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Open source hackers are very likely to be programmers with a decade of professional experience employed by a commercial software company, and very unlikely to be the stock high school math-club geeks of popular press reports, a survey of SourceForge members conducted by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) indicates.

These and other findings were revealed at last week's LinuxWorld Conference in New York by BCG's Bob Wolf and Karim Lakhani, and OSDN's Jeff "Hemos" Bates who collaborated on the project.

"What's impressive is that the picture of sixteen to twenty year-olds working in their basement is not true," Bates observed. "They're twenty-two to thirty-seven essentially, by and large working within a corporate environment."

The chief motivations for donating time and effort to the open source community are varied, but include professional advancement; the need for mental stimulation; a personal belief that software ought to be open (not necessarily free); a chance to acquire new skills or refine existing ones; and practical needs for code which isn't commercially available.

Respondents were broken into clusters of 'believers', 'skill enhancers', 'fun seekers' and 'professionals'. Respondents classified as believers indicate a strong commitment to the idea that software should be open; skill enhancers overwhelmingly reported a desire to refine skills; fun seekers were those most likely to seek mental stimulation; professionals were those most interested in practical coding needed for a project, and CV bulking.

However, these categories don't appear to be exclusive. That is, a 'fun seeker' may well be employed as a commercial programmer.

Indeed, the great majority of respondents are employed in the field, so it's reasonable to infer that a lot of them are getting less than the desired amount of personal satisfaction and mental stimulation on the job.

The two greatest motives reported were intellectual stimulation and skill improvement; and the last thing motivating hackers appears to be any desire to 'defeat' proprietary software.

Volunteers

Respondents reported devoting a great deal of time to open-source projects. The mean contribution among respondents for all projects was a hefty fourteen hours per week. Additionally, a large number of respondents appealed to the creative nature of open development and freedom from traditional corporate supervision as primary attractions.

No doubt this reflects the fairly universal desire among professionals to ply their trade in circumstances which conform to their values. A doctor may participate in Médecins sans Frontières, for example, because it enables him to practice the sort of medicine that originally drew him to the field. We see this all the time: a plastic surgeon sick of tightening the gelatinous facial skin of blue-haired Manhattan matrons (however necessary this may be to keep his Mercedes from the repo man) may find himself happily practicing 'real' medicine in Asia or Africa for a month or two each year, repairing the faces of needy children devastated by accidents or birth defects.

It should be no surprise that programmers have their own set of work values, albeit somewhat less humanitarian in nature, which a volunteer program like the open source movement permits them to exercise.

Dream job

If we look at what respondents say they want from leaders in the open source community, we see a picture of something quite unlike corporate project management, and remarkably like the open-source model as it's practiced. That is, there's a clear desire for 'space' for individual creativity and initiative. Thus it would be reasonable view the open source movement as, in part, an extension of the need for professional programmers to break free of corporate paternalism and enjoy doing their work in a more idealized environment.

We may take from the data some reassurance that the open source community is chiefly a responsible group of experienced professionals, which is a message the IT suits definitely need to get; but perhaps more importantly, additional data like this might be accumulated and used to adjust the corporate work environment to make it more appealing to programmers, and make them, in turn, more productive. If a company would exploit the way programmers like to work, it needs to forget about we-so-hip window dressings like cappuccino makers and scooters, and look more closely at how programmers work when they're not getting paid.

Surely the open source movement is an excellent ecological venue for further research along such lines. ®

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