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The enemy within

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

I saw several interesting responses to my last post.  I liked Val‘s succint way of putting the career impact of free software work:

If you are even moderately successful in open source, you will probably end up “employed for life.”

I’m not sure I would go that far, since someone early in their career now might be working for 30, 40 or 50 more years, and it’s hard to say how much the artilects will care about open source after they’ve converted the entire mass of the solar system into computronium.  But certainly as long as the software industry looks the way it does now, developers who are able, both technically and socially, to work in the open source community are going to be in high demand.  (By the way, Val: two ‘e’s in “Dreier” 😛 — the native English-speaking brain seems hard-wired to misspell my last name)

There were also a few comments to my blog post from people who would like to do more in the open source community, but who are prevented by their current employer.  I understand that no job is ideal, and that people often can’t or won’t change jobs for many reasons — having a great commute, a gazillion dollars in stock still to vest, gambling debts to pay or any of a million other things might be reasons to stay in a particular position.

However, I think it’s important for people in those less than ideal positions to view this for what it is — these employers are taking money out of your pockets and limiting your future earnings just as surely as if they forbid you from other professional development such as learning a new programming language.  I’ve also found that many (although surely not all) software developers are too passive about accepting issues like this.

You need to keep in mind that you are responsible for getting the best for yourself — your interests are not your employers interests, and your employer is surely not going to put your interests first, so you better put your own interests first!  Of course this means that when negotiating things (and you are negotiating from your first job interview to the end of your exit interview), you need to explain why what you want is really in your employer’s interest.

There are many ways you can explain why contribution to open source is in an employer’s interest too, from the direct benefits: “This code has no real relevance to our business, but if we release it and get it upstream, other people will help us maintain it, which saves us money and time in the long term,” to slightly less concrete: “Contributing to free software is good marketing, and it’s going to help us sell as well as recruit and retain good developers,” to the personal: “I know we were told bonuses will be down this year, but something that you can do for me that doesn’t cost anything in your budget is let me contribute this code, which we already agreed the company has no interest in.”