Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

09 Feb 2014, 10:19 a.m.

Open Source Careers

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2014 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Yesterday I spoke at an OpenHatch Open Source Comes to Campus event on the other side of the country. The organizers set up a video conference and asked me, and two other people who work in open source, to talk about our careers. (If you are running an event like this, or teach a class or something, I'd probably be happy to do this for you as well.) Some things we mentioned:


  • The three of us get paid pretty darn well. Have I mentioned that I just took a three-month sabbatical? And that I support my spouse, who writes scifi?
  • Companies that make proprietary software often frustratingly limit what their employees can do. I can blog, speak at conferences, swap useful information, and so on without asking lawyers for every little thing. If you haven't dealt with the chilling effects of onerous nondisclosure agreements before, you may underestimate how annoying they are.
  • Many processes we reflexively follow in open source are just good ideas regardless. If you're making software with other people, you'll want to systematically keep track of your shared TODO list (with a bug tracker), track who made what changes to the code and have easy rollback (source control), and talk in one central place with other people to make and document decisions (mailing list or similar). Some closed-source firms don't follow these best practices, and that boggles me and often lands them in The Daily WTF. But open source orgs generally get this right.
  • Do not underestimate the value of meeting people face-to-face. The LWN calendar, Lanyrd, and Meetup can help you find these events. And there's often funding available if you need help getting to conferences, either formally (e.g., WisCon, PyCon, and Wikimania), or informally; try asking.
  • If you are doing anything even remotely related to Python, try to get to PyCon, because the people are friendly and the sprints are invaluable. [This of course said by someone other than me, as this year will be my first PyCon!]

By the way, I should also link to this one-hour video on the realities of open source careers. Cynical in some ways, and I particularly disagree with the speaker on the matter of references; you should not assume that the hiring manager isn't going to directly call the references you provide, and ask them interesting questions. And the emphasis on unpaid work can go awry, and I started rolling my eyes at the oversimplifications halfway through (e.g., the idea that an employment contract means literally nothing). But the talk also has some truths that students don't hear often enough.


11 Feb 2014, 15:50 p.m.

Just a note: we still do have NDAs in enterprise open source. The ability to conduct discussions in secret is an important part of business, no matter how out in the open your actual code may be.

Sumana Harihareswara
11 Feb 2014, 19:48 p.m.

Camille is right! For instance, people at the Wikimedia Foundation sign nondisclosure agreements saying that, for instance, we won't reveal the names and private information of our donors. But the NDAs are a lot less onerous for us in open source orgs than in closed source orgs.