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Survey Finds Many Open Source Maintainers Are Stressed Out and Underpaid, But Persist So They Can Make a Positive Impact

46% are not paid at all while only 26% earn more than $1,000 per year for their maintenance work, according to Tidelift survey
June 3, 2021

BOSTON, June 3, 2021 — A new survey by Tidelift, the premier provider of solutions for managing the open source software behind modern applications, found that most open source maintainers are not paid enough, if at all, for often stressful and thankless work. Yet, making a positive impact is what motivates these maintainers to continue their work despite the challenges.

This first-ever survey of open source maintainers was fielded in early 2021, and nearly 400 responded with thoughts about how their work is funded, and what they do (and don’t) enjoy about being a maintainer. The most pressing questions surround how open source maintainers should be compensated for their work and whether they are being paid adequately. 

“The entire world relies on open source components to power applications, yet our data shows that the open source maintainers who create and keep open source running well are not properly compensated for the incredible value they provide,” said Donald Fischer, CEO and co-founder, Tidelift. “The path to a safer, healthier open source software supply chain starts with ensuring more volunteer maintainers get paid adequately for the crucial work they do.”

Key Findings

Nearly half of maintainers are unpaid volunteers but many persist so they can make a positive impact

  • Forty-six percent are not paid at all, while only 26% earn more than $1,000 per year for their maintenance work. Tidelift is having an impact, with 52% of Tidelift-partnered maintainers making more than $1,000 per year for their work compared to only 17% of those maintainers who are not partnered with Tidelift.
  • The top three reasons maintainers enjoy their work are “making a positive impact on the world” (71%), “allowing me to fulfill a need for creative, challenging, and/or enjoyable work” (63%), and “getting to work on projects that matter to me” (59%).
  • Getting paid for maintenance work ranked dead last in the list of things maintainers enjoy today (21%), yet a deeper look at the data suggests that it's because most haven't traditionally had the opportunity to get paid. Only 18% of those getting paid less than $1,000 per year say getting paid is a reason they enjoy being a maintainer. That rises to 30% for those making $1,001 to $10,000, and explodes to 61% for those earning more than $10,000. 

But maintaining open source is often stressful, thankless, and financially unrewarding

  • Almost half of respondents (49%) cited “not getting financially compensated enough or at all for my work” as the top reason to dislike being a maintainer, followed by “adds to my personal stress” (45%), and “feel underappreciated or like the work is thankless” (40%).
  • More than half (59%) of maintainers surveyed have quit or considered quitting maintaining a project. The more projects a maintainer is responsible for, the more likely it is that they have considered quitting— over two thirds (68%) of those who managed 10 projects or more have quit or considered quitting.
  • The number one most likely reason to quit, cited by 60% of respondents, was that “other things in my life and work took priority.” 

How maintainers spend their time and where they need help

  • Maintainers spend less than a quarter (24%) of their time building new features and writing new code; followed by reviewing contributions, issues, and generally responding to users (20%); resolving conflicts and handling bugs (14%); and managing technical debt and improving existing code (11%).
  • The primary non-financial places where they are looking for help are with improving documentation and improving the experience for new users and contributors—with 90% of respondents reporting at least one of these as valuable. 
  • In addition, 69% of maintainers agree that “open source suffers from a lack of diversity and would benefit if contributors represent a wider set of backgrounds and experiences,” while only 9% disagree with the statement.
  • Their top ideas for increasing maintainer diversity were creating a welcoming atmosphere (72%), community onboarding and outreach (60%), and mentorship opportunities (56%). 

On June 7 at 11 a.m. EDT, Tidelift is hosting a panel of maintainers to discuss these survey results at the free, virtual event Upstream. Brenna Heaps of Tidelift will moderate with maintainer panelists including John Leider of Vuetify, Alex Clark of Pillow, Isabel Costa of AnitaB.org, Gina Häußge of OctoPrint. They’ll be joined by developer research expert Lawrence Hecht, who led the analysis of the survey results, and Ewa Jodlowska, executive director of the Python Software Foundation. Register at upstream.live

Receive a copy of the full survey report here.

About Tidelift

Tidelift helps organizations effectively manage the open source behind modern applications. Through the Tidelift Subscription, the company delivers a comprehensive management solution, including the tools to create customizable catalogs of known-good, proactively maintained components backed by Tidelift and its open source maintainer partners. Tidelift enables organizations to accelerate development and reduce risk when building applications with open source, so they can create even more incredible software, even faster. https://tidelift.com/ 

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Melissa Logan for Tidelift


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