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Motivating the Open Source Hacker

The Lucid experience shows that programmers often have loyalty to a project that goes beyond direct compensation for working on the project. Why do people write free software? Why do they give away freely what they could charge hundreds of dollars an hour for? What do they get out of it?

The motivation is not just altruism. The contributors here may not be loaded down with Microsoft stock options, but each has achieved a reputation that should assure him opportunities that pay the rent and feeds the kids. From the outside this can seem like a paradox; you can't eat free software after all. The answer lies, in part, in thinking beyond conventional notions of work and compensation. We are witnessing a new economic model take shape, not just a new culture.

Eric Raymond has become a kind of self-appointed participant anthropologist to the Open Source community, and in his writings he touches on the reasons why the people develop software only to give it away.

Keep in mind that these people have been, for the most part, coding for years, and don't see programming itself as burdensome, or as work. A very complex project like Apache or the Linux kernel brings the satisfaction of the ultimate in intellectual exercise. Much like the rush a runner feels while running a race, a true programmer will feel this same rush after writing a perfect routine or tight piece of code. It is difficult to describe the joy felt after completing or debugging a hideously tricky piece of recursive code that has been a source of trouble for days.

The point is that many programmers code because it is what they love to do, and in fact it is how they define their intellect. Without coding, a programmer feels less of a person, much like an athlete deprived of an opportunity to compete. Discipline can be a problem with programmers as much as with athletes; many programmers really don't enjoy maintaining a piece of code after having mastered it.

Still, other programmers don't take this ``macho'' view of their craft, and take a more scholarly view. Many programmers consider themselves, rightly, to be scientists. Scientists aren't supposed to hoard profits from their inventions, they are supposed to publish and share their inventions for all to benefit from. A scientist isn't supposed to let profits come at the expense of the pursuit of knowledge.

What all these introspections on programming have in common is an emphasis on reputation. Programming is a gift culture: the value of a programmer's work can only come from sharing it with others. That value is enhanced when the work is more widely shared, and that value is enhanced when the work is more completely shared by showing the source, not just the results from a pre-compiled binary.

Programming is also about empowerment, what Eric Raymond calls ``scratching an itch.'' Most Open Source projects began with frustration: looking for a tool to do a job and finding none, or finding one that was broken or poorly maintained. Eric Raymond began fetchmail this way; Larry Wall began Perl this way; Linus Torvalds began Linux this way. Empowerment, in many ways, is the most important concept underlying Stallman's motivation for starting the GNU project.

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Next: The Venture and Investment Up: Introduction Previous: Perils to Open Source

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Last updated: 1999-08-06