Will Open Source Developers be Well Paid?

An open source researcher talks about the pay levels of developers. Plus, who makes more: open source or closed source developers?
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By his own description, Dirk Riehle is a major fan of open source software. Riehle, leader of the open source research group at SAP Labs in Palo Alto, California, spends countless hours theorizing about the economics of this emerging software trend.

Dirk Riehle, open source researcher

Dirk Riehle, open source researcher, SAP Labs

He’s 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 Riehle’s 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 there’s 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, you’re likely to have a higher salary. That’s anecdotal evidence [it comes from a study that hasn’t been fully published]. According to that study they empirically verified that. But until I fully see that, it’s 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 it’s easier to get developers who are familiar with the [open source] software you’re using. Developers might have seen it in a previous job, or when they were students. Because it’s open source software, it’s 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 don’t know how big it is, if it would be a significant dip, but I would expect it to be visible.”

Q: So you’re saying that, because knowledge of the underlying source code is less rare, workers are paid less?

“It’s 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 employer’s products really well, while the outside person doesn’t – 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 it’s 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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Tags: open source, software, developers, IT Jobs/Salary, SAP

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