Charitable development for Unemployed/Under Employed OSS developer.

Microsoft MVP Arnie Rowland was given some MSDN licenses to distribute as he saw fit. He decided to use them to encourage people to give back by doing development projects for non-profit organizations. He also got others to step up to the plate to provide additional prizes. Books, exam vouchers, training, and third party software licenses will be awarded to some of the participants in addition to the MSDN licenses.

Overall, this is a very positive thing. I’m especially excited by the fact that the project criteria states “additional consideration given projects that will be posted on Codeplex with a GPL license.” Its good to know some of this code will have secondary uses.

What bothers me about this program is the primary incentives are software licenses. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against closed source software. I program on windows professionally, and most of my open source contributions are windows related. I’m aware an open/closed source hybrid ecosystem can be healthy, although I think the industry will tend to go more open source rather than less.  The thing that really bothers me is that you have an entire closed source incentive package that would have no open source equivilant. Here is why:

  • Open source software is free. Even with a model like RedHat, there is little difference between CentOS and RHEL for development. If you gave me a RHEL update subscription for free I’d say, “gee thanks. . .”
  • The books are nice. However books are cheap. No one is going to do a decent sized project for a few books. Books also take up space (unless they are electronic) and time to read. Therefore the answer is not “more books”
  • The only way third party software licenses mean anything is if the software is closed source. There are some closed source software packages for open source operating systems. However, you’re back to closed source providing the incentives.
  • Training and cert vouchers have some potential, but there are also problems I will discuss below.

I see three problem with offering training and certification vouchers for OSS software. First of all, there is not as much advanced formal training in the open source world as in the closed source world. Secondly, the certification costs are cheaper. Beyond the RHCE and BSD certifications, there are no advanced Open Source certifications. Thirdly, the Open Source world doesn’t tend to have as many consultants that offer advanced training. Paul Randal, the author of much of the code in the SQL Server administrative command DBCC, travels around the globe offering advanced training. Linus, Monty, Larry, Guido, etc are not know for offering the opportunity for classroom intensives on the usages of their products. I’d go as far as stating the Paul spends more time leading classrooms then all of them combined.

So offering training might work for the open source community. However, unless you are offering basic certification, you’d be making a custom certification package that you could not objectively put a retail price on, since its not normally available.

Self Motivated Charitable Development

You certainly do not need some kind of software and training stipend to do charitable development if you are unemployed. If you are properly motivated you could find a charity that needs the help, and might even be able to get incidentals like travel and meals reimbursed, and a desk in their office space. That could be important to someone that is unemployed than software licenses.

However, some people, like me, are not the entrepreneurial types. We don’t know how to take our skillsets and frame a pitch of how we can solve a problem to a non technical person. Some people are hard working, but want to be told, “Show up here at 9am. Do this. We get paid Friday’s.” I’m one of those people and the only consulting I do is when it lands on my lap.

Now allow me a moment to present a counter intuitive idea. If these hard working unemployed people are like me, their real motivation is self-education and something to put on the resume. Long term they’d rather support charities by paying $200 for a rubber chicken dinner.  So they want to do work that others will perceive as important, notable and impressive. They will pick a pro bono program which will require them to use expensive professional grade tools, and give them advanced training, as opposed to “done on a shoestring budget using OSS.” They will do this because they want to say, “Look I did this big project that used these expensive tools that were donated because it was such an important cause!”

So closed source wins over open source for charitable development in these cases because of “human nature.”