Engagement Expert Series

What Drives the World’s Most Valuable Volunteers?

Written by Lenny DeFranco

Open-source software is the bedrock of the digital world. Though many of us associate modern computing with brands like Apple or IBM, much of the technology that those companies use was developed without much formal organization, out in the open, by anyone interested in contributing. It’s impossible to imagine where the world would be without open-source; familiar software like Firefox, WordPress, and Git are just the tip of the iceberg. Ubiquitous technologies such as Linux, Apache, MySQL, and programming languages like PHP power the digital age. All are open-source.

PHP's mascot, the Elephpant. Over 80% of the Internet is written in PHP, a language coded largely by about 250 open-source contributors.

Over 80% of the Internet is written in PHP, a language coded largely by about 250 open-source contributors.

Every open-source technology owes its existence to the efforts of software engineers who freely contribute time, talents, and (extreme) passion to their pet projects. Given the impact these technologies have had on society, the open-source movement is arguably the most important volunteer effort in history. What’s interesting about open-source from an HR perspective isn’t just that the entire modern world is founded upon the work of donated labor. It’s that these engineers are donating some of the most lucrative skills on the planet simply because they care about the work they’re doing.

Open-source, in other words, is an exemplar of people engaging with meaningful work. Contributors are so invested in their projects, they don’t even need salaries in order to commit themselves passionately to the job. What makes these people tick? Why do open-source contributors violate the old maxim, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free?”

Grovo Director of Engineering Anthony Ferrara can illuminate the situation. A Google alum and popular conference speaker, Ferrara is internationally known as a core contributor to PHP, an open-source programming language as old as HTML and HTTP and nearly as important: over 80% of the Internet is written in PHP. I sat down with Anthony to find out what it is about open-source that engages the world’s most valuable volunteers.

Me: Why do engineers contribute to open-source projects?

Ferrara: In my experience it’s a number of things: seeking fame, having something to prove, developing your skills. A nontrivial percentage do it just because they can and it’s a fun thing to do. A lot of us want to pay back to the community, having built our entire careers in open-source. You shouldn’t contribute to get a job, but that is a strong benefit of doing it. You get exposure to a broad network of engineers with different viewpoints.

How did you get involved with PHP?

Ferrara at a conference in New Zealand

Ferrara at a conference in New Zealand

I was a core developer of another major project being built on top of PHP. So I kept track of what the PHP team was up to, and my curiosity just got the better of me. The more I saw what they were doing, the more I wanted to see what was under the hood. I started diving deep, and I realized, hey, there’s some cool stuff here. And I just got deeply involved. So you can add ‘curiosity’ as a reason for getting into it, too.

How does the open-source contribution process work?

A small project will tend to have one leader who starts it and puts it out into the world. As more people get interested, they begin sending contributions. The larger the project gets, the more management you need around the contributions. Project PHP is very interesting because it has no formal leadership. Anybody in the world who wants to make changes can appeal to a group of about 200 who have voting rights. Everyone in the world can comment on every nontrivial change to the project, but it’s up to the voting body to ultimately accept or reject the change. It’s fairly close to being a democratic system.

With such loose governance, is there any accountability?

Loose governance has pros and cons. It’s a lot easier to get things done because it’s up to the people to actually do it. On the flip side, it can be difficult to effect change. The politics game becomes significant. There can be a lot of toxicity between groups. I do like the people aspect of open-source—much more than the technology side—in the sense that I can get people to come in and contribute. I see it as, “I can never scale; people can scale.” I love getting new people to enroll in the project.

You helped start a very influential chat room on Stack Overflow that you say has brought new people into the PHP project. How has it done that?

One, showing that it’s easy—that all you need to start is to want to start, that there are plenty of people who will help. Showing that no matter what level somebody is, they have something meaningful to contribute. And that has deep repercussions not just within the project, but throughout the industry and in all of life. Because I really believe the best way to grow people is to empower them. And when you show someone that they can do something they thought was beyond their reach, and you show them they actually have something to contribute, it gets them better engaged, which gets them to learn more. Engagement breeds better learning, and better engagement is better growth.

Google is famous for encouraging employees to spend 20% of their time on personal projects. As with open-source contributors, I’m always surprised to see the work people do entirely of their own volition.

At Google, that framework was very much built around a notion that engaged employees are not just happier, they’re more effective. And some of the biggest projects at Google came out of that 20% time. Gmail, Android Wear, Google Glass—there are so many projects where if you give people the right resources, amazingness comes out of it. Bell Labs literally just gave a bunch of brilliant people six-figure budgets and said, “Hey, if you come up with something, let us know.” And it launched a ton of really important innovations.

But isn’t that avidity something only found in the smartest people in the world? Wouldn’t most people, given free reign with that much money, just buy the nicest TV they could find and lounge in front of it?

I don’t know about that. I think that if we move people and elevate them, they’ll put their natural energies to use. Yeah, some people off the bat would just buy the TV and sit down. But that just means you haven’t engaged them properly. Some people are more self-engaged than others, but I think there’s a way to engage everybody. It’s just a matter of finding it.