Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software

The Noble Volunteer (Again)

I saw that the usual refrain of “we’re all volunteers here” had another outing on a recent LWN article about the Python 2 to 3 transition, specifically referring to who it is that supposedly does all the core development work on CPython (as well as constantly changing what the Python language is meant to be). There are a few different observations to be made here, so let me establish three main topics:

  1. The funding of Python implementation development.
  2. The hiring of various Python core development contributors.
  3. Python and Free Software as a hobby or spare time effort.

I have written about how the Python Software Foundation raises and spends money before. For the most part, nothing has changed since then: the PSF appears to raise and then spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year (apparently down from over $300000 in 2016 to under $250000 in 2017, though), directing this money mostly towards events and promotion. In fact, the largest contribution to core-related Python software development in 2017 was actually from the Mozilla Open Source Support programme, with a $170000 grant to fix up the Python Package Index infrastructure. So the PSF is clearly comfortable leaving it to others to fund the P in PSF.

Lots of people depend on the Python Package Index, but like with Free Software in general, the people making good money while leaning on these common, volunteer-run resources never seem to pitch in significantly themselves. It is true that the maintainer of this resource was allowed to work on it as his day job, but then got “downsized”, and now works in a role where he can work on it again but only as part of his day job. But I imagine that the people at Mozilla, some of whom have connections to the world of Python packaging, quite possibly relying on the package infrastructure to get their own stuff done, were getting fed up with “volunteers” as being the usual excuse for nothing getting done.

Now there certainly are Python core developers who are employed in work that influences CPython development or that has some connection to Python, perhaps related to other implementations of Python. Notably, Pyston and Pyjion were both developed by core developers working at Dropbox and Microsoft respectively. Famously, Guido van Rossum, Python’s originator, was hired by Google and then Dropbox, seemingly being able to dedicate some of his time on Python topics as part of his day job at both places. After all, it was during Van Rossum’s time at Google, accompanied by other Google-employed Python core contributors, that Python 3 started to take shape.

So it seems that some very large companies recognise the value that Python brings, they even hire influential people in the Python core development community, but maybe this does not translate to proper corporate support for Python core development. It could very well be the case that most of these people really do have to write Python code in their day jobs but cannot direct much or any time towards developing Python – the implementations or the language – in their working hours. They would be volunteers in their own time, albeit volunteers facilitated by their employment, having the stability of a relatively well-paid job and the good fortune of having Python core development as a productive and hopefully rewarding hobby.

Maybe it suits everyone being paid as a result of their reputation in the Python community to indulge in core development as a hobby. But what about everyone else? All those other volunteers who are doing the donkey work of testing and fixing the code when it stops working for them, implementing things that others have deemed a good idea, making Python 3 a reality, or whatever? Well, I suppose they get “pizza and beer soda” paid for by the PSF at their sprints.

In certain circles, it seems that a lot of effort is spent promoting a lifestyle that involves feel-good “volunteerism” and getting your name known through selfless volunteering. If you are one of those “other” volunteers, maybe the ultimate goal is to have the senior hobbyists in the community recommending you to their employers, which would explain how Python core developers seem to cluster in various companies. Maybe this is the new “open source” dream: not actually being paid to work on Free Software but merely pursuing it as a hobby, dependent on an employer for the lifestyle but not influenced by them, at least not conspicuously, retaining the ability to play the volunteer card.

And this leads me to a more general observation that came to mind when reading a remark by someone trying to establish a viable enterprise, all for the benefit of Free Software and open hardware. It was about how he was on the ground, doing all the legwork, opening up new opportunities the hard way while people in their comfortable jobs let him get on with it, throwing pennies his way and waiting for their substantial but cheaply-acquired rewards. Now, in that particular instance my sympathy is muted, for various reasons that hopefully do not need a public airing, but I see the point being made and, once you are aware of it, it is an annoyingly familiar one.

You will often see people inviting others to contribute to their projects, writing things like “how about someone fix this, make this better, implement this, do this?” It sounds so constructive, so worthy, like you can make a difference. In Norwegian, there’s even a word for the spirit of this kind of thing – “dugnad” – which is awkward to translate to English, but it effectively denotes an event or general activity where everyone pitches in collectively to get something done in a way that is relatively painless for each participant. Being a cynic, I would often translate “dugnad” as to be too cheap to pay to get something done properly.

What can be even more galling is that people “howabouting” potential contributors are not only comfortable hobbyists, but some of them also solicit donations for their hobby, not because they need the money but because it might cover a few beers or pizzas, some entertainment, or whatever. And so, a notion is cultivated that everything can be done by voluntary effort, that the value of such work is effectively “beer money”, and with the likes of the PSF not willing to put its own money the way of its own technology, people start to think that if “pizza and beer soda” is enough to improve a Free Software product, why would anyone want to pay people real money to improve it?

And so the notion of the volunteer, so noble and selfless, actually cheapens the value of the work that has to be done. Why bother paying for Free Software or for anyone to work on it when the noble volunteers will get it done? The answer, of course, is that people typically don’t and so the important things typically don’t get done, either. Still, at least the hobbyists get to have some fun.

A Timely Example

In another comment on the referenced article, discussing the general Python 3 strategy and whether anyone who had criticised it might have been worth listening to, it was noted that such critics might be like a “broken clock”: wrong most of the time but coincidentally right on certain occasions. I guess that for those who don’t like to hear criticism of the Python 3 masterplan, I could be one of those broken clocks, having criticised the introduction of Python 3. But if as the saying goes “a broken clock is right twice a day”, maybe some of my other criticisms are also worth taking a look at: one of them is probably good.

Of course, it hardly requires special predictive powers to note that people with large investments in existing code might not like being told that it is “good for them” to have to rewrite it all. And it is hardly a surprise that people have been motivated to look at other languages partly as a consequence of that, partly because of Python’s lack of direction or progress on other fronts, as language evolution dominates over all other concerns.

Spare a thought for Guido van Rossum whose colleagues, no matter where he works, always seem to end up writing software in Go instead of in the language that presumably got him through the door. Perhaps things wouldn’t have played out that way if those benefiting from Python had also properly invested in it, instead of leaving it for the hobbyists or using “we’re all volunteers” as an excuse for not keeping Python competitive with other emerging languages and technologies.

Some Updates

I was recently contacted by Sumana Harihareswara who asked for me to clarify that the proposal for improving the Python packaging infrastructure was initiated within the PSF’s Packaging Working Group, not by Mozilla, at least as far as available information would suggest. As someone involved with this working group, Sumana appears to be in a position to make claims about this more authoritatively than I can.

Meanwhile, an invitation to a PSF-related sprint that I happened to see today advertises “an amazing evening of coding, pizza and beer”. Having read a gushing endorsement of “dugnad” culture only recently – a classic promotional piece for readers outside Norway – I cannot help but observe that putting the burden for things onto the voluntary sector, so that the state can save money (to give as tax cuts to the wealthy) and so that the private sector can get something for nothing (to maximise shareholder returns), is rather a pervasive and not-so-noble phenomenon that will readily document itself to anyone paying enough attention.

2 Responses to “The Noble Volunteer (Again)”

  1. Rijk Ravestein Says:

    Hi Paul,

    I am one of those someones “trying to establish a viable enterprise, all for the benefit of Free Software and open hardware”. You are absolutely right with your analyses. My conclusion: Free Software professionals should behave like adults and stand up for themselves.

    I try to make a difference with https://www.librepractice.org/ , and my own proof-of-concept Libre Software Practice, because I am convinced “Free Software is Serious Business”:

    https://wiki.librepractice.org/doku.php?id=free-software-is-serious-business


    Regards, Rijk

  2. Paul Boddie Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Rijk! “When costs are not compensated, producers will eventually fade away.” This is so true, and so much more concise than what I have written. ;-)

    It sounds like Datraverse acts a bit like an organisation like Software Freedom Conservancy with regard to being a custodian and looking after the organisational aspects of the Free Software project it is concerned with. At the same time, many things seem to resemble the way cooperatives work.

    I was recently exposed to cooperative businesses through a recruitment process that, for me, didn’t lead to an opportunity but was nevertheless a nice conversation. It does occur to me that such forms of organisation may offer solutions, too.