? Well, you kind of don’t wanna keep contributing to the company that just told you to f*ck off.
Edith: Yeah, I mean, it’s so true. I mean, I think there’s a very human thing about volunteering.
Paul: Right, right.
Edith: I volunteer, I was the moderator for a long time for the Lean Startup Circle, and somebody new came on, and they’re like, yeah, I’d love to raise some money so that we can get paid, and I’m like, they cannot afford to pay me.
Like, I don’t do this to get paid, ’cause—
Paul: Yeah, it’s like, it’s an altruism that people are trying to do.
Edith: Yeah, I was contributing like 10 to 15 hours a week, and at my going rate, it’s not, it’s like, I’m not doing this to get paid, I’m doing it ’cause I like giving back.
Paul: So there’s this thing that we were talking about earlier, about the current discussion around people getting paid in open source.
Edith: Yeah, and I think a lot of what has fueled open source is the whole 20 percent time. Like, that Google will give their engineers 20 percent for open source, and I know that other big companies, like Twitter and so on, do that too. So these people are, in essence, getting paid.
Paul: Right, right, there’s a, in most companies, in most startups at least, there’s an unspoken rule that you’re expected to contribute to the libraries that are in your application, and that sort of thing. If you’re spending time upstreaming paths that you’ve deployed, that’s work.
Edith: Yeah, so I think we’re agreeing, which, I thought we agreed that we were not gonna agree. It’s funny, ’cause I’m Twitter friends with a guy I’ve never met, who’s, he started Jango, and right now what he tweets a lot about is—
Paul: This is Jacob Kaplan-Moss?
Edith: That people are working their nights and weekends, and contributing to open source, and then just, people are kind of, for lack of a better word, jerks. People are like—
Paul: People are jerks.
Edith: Yeah, like—
Paul: Even when you’re paid, people are jerks.
Edith: But it’s more aggravating.
Paul: Right, right, because you’re doing it for free, or whatever.
Edith: Yeah, and so people will, like, they’ll be like, ‘I have this pull request and it’s been open for two hours. Why haven’t you reviewed it?’
Paul: Right, right. I mean, we get the exact same thing. We get customers who email us, or more often it’s the people who get, who are using the free version, who send us a support request and then, 30 minutes later they’re on Twitter going, I can’t believe Circle hasn’t solved my problem yet. It’s been 30 minutes.
Edith: What do you think drives that?
Paul: There’s a pattern across the population in general, that people are jerks.
Thanks for listening to this episode of To Be Continuous, brought to you by Heavybit and hosted by me, Paul Biggar of Circle CI, and Edith Harvaugh of LaunchDarkly.
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