What motivates open source coders?

Samuel Schlaefli
Writer, ETH News
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Open source software is everywhere: from the Android operating system in our smartphones to Linux, which can be found in the most powerful supercomputers. The enormous success of open source software is based on the ‘open innovation’ concept, a model enabling anyone with the right skills, time and interest to work on a project. It is decentralised, online, and has no hierarchical organisational structures, set commitments or financial rewards. This ‘innovation of the masses’ has even become mainstream in the private sector in the past few years, particularly among technology companies such as Google, Motorola, Ad Novum and IBM. All of these industry giants have come to understand that open source communities can program thousands of lines of code for a new product far quicker and more efficiently than a closed, in-house team.

Factors for intrinsic motivation

Georg von Krogh, Professor of Strategic Management and Innovation at ETH Zurich has spent the last few years studying ‘open innovation’. His latest study, in collaboration with the University of Hamburg, has just been published. Since open source community members usually do not receive any kind of financial compensation for their work, Von Krogh has reached the conclusion that the motivation behind this is of an intrinsic nature – driven by interest, fun, altruism and a desire to learn. His team is now investigating the characteristics of companies responsible for launching and partially funding open source projects, and the way in which they motivate volunteer developers to participate in a project. There is no shortage of offers: thousands of firm sponsored open source projects compete both with each other on internet platforms such as GitHub and SourceForge and with projects launched by the open source community itself. Since commercial interests do not come into play for the latter, these tend to be more intrinsically motivating – or at least this was assumed until now.

Von Krogh’s team sent online questionnaires to volunteer developers at two open source projects: one from the Taiwanese computer manufacturer First International Computer, which is co-financing a project to develop an open-source operating system for smartphones, and the other from a Nokia-sponsored software platform for smartphones and tablets. More than 4,000 freelance open source developers around world registered to work on the two projects on the respective platforms. Just over a quarter responded to the researchers’ online questionnaire.

Credibility and openness as key motivating factors

The results were surprising: “Previously we had assumed that freelance developers preferred non-commercial projects,” says Vivianna Fang He, senior researcher at the Chair of Strategic Management and Innovation and co-author of the study. “But that is not always the case. It turns out that the people who responded tend to decide more on a case-by-case basis.

Two factors stood out as the most important drivers behind intrinsic motivation: the credibility and openness of a company. “In the eyes of the respondents, a company is, above all else, credible when it acts fairly,” explains Fang He. For the respondents, fairness implies that the software they are helping to develop will not be licensed, but will instead be available for the community to further modify and develop down the road.

Many developers also link credibility with the technical abilities of the company’s employees. “This is because many open source programmers want to learn from the company’s developers as a form of compensation for the time that they invest,” explains Fang He.

The company’s openness

For the freelance developers, a company’s openness – the second-most important factor for intrinsic motivation – is characterised by the unimpeded flow of information between the two sides. “Uploading information alone achieves nothing,” says Fang He. “The sponsor also has to be open to questions and suggestions from the community.” To be truly motivating, there has to be an intensive exchange between the developers in the company and the community. “Belonging to and identifying with a group is not only important for a team in a company, but for virtual groups, too” says Fang He, and there have to be ways to motivate and retain volunteers over the longer term without offering them financial incentives for their work.

Many companies have since come to understand this, and they organise conferences, workshops and training opportunities to forge personal connections with their virtual developer community and strengthen the sense of group identity. IBM even announced last September that it would invest one billion dollars in activities and a new platform to collaboratively develop Linux and open source technologies. Those responsible for companies’ open innovation strategy are likely to have a keen interest in the findings of this new study.

This article is published in collaboration with ETH Zurich. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Samuel Schlaefli writes for ETH Zurich

Image: An illustration picture shows a projection of binary code on a man holding a laptop computer. REUTERS

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