More OSS Volunteerism

Open source software isn’t second-class volunteering. In terms of effectiveness per time spent on it, it’s astoundingly helpful.

Because code is replicable and useful, it helps a lot of people. Giving away closed source software would be one thing, but open source code is reusable by other projects, viewable by people learning how to code, and fundamentally supported by the community. Writing software is also potentially research: solving problems in new ways is one of the ways the state of software advances. There’s no limit to the number of people you’re helping: the developers of Apache webserver deserve thanks whenever a page on the internet is served. (To anyone who thinks OSS puts coders out of a job, think of all the jobs the Apache foundation has created.)

Because coding, project management, UI design, QA testing, and all the other skill that go into successful open source projects take years to learn, the volunteer hours put into those activities are a scarce and extremely valuable resource. Suppose your friend, a lawyer, was looking for a way to volunteer four hours a week. Your friend can’t decide whether it would be more helpful to bake rolls at a food kitchen or give pro bono legal advice to DV sufferers. Or maybe your teacher friend can’t decide whether to teach ESL or do laundry for a church. Sure, your friends might enjoy both gigs, and they’re all nice causes, but your friends have the opportunity to contribute skills which are much more scarce, and you’d probably recommend they do that.

That’s why if you have skills or money to contribute to an open source project, you should act without hesitation: it’s an unselfish endeavor that makes a big difference to a lot of people, and it’s a great way to volunteer. It helps a lot of people in a real way.

And it definitely, definitely counts as volunteering.

One Reply to “More OSS Volunteerism”

  1. Thanks for an interesting post. Here are my thoughts:

    If you told me that you were writing OSS for a women's shelter to track their data so the organization could use it for grant applications, or software for Seattle Parks and Rec to monitor erosion or something, I would immediately connect that w/volunteering. If you told me that you were writing OSS for a password manager program for Windows, I wouldn't view that as volunteering. But is the idea that the code you wrote for the password manager program is now out there and anyone (nonprofits, startups) can use it and that makes it volunteering? If so, I guess don't really consider that volunteering. If you somehow informed quality organizations of your OSS and how they could use it, that would be different, but just having written it and putting it out there isn't really all that special, is it? I guess it's like if you made a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving and purposefully left it at a bus stop in Capitol Hill- sure maybe an elderly homeless person would find it and eat it, but more than likely some hipster who makes enough money working at American Apparel to afford a nice studio apartment and plenty of ironic accessories would find it and eat it. (I know you love analogies). But do I even understand the point of OSS as volunteerism, or am I way off base? I know nothing about this- please elucidate.

    I think it's really neat that software developers possess skills that can be used to better the lives of others. I like your points about the scarcity of the skill set developers have to offer, and the good that can be done from harnessing those unique abilities. As a counterpoint however, sometimes people need a break from the tasks they do on a daily basis from 9-5, and enjoy volunteering in different ways. Maybe the guy or gal who sits in front of a computer for 40-60 hours a week doesn't want to do it during the weekend, and really prefers chatting with the people who come to the soup kitchen for Sunday brunch. Another really important aspect of volunteering is the changes it creates in the volunteer. Growing positively as a person is bound to have a beneficial ripple effect through society, just as the actual volunteer work itself does. If everyone volunteered to set up chairs at benefit auctions or dole out food at soup kitchens, and no one joined a board or wrote code we'd definitely be in trouble, but we also definitely need both types of volunteerism. I really commend you for being able to see what you have to offer the community and steadfastly directing your efforts in that vein…but it's also the way you most enjoy volunteering (so isn't it a bit selfish in the same way it's selfish when someone volunteers for their Church?). It kinda sounds like you're being a little judgmental re: developers and others with an impressive skill sets who choose (what you portray as) the "easy way" to volunteer. Sometimes people just need/want to explore other avenues of themselves and of life, and take a break from what they do for a living.

    All that said, I really like your points and you are starting to convince me- you can be quite persuasive 🙂 I'm trying to play devil's advocate and I'm not entirely sold yet- I need more information. Currently, I'm at the stage where I think writing OSS is volunteering in certain situations but not others. Is that where you are? If not, where are you and why- inquiring minds want to know 🙂

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