You Are All On The Hobbyists Maintainers' Turf Now

01 Apr 2024 - Thomas Depierre

For quite some time, I have felt some unease at the public discourse around OpenSource. In the past few years, we have seen a growing discourse around the sustainability and security of the large body of OpenSource software. The Software Supply Chain discourse, moves from some startup to leave the OpenSource movement with their code, movement from entities like the Sovereign Tech Fund to support the maintenance of critical infrastructure, etc, etc.

But throughout this discourse, I have had a feeling of unease. It felt like my own experience as a maintainer and as a developer using opensource dependencies was quite different from what everyone was talking about. And not only me, but also all the network of maintainers and developers I regularly interact with.

The solutions offered seemed never to meet the problems we had. They were all profoundly impractical, if not totally useless. So I was wondering. Am I out of touch, or are the movement’s elders wrong?

It is the Elders Who Are Wrong

But I needed more solid proof. I had a bunch of shreds of evidence and clues supporting my hunch, but nothing really directly supporting it. Until I stumbled upon Synopsys’ 2024 Open Source Security and Risk Analysis Report. In the middle of this report, there is an amazing statistic.

77% of all code in the total codebase originated from open-source

Well, that does feel like open-source won, and the vast majority of software out there in every app is open-source. Commercial software has already lost if it is less than 25% of the total amount of software out there. “Closing back down” some codebases is probably not going to endanger OpenSource any time soon.

While this provides me with solid support that nearly all of the software out there is made of opensource dependencies, with a bit of glue code and a top layer of commercial code on top, it was still not fully answering my hunch,

But then, the 2023 Tidelift state of the open source maintainer report gave me the evidence I lacked.

  • 60% of maintainers describe themselves as unpaid hobbyists, while only
  • 13% describe themselves as professional maintainers earning most or all of their income from maintaining projects.
  • 23% of maintainers describe themselves as semi-professionals, earning some of their income from maintaining projects.

If we combine these two sets of data 1 we obtain a fascinating result2.

  • 46% of all code out there, in every app, is maintained by hobbyists
  • 13,8% is maintained by “I sometimes get a bit of pocket money for my code”
  • 40% of all code out there is maintained by an industry-paid person

So, nearly 60% of all code being actively shipped in an app or product in the wild is hobbyist-maintained open-source. And that probably undercounts all the build systems and compilers that support this.

How long is your weekend?

Now, here is the thing. We do not know how much time these “weekend maintainers” spend on their OpenSource codebase. But I can give you an idea. Probably around 1h to 2h a month.

They are also hundreds of thousands of them, spread across ecosystems, dependency trees that go wider than you think, and more.

It means that anything you offer must fit in 1h per month. That is it. And if it does not, if it needs more involvement than that, we, as maintainers, will not do it. At all. And then what will you do? Throw away the 60% of the code the world depends on in every software product?

No. You will discover that you made nothing better.

Welcome To My World

If your plans for open-source sustainability or security do not align first and foremost with this population it is not going to achieve anything. Forget everything you think you know about security, paying for software, maintenance, tools, etc.

This is a community that evolved parallel to you. And that evolved to deal with its own constraints that you know nothing about.

And no. If you participated in the Free Software movement of the 90s or early 00s, if you are a Libre/Free Software Activist, if you believe in Digital Rights or anything like that. You do not know anything about it. This is not the same world that you were part of. The complexity is off the chart; we are hidden layers and layers under the scaffolding. And we are used everywhere.

So sit down. Learn. Shut up. Please stop trying to bring solutions, thinking you get it. You do not. If you did, you would not offer the thing you are. You would understand what I say here. You would be among the people who just read what you post and shake their heads. Before going back trying to keep everyone’s machine still running after Apple botched another release of their filesystem. Or of Autoconf.

You are on our turf now. Hobbyists Maintainers’ turf. My turf.You all depend on what we do and how we do it. And you need to internalize that you are not the natives here. So observe. Ask questions. And more importantly, please listen to us. If we tell you that you are spewing nonsense, if we do not react to what you offer, if we seem not to respect you, it is not because we are pricks. Not because we believe in shunning out outsiders.

If we do not respect you, it is because you are showing your ass.

We Need You Here

You are the one that depends on us. You do not know the rules. You do not know the systems. You do not understand its sharp edges. You need us. You need the 60%. Everyone in this world now depends, one way or another, on us.

And we know that. And we are terrified of this. Because we know how broken it is. How fragile. That I could wake up tomorrow and discover that the whole world is on fire because of my code. We don’t like it, trust us.

We are not shunning responsibilities. If we did we would not keep the world running. Respect our work, please. But yes. We need help. We want help. We want you here to help us.

What we ask you, while we are growing the part that we maintain for all of you, because yes, that percentage is growing every year, is to start by understanding us. We want your help, but it needs to be helpful. Otherwise, it is just more stuff we need to handle in 1h per month, on top of keeping the world running.

And the easiest way to not lose our precious time, the time we have so few, is to ignore you all. Because we have a world to keep running. And we only have 1 hour. Please don’t waste this time. Who knows what the impact could be?

PS: This has been cooking in my head for the past three weeks. At least. This is not particularly linked to the XZ situation. And yet.

  1. Do not do this at home; they are not the same thing and cannot be combined this way if you want to do proper work. However, it is not too bad for this kind of thought leadership piece, to get a rough idea of the whole field. 

  2. Beware, I am really conservative here. There is a huge possibility that the Tidelift report sample of responders is biased toward paid open-source maintainers, as it is their business. The same is true for Synopsys; their estimates are probably quite conservative.