open source

Surviving the COVID-19 Crisis With Open Source

The COVID-19 crisis has hit the global economy hard, and the software industry was not spared. The long-term effects on the industry are still unclear, but it seems it has become widely acknowledged that the negative impact is going to be massive, and recovery will be slow. Can the open source community help?

But the world is not going to stop spinning. Ideas will keep flowing, code will be written, new products will launch and existing ones will get new releases. The industry is going to survive, and will eventually get back to its old self (or a slightly different one). If I had to guess, I’d say it will take anywhere from 12 to 24 months for the industry to return to its pre-covid status. During this period, software companies are going to need to learn to do more, with less. Development tasks are not going to get smaller — but R&D budgets will. Software teams are going to be short staffed, but will be expected to deliver the same quality and scope of work as before, perhaps even in shorter time frames, to compensate for time lost.

So far for the lemon. Here comes the lemonade. This transitional period presents a unique opportunity for the corporate software industry and the open source community to finally join forces. The relationship between software companies and open source developers has always been one-sided. Companies use open source components freely, mostly ignoring the people behind the code. 90% of software developed today uses open source components so extensively, that in some cases these components make up almost 70% of an applications’ code base. Think about that for a second. More than half of the code in a software project is written by developers who are not considered a part of the development team. We all use their code, but the developers behind it are completely transparent. Little thought is given to the fact that they are actually an incredible, untapped resource. Open source developers are so much more than just the code they post on Github, and it’s time for software companies to realize that.

Imagine how much development time could be spared if you could consult the open source developer who wrote one of your projects’ dependencies? Who is better equipped to fix a bug in a component than the person (or team) who actually wrote it? What if you could ask for a customized version of the component you need, tailor made to do exactly what your app needs, and fits exactly into your requirements? How many precious developer hours are spent integrating and maintaining open source components your team did not write in the first place? There’s a whole world of possibilities in harnessing open source developers to optimize and speed up development processes — but almost no one is doing it. Why?

Incorporating open source developers into a commercial R&D pipeline can be challenging. How do you actually get them to spend their time and expertise on your project in a timely fashion? Opening an issue and waiting for it to close is not feasible when time is of essence. How do you communicate? Moreover — they are individuals, not companies. How can a software company pay them? What happens if they don’t deliver? While many of them would appreciate your donations via Github sponsors or Open collective (and you SHOULD donate), donations are voluntary and not connected to any commitment from the developer. This is uncharted territory for most software companies, who are used to working with incorporated entities.

There’s a way to remove these friction points and work smoothly with open source developers. It’s called xs:code, and it’s something my team and I have been working on for almost a year now. xs:code allows software companies to pay open source developers for support, bug fixing and code customization — to help speed up development processes and make sure in-house developers can focus on working on app-specific code, not on someone else’s. xs:code functions as the trusted 3rd party who handles payments, communication and facilitates the relationship between companies and developers. We’re trying to help software companies be more efficient, while helping open source developers get paid by offering services directly related to their code. Their code is free — their time isn’t. Many companies are already adjusting to WFH requirements, and there’s no reason not to include ad-hoc, highly specialized external workforce when needed. Companies who will learn to harness this powerful mindset are going to get the competitive edge in days to come.

We are all going to need to adapt to a new, post-covid reality. Teams are going to get smaller, timelines tighter, budgets slimmer. Companies that do not optimize and learn to maximize their budget and resources to get the best results — will parish. Incorporating open source developers into the R&D pipeline is not orthodox, or common practice — yet. But it can make a world of difference in the months to come.

Chen Ravid is a free software enthusiast and serial entrepreneur. He is co-founder and chief product officer at xs:code, a monetization platform for open source projects.

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