We need to encourage the meta-conversation around open source, says Nadia Eghbal [Interview]

3 min read

Two years ago, Nadia Eghbal put together a report with the Ford Foundation. Titled Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure, the report is one of the most important discussions on the role of open source software in business and society today. It needs to be read.

In it, Eghbal writes:

“Everybody relies on shared code to write software, including Fortune 500 companies, government, major software companies and startups. In a world driven by technology, we are putting increased demand on those who maintain our digital infrastructure. Yet because these communities are not highly visible, the rest of the world has been slow to notice.”

Nadia’s argument is important for both engineers and the organizations that depend on them. It throws light on the literal labor that goes into building and maintaining software. At a time when issues of trust and blowout cast a shadow over the tech industry, Nadia’s report couldn’t be more important. It’s time for the world to stop pretending software is magic – it requires hard work.

Today, Nadia works for Protocol Labs. There, she continues her personal mission to explore and improve the relationship between who builds software and who needs it.

I was lucky enough to speak to Nadia via email, where she told me her thoughts on the current state of open source in 2018.

Open source software in 2018

Do you think there’s a knowledge gap or some confusion around open source? If so, what might be causing it?

Open source has been around for ~20 years now (and free software is much older than that), but I don’t think we’ve fully acknowledged how much things have changed. Earlier concerns, like around licensing, are less salient today, because of all the great work that was done in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But there isn’t really a coherent conversation happening around the needs or cultural shifts in modern open source today, like managing communities or finding the time and resources to work on projects. I think that’s partly because “open source” is such an obvious term now that people affiliate with specific communities, like JavaScript or Ruby – so that means the meta-conversation around open source is happening less frequently.

“Money is complicated in open source, especially given its decentralized nature”

Your report was published in July 2016. Has anything changed since it was published?

Nadia Eghbal at Strange Loop
Nadia Eghbal at Strange Loop 2017 (via commons.wikimedia.org)

Lots! When the report was first published, it wasn’t commonly accepted that sustainability was an important topic in open source. Today, it’s much more frequently discussed, with people starting research initiatives, conversations, and even companies around it. My views have evolved on the topic, too. Money is complicated in open source, especially given its decentralized nature, and it’s closely tied to behavior and incentives. Understanding all of that as a complete picture takes time.

“I’d like to see more developers advocate for company policies that encourage employees to contribute back to the open source they use.”

Getting developers to actively contribute to open source projects

Following the arguments put forward in your report, do you think there any implications for working software engineers – either professionally or politically?

I’d like to see more developers advocate for company policies that encourage employees to contribute back to the open source they use. Open source projects have become sort of productized as they’ve scaled, but it would be great to see more developers go from being passive users to active contributors. It’s also great for working developers who want to show off their work in public.

Similarly, are there any implications for businesses?

Any software-enabled business is mostly running on public infrastructure, not proprietary code, anymore. It’s in their best interest to get to know the people behind the code.

Follow Nadia on Twitter: @nayafia

Visit Nadia’s website: nadiaeghbal.com


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