Free work is hard work

As has previously been established, I’m a big fan of paying people for labour and think you deserve to get what you pay for when it comes to software (yes, I do run a free operating system. And yes, I get what more or less precisely what I pay for).

But… honesty compels me to admit that paying for work is no panacea. If you compare open source software to similar commercial products, the commercial ones are usually really bad too.

They’re often bad in different ways, but they’re still bad. Clearly being paid for work is not sufficient to make good software.

I think I’ve figured out a piece of this puzzle recently: When working for free, the decision making process looks very different from paid work. The result is that you can be good at things that people aren’t good at when writing commercial software, but it’s also that you just do a lot more work that you would otherwise never have bothered with.

Consider the question: “Should I do this piece of work?”

Free answer: “Well… people seem to think it’s important, and it looks a bit shit that I haven’t done it. I guess I can find some free time to work on it.”

Paid answer: “Will I earn more money from the results of doing this work than the work costs me?”

The result is that in free work, a lot of things happen that if you put your hard nosed businessperson hat on and looked at objectively make absolutely no sense.

A concrete example: Hypothesis supports Windows. This isn’t very hard, but it does create an ongoing maintenance burden.

Personally, I care not one whit for Python on Windows. I am certain that near 100% of the usage of Hypothesis on Windows is by people who also don’t care about Windows but feel bad about not supporting it. I only implemented it because “real” libraries are cross platform and I felt bad about not running on Windows.

In a business setting, the sensible solution would be  to not do the work until someone asked for it. and then either quote them for the work or charge a high enough license fee that you can soak the cost of platform support.

So what to do about this?

Well, on the open source side I think it makes sense to start being a bit more “on demand” with this stuff. I probably shouldn’t have supported Windows until I knew someone cared, and then I should have invited the person who cared to contribute time or money to it. Note: I am probably not going to follow my own advice here because I am an annoying perfectionist who is hurting the grade curve.

On the business side, I would advise that you get better software if you do sometimes do a bunch of stuff that doesn’t make immediate business sense as it rounds everything off and provides an over-all higher user experience even if any individual decision doesn’t make much sense. But honestly almost everyone writing software who is likely to read this is off in startup and adtech la la land where none of your decisions make any financial sense anyway, so that’s not very useful advice either.

So perhaps this isn’t the most actionable observation in the world, but now that I’ve noticed it’s going on I’ll be keeping a watchful eye out to observe its mechanisms and consequences.

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