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Apr 3, 2020 12:00:00 AM6 min read

The professional benefits of open source work.

Open Source projects are a key building block of the tech community, with many IT professionals choosing to work solely with open source technology. But how common is it for these professionals to give back by contributing to OSS (open source software) projects? And what do they gain by doing so?

Over the course of two months, we spoke to 103 of London’s technology professionals to find out. This number was made up of developers, system administrators, coaches, and UX/UI designers.

Pie chart shorting breakdown of technologist who have and have not contributed to open source

Overall, 73% of the technology professionals that we spoke to said they had never worked on, or contributed to, an OSS project, while 27% said they had.

Of those that had never contributed to an OSS project, 18% expressed an interest in getting involved in the future. The main reasons given for why they hadn’t made that leap yet included: not having the time to properly commit to a project (10%); being unsure of how to get started (40%); and – by far the most common reason – lacking the confidence to contribute to public projects (50%).

Visualisation showing interest in contributing to open source and why those who are interested did not contribute

Data Breakdown by Job Title

Breaking the numbers down into specific markets, it is unsurprising that 42% of developers that utilise open source tech stacks had contributed to an OSS project – though of those that hadn’t, none expressed an interest in doing so.

We also found that 36% of .NET Developers had worked on OSS projects, though all of those that had not were not particularly interested in doing so in the near future. It was much the same with UX/UI designers – the 80% that had not participated in an OSS project were likewise not particularly invested in doing so in the future.

From our pool of System Administrators, 43% of Linux and 40% of Windows SysAdmins professed to have contributed to OSS projects. Of those that hadn’t, only 25% of Linux SysAdmins expressed an active interest in contributing in the future, compared to 67% of Windows SysAdmins.

Interestingly, 25% of Scrum Masters – a profession that is largely non-development and non-coding – took part in OSS projects, while 22% of those that hadn’t stated an interest in doing so in the future.

Graph showing percentage contributed to open source by job role

Why OSS work can be important to employers.

Contributing to OSS projects is good for developers looking to improve their skills, as it gives them experience with both professional codebases and working with a large, distributed team of developers. These are especially important considering the fact that many developers are still self-taught, meaning that they often have their own ways of coding that may be functional but not particularly effective or efficient.

When these young or self-taught developers take part in community projects, they end up learning more about coding best practices such as writing clean code, unit testing, version control, and how deployment can work at scale. This makes it easier for them to integrate into a professional team in the future – in other words, they become more hireable!

OSS projects, particularly large and popular ones such as React or Python, will have well-documented and publicly available commit histories, including extensive records detailing developer submissions and community feedback. This means that, as a hirer, you can go in and check the logs yourself to see what sort of code a prospective hire has actually written, the way they interact with other developers, and how they deal with feedback – all of which will be crucial in a team environment.

Participating in OSS projects also show that a developer is interested in being a member of the greater tech community. Not only does that show a general level of personal interest, curiosity and ambition, all positive traits for any team member, but it also means that – when hired – they could make a good advocate for, and be a visible figurehead of, your business within the tech community. Over time, this may make hiring easier as more technologists become aware of your brand. But more immediately, as with any scenario that is seen to give back to the projects and platforms that your company uses, you will get significant positive PR.

Now is the ideal time to get involved.

Given the current global situation, a lot of firms are finding themselves with spare time as projects are paused or reevaluated. Worse, many tech workers may end up furloughed or without employment. Whilst this is far from an ideal situation, it does provide a perfect opportunity for companies to dedicate some of their resources back to the community and for individuals to bolster their portfolio with eye catching project work.

Open source technologies and tools that you already use are ideally placed for you to lend a helping hand to, but there are also pandemic-specific projects looking to try and tackle COVID-19 head on that you might be able to get involved with. So, if you are in a position to contribute to open source projects, it could be at least a small silver lining, helping to amplify your presence within the wider tech community in the long run or giving your CV a little extra weight when you need it.

Better yet, during a time when work may be scarce, switching to open source contributions could give your team a revitalised sense of purpose – one which may last for longer than quarantine does. If managed with an eye on company culture, you could help entrench open source work as part of your company ethos moving forward, building positive habits and fostering a greater sense of collaboration and unity in doing so.

Key Takeaways

  • Give weight to applicants that have contributed to OSS projects – but don’t discount those that haven’t.

Participating in OSS projects is a good sign for a myriad of reasons – but you don’t want to fall into the trap of being a checklist employer that has a shopping list of requirements and qualifiers without any sense of context.

So, while it’s always worthwhile to pay attention to the projects that applicants are contributing to, you shouldn’t reject an applicant simply because they haven’t done so. There are many reasons why an applicant may not have participated in a larger project, so be sure to do your due diligence at the interview stage.

  • Make ongoing learning and career growth a part of your culture through open source projects.

Taking part in OSS projects is a good way for developers to grow their skills – which is one of the reasons why we recommend encouraging your teams to participate if they have the time for it. Doing so not only helps them to brush up their skills, it can also give them an interesting challenge involving newer technology without requiring you to overhaul your tech stacks.

  • Get your employer brand in front of IT professionals by having your team participate in OSS projects under the umbrella of your company name.

If they’re open to it, having your developer team participate in OSS projects under or in conjunction with the name of your company can be good press for the business. Not only does it show that you, as an employer, are open and willing to engage in community projects, it also could double up in acting as a homing beacon to interested developers looking for their next opportunity.