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Open Source Funding

December 6, 2021

How Open Source developers can make a living.

Most tools Web Developers use daily are free and created by Open Source developers. Open Source software never really became popular among software users. Commercial products like macOS or figma were more popular in almost every sector. Commercial developer frameworks like .NET or the whole Apple developer ecosystem around XCode are popular where there is a certain platform and a commercial interest for the company behind it to provide the best tools. However, especially with Web Development things are different. Almost to a fault the tools used are all Open Source. This may in part be the result of the inherent cross platform aspect of the web where except for the developers themselves no one is really interested to provide a great experience.

The Birth of Open Source Developer Frameworks

In the shadows of a missing commercial interest to create an all encompassing framework for Web Development a huge ecosystem grew. Most of the developers are individuals making something public they would have written anyways at work or for a hobby project. Interesting applications quickly garner attention among other developers who often provide encouragement, insight or help.

Most of the source code is publicly visible on GitHub and with the permission of the author anyone can participate in the creation of the code.

Looking for Funding

The developers for some of the more popular frameworks dedicate huge amounts of their time to polish these frameworks. Unfortunately, the initial reward from all the attention one gets will inevitably wane and people will start to question their choices. The most obvious way to get some kind of a tangible reward is to ask the users for donations while keeping the framework free for everyone to use. For about 1% of the frameworks used this will provide enough money to pay one or two developers to work full time on the project. Notable examples include eslint or webpack.

Discovery as Marketing Device

Open source frameworks where the authors somehow receive funding will inevitably outcompete other developers without funding in many aspects relevant for the everyday Web Developer. Developers at various companies started publishing frameworks they used internally publicly under the name of their companies. React was first used internally for the Facebook website and then published by a few developers at the company. Initially a side project Facebook soon realized the popularity the framework had among developers. It didn't take long until people were paid full-time to work on React. Even earlier Google sponsored the Angular framework created by Miško Hevery. With TypeScript and VSCode Microsoft is also actively sponsoring a few Open Source projects that took the Web Development community by storm.

These examples have in common that they were side projects first published by internal developers of huge companies which after some initial success then received dedicated funding from the company. In part, this is made possible by rather lax policies which allow developers some freedom in creating their own tools instead of using what already exists and would usually be cheaper. For example Google offers their employees one day per week where they can focus on any project they personally want.

Open Source First Company

Vercel formerly called Zeit is a website hosting company founded by Guillermo Rauch. Initially, the company wasn't created by Open Source creators but Rauch himself a Web Developer already had a fondness for certain frameworks. In a 2016 in Review blog entry he mentions some Open Source frameworks. First is hyper an Open Source terminal applicated mainly created by Rauch himself. Secondly, Next.js a dynamic server side rendering framework for React is mentioned. Next.js is authored by Naoyuki Kanezawa Vercel's co-founder along Rauch and it's also published under the company brand.

Next.js being the first popular Server-Side rendering framework brought a lot of attention to it's sponsor the Vercel hosting service which was perfectly suited to host Next.js websites. We can assume that Rauch became a big fan of investing in Open Source as a way to market it's platform on an already very crowded marked. To name a few Microsft Azure, Google Cloud or Amazon Web Services are all billion dollar hosting services offering much more than what Vercel could at the time. Apart from the connection to Open Source Vercel was famous for providing a very simple UI that made the whole process of publishing a React website much easier than any of their competitors. The service is built to work only with node and works especially well with Next.js. The focus on Open Source can really be seen as non-commercial projects can be hosted on Vercel for free.

Over time Vercel started hiring more and more people to work full-time on Next.js. However still, this type of sponsoring seemed somewhat similar to what the bigger companies mentioned in the previous section were already doing. The surprise came when Vercel announced a set of high-profile hires and allowed them to continue to work full-time on their project.

These are some high profile people in the Open Source community. It's not always clear how them working on these projects will have a positive impact for Vercel. That's why it's especially great to have a company like Vercel giving them both funding and freedom to work on things they initially created for free.

A strategy behind these hiring decisions isn't clearly discernable, as for example webpack and rollup are both build tools that do the exact same thing. On the other hand, Facebook also has two authors of the most popular state management libraries (Redux and MobX) working for them. In a similar way we'll probably see Vercels new hires starting to work more on tools closer to the Vercel Open Source ecosystem.

It's definitely an interesting decision how Vercel is focusing on popular Open Source authors and funding them. We're hoping this will work out in the future and pave a new way for Open Source to become a viable way of life for many more.

GitHub Profile for Hiring

Naturally, an active GitHub profile will tell a potential employer much more about how well suited a candidate is for a certain position in Web Development than an academic degree or even an elaborate in person interview. Therefore, we recommend every aspiring Web Developer to start as early as possible to create a public Open Source presence to showcase their interests and skills. School usually offers adequate time to focus on such projects on the side.