UPDATE: Though my original post was 95% a fantasy, I’ve received some funding offers that have brought it down to 75% fantasy. I will be documenting any planning I’m doing towards via a wiki called RubyMendicant. If you’d like to follow this on the bleeding edge, keep an eye out on that wiki. Otherwise, if you hear an official announcement within the next few weeks, you’ll know I decided to take the plunge, and if you don’t, then it’s safe to assume this idea went the way of the dodo. If you like this idea, please spread the word through the usual means of the intertubes by sharing this post and the wiki link with others.
Here’s a crazy idea I just had, and I’m wondering what folks think about it.
People do open source for a lot of reasons, ranging from pragmatic to idealistic. Some write a patch every six months or so, others do what they can to dedicate their life to it. Though I try to have a life outside of software, I’m definitely more on the obsessed end of the spectrum when it comes to contributing to open source software.
I find myself in a rather unique situation: Single, living alone in a small studio apartment, only taking a class or two here and there, and basically living off of small contracts. It’s not that I’m not offered big gigs, or that I couldn’t go back to school full time if I really wanted to, I just find I enjoy living a simple lifestyle that lets me spend a lot of time on community oriented projects, especially Ruby stuff.
Right now, I need to do some work each month to pay the rent, and slowly save up to make sure I don’t get evicted during a slow work month. Between BTree and Madriska, I could say that I have two of the most open source friendly commercial relationships I’ve ever seen. Though I’m working on real projects with them, things that have to actually fit some sort of business need, they give me a lot of leeway to improve open source software while working on them, Ruport is pushed along heavily by this.
I could see myself doing that for a while. Working with a few different clients I trust, who in turn hook me up with interesting projects for a variety of companies in various different domains. A lot of it might be Rails work, but not all of it is. Still, in a moment of idealistic fantasy, I thought of another idea:
What if I could just do open source for a while, non-commercially?
How much would it cost for me to do at least 80 hours a month of development on software projects such as PDF::Writer, Ruport, and some other projects I wish I had the time to get my hands on?
I did the math, and the number came out low (subjective). I could meet all my expenses and save some money for about $2000 a month. Basically, if 200 people donated $60 right now, I could take 6 months off and do nearly 500 hours of work, and that’s only if I didn’t find myself obsessed with and doing extra hours on a project. I could more-or-less maintain my lifestyle that I have now, but not take on contracting projects that are either too big or too small out of necessity. Sure, this works out to be a lot lower than my contracting rate, but I could hack entirely on open source projects, maybe write some documentation and articles, and still be able to afford a class or two a semester. Sounds beautiful to me, though I’m sure it’s just a fantasy.
Indulging me for the moment, how would I remain accountable to anyone who supported such a venture? I’d make it transparent as possible. I’d record public hours, with links to changesets, tickets, blog posts, whatever. Though people would have to accept good faith (with at least a roughly outlined plan) as to ‘where I direct the time’, they’d get to see every bit of ‘where the hours went’.
What prevents this from being a total scam? You do. Though I don’t have some A-List reputation, I still make my living based on my reputation as a developer and a contractor. If I somehow totally screwed people who supported such an effort, all it would take would be enough negative feedback from the community to prevent me from getting away with dishonesty.
What would indicate a great success? If after 6 months, this all worked out, and I was interested in doing it for another 6 months, if people funded it, we’d know they actually liked what I did the first time around.
Finally, this doesn’t have to be me. It could be any old hacker you choose, someone you trust that’s working on things you’re interested in. They’d tell you how much it’d cost to have them quit their day job for 6 months, and hopefully people could pool resources. Though the open source community is kept alive by small day to day contributions, we all know the power of having someone dedicated to a project with copious free time.
I’m talking in theory, because obviously there are some complications. If I personally were to do this, I’d need to cycle out of some projects, and figure out to what extent it’d piss of the people I work with. Still, I am sort of curious, is this an idea that belongs in the trashbin, or should I open up a pledgie account for donations? :)
Maybe this is something that could be done on a trial basis, such as ‘40 hrs over 1 month’. This is something I could do without putting a close to all my work. Given that, based on my needs (not my billable rate), that’d be um… 10 dollars from 100 people?
On the one hand, this seems almost like a joke to me, a sort of ‘wouldn’t it be nice if…’. Still, if some respected Rubyist wanted to steal this idea, undercut me on the price, and ask people to start donating, would I be among them? You bet ya.
Let me know what you think. I’ve tried so hard over the last few years to find ethical and practical ways to work in open source development, and they pretty much work. But because of that, I’ve mostly ignored the idealistic ones, and this is just a shot in the dark at one of those.