Is open source worth it?

Last week I went shopping at one of those stores where everything is one-size-fits-all. Eyeballing helped me work my way through the store but it wasn’t pleasurable. It felt like I constantly had to measure myself up to clothing and therefore, other people. Comparison is pretty joyless.

I’m not a fan of one-size-fits-all when it comes to clothes or pretty much anything. Trying to shoehorn ourselves into something “normal" be it clothing, or a career can be stressful. It can make us put on a mask or compel us to compare ourselves others. Both feel stressful and fake. And, I just don’t believe it to be true. Almost nothing is truly one-size-fits-all.

When it comes to careers, experts often try to give one-size-fits-all advice. If the advice happens to fit your situation, there’s a win but when your situation deviates even a little, that advice can delay career progression or worse, derail you completely.

Software developers often hear that in order to be successful, you need to work on open source. When searching for a job, developers often find that some companies highly prize it, a few even make it darn near close to a requirement.

There are plenty of downsides to open source software.

Burnout is the biggest and most oft-mentioned. Though it seems paradoxical, burnout often comes when folks don’t expect it: once their project is successful.At first your open source project might be incredibly rewarding. Then the project gains steam — yay! — and the demands grow. New issues pop up like flowers on a sunny spring day. Your inbox is besieged. While you’ve been hoping your project would become successful, you may not be completely ready to handle it.  If you don’t have the support of a community and particularly other maintainers, burnout can beckon. You might have reached success, but may be too burned out to enjoy or take advantage of it. This risk cannot be overstated.

Time is another problem, especially for those with families or other obligations outside of programming. Open source often seems to favor those who can afford the spare time without family or monetary obligations. There’s an opportunity cost associated with devoting energy to open source. For some, given their circumstances, doing open source in any meaningful way is simply out of reach.

Do you have to work on open source to succeed?

Definitely not.

There are plenty of ways to move your career forward without spending a ton of time on open source. Maintaining a strong network, writing about code, hosting a podcast, and speaking all offer ample opportunities to develop and show off your skills in ways that can boost your career. Don’t let them tell you there’s only one way. Just say no to one-size-fits-all advice.

Should you discount open source altogether?

Assuming you have available time and mental/emotional capacity, doing open source might be worthwhile for one of the following reasons.

As a reputation builder

Building a reputatio is not a small benefit, especially for software developers who often loath traditional marketing. For those who don’t enjoy in-person networking, speaking or writing, creating an open source project might be a great way to show off your skills and build a reputation that can make companies seek you out for job opportunities. After being a manager, Justin Weiss was considering a shift back to being more technical in his work. He found an opportunity quickly without even having to look. After finding his open source work, a company approached him. Justin is now happily working at that job.

To give back

Wanting to give back to a community that you’ve depended on is a common reasons to get into open source. Giving to others can have enormous emotional and mental benefits . A prolific creator, Andrew Nesbitt created Libraries to help the community monitor dependencies in their code. While giving back to the community was his main motivation, his work on it raised his profile and eventually, he parlayed the work into funding

To build your skills

Despite the challenges, open source remains a solid way for developers, especially less experienced ones to practice. Projects like Code Triage created by Richard Schneeman offers an opportunity to get some experience and to build a network by contributing to open source projects. By the getting the word out, this project also supports open source maintainers which is a win/win. Doing any sort of side work for the benefit of learning new skills or improving existing ones can be incredibly valuable.

To solve your own problem

Solving a problem you face is actually a pretty great reason to create an open source project. Though it’s wildly popular now, Oh My Zsh started as a small way for the creator to help his colleagues. Creator Robby Russell never imagined that his solution would become as well-used as it’s become. 

If you can address burnout from the beginning

After years of thinking about messaging processing in Ruby, Mike Perham created Sidekiq to solve that issue for himself. At the same time, he was clear that he didn’t want to succumb to burnout so he worked to create an income stream that allowed him to give back to open source while providing an income for he and his growing family. 

So is open source worth it? 

It might be. It depends on where you are in your career and what you want to get from it. While it's one way to success, it’s certainly not the only way. Before pouring your heart into any common career advice be I open source or anything really, check in with your motives. Be wary of falling into unspoken expectations from others — or even yourself. 

And if you don’t want to code on the side or work on open source, that’s totally fine. Your career won’t be limited, I promise.  And don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Decide what kind of career you want to build and find a way to create that. Just say no to one-size-fits-all anything. Go your own way.