Why developers contribute to open source software

Virtually every software developer uses open source in some way, but not every developer is an open source contributor.  

While an impressive 59% do contribute, that still leaves two out of every five developers who choose not to contribute at all.

That’s according to UK-based analyst company SlashData which tracks global software developer trends based on over 30 000 software developers in more than 165 countries. In its April 2020 State of the Developer Nation report, which is based on the 18 Developer Economics global survey that ran from November 2019 to February 2020 and reached more than 17 000 developers in 159 countries, SlashData looked at which developers were more likely to contribute, and what motivated them to do so.

When it comes to the demographics of contributors, it seems that age does make a difference. One third of open source software contributors are younger than 24, compared to 26% of non-contributors.

However, youth in this instance does not equate to inexperience. Over 40% of contributors have one to five years of experience as programmers, some four percentage points more than their non-contributing counterparts.

SlashData also found that not all contributors are professional software developers, or even work within the software industry, and they’re far more likely to be involved in multiple development areas than non-contributors. This includes developing software for emerging sectors such as machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) where innovations are mostly driven by open source tools.

An interesting trend the survey identified was that the majority of software developers in the emerging sectors are hobbyists although the majority (57%) also work professionally in at least one other development area.

The survey revealed that most developers have multiple reasons for contributing to open source. Overall, the highest proportion (29%) do so to improve their coding skills and 26% have an ideological motivation – they believe in the benefits of open source. A large group (22%) do so because it’s 'fun', the same percentage as those who do so to solve an issue with an existing open source software project such as fixing a bug or creating a new feature.

Financial reward, it seems, is not a motivating factor for most contributors, with only 3% of developers getting paid for their work on open source projects. These developers are almost 20% less likely to think it’s fun to contribute than those who contribute for other reasons.

However, while immediate financial benefit may not be important to most contributors, this does not mean they do not hope to be rewarded in the future, with 14% stating that they get involved in open source projects to build their reputations or to network (11%).

In an indication of the growing recognition of how important open source is, two-thirds of non-contributors to open source believe that companies should be involved in providing support to the open source software community.

On the other hand, only 44% of contributors expect the same involvement from companies, although this rises to 55% for developers who contribute to solving issues.

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