Dirk Riehle, open source researcher, SAP Labs
Hes the author of The Economic Motivation of Open Source Software, a scholarly article that describes significant shifts in the software business. Datamation spoke with him about how these shifts are shaping the pay levels of open source developers.
To understand Riehles thesis, you have to understand how he uses the term Committer. A Committer in an open source project is a leading developer, someone who shapes the growth of that project, in contrast to regular developers, who work as contributors. However, Riehle notes, the line between these two positions the level of influence and responsibility is far from clear.
In open source theres not yet a clear distinction between product management and development, he says. A lot of product management is actually done by the developers, because they are the folks who do it, so they decide their way.
Still, being a Committer matters, Riehle says. If you are a developer at the Committer status, for an important open source project, youre likely to have a higher salary. Thats anecdotal evidence [it comes from a study that hasnt been fully published]. According to that study they empirically verified that. But until I fully see that, its anecdotal.
Q: You write in your paper that, for software developers, life has become more difficult and exciting at once. In what sense is it more difficult?
If you take a labor economics perspective, from the employer perspective its easier to get developers who are familiar with the [open source] software youre using. Developers might have seen it in a previous job, or when they were students. Because its open source software, its freely available.
So I would expect and again this has to be empirically verified that because of this increased interchangeability [of open source programmers], that regular salaries might take a dip. I dont know how big it is, if it would be a significant dip, but I would expect it to be visible.
Q: So youre saying that, because knowledge of the underlying source code is less rare, workers are paid less?
Its about the power between the employer and the employee. The employer is always in a stronger position, of course. But if they can draw on an even larger worker pool than before, who can get up to speed faster, the little advantage that a regular developer has which is knowing the employers products really well, while the outside person doesnt that little advantage gets diluted. And that pushes down salary.
I assume there would be counterbalancing forces. But from a labor economics perspective, I would expect that high-powered positions in visible open source projects would get an uptick, and the average developer would get a downtick.
Q: Can you talk about the role of the Committer?
You need to look at how, in the future, or increasingly, software companies develop software. Which involves, almost certainly, incorporating open source components. There will be stuff that will always be proprietary, because, for the typical software vendor, there must be a competitive differentiator. But small parts, or large parts, could or should be open source.
These open source components will be more important or less important. For those that are more important, [software vendors] will want to have some influence on the direction of that component because its part of their product. If it goes a wholly different way than from what they need it for, they might be in trouble.
You can analyze, for example, the The Eclipse project. You can see how companies that incorporate certain components of the Eclipse platform are trying to get their developers in there as Committers, who are those folks who have a stronger say in what gets done next.
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