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Learn about the bathrobe people in the open source community.
Let’s talk about the Bathrobe People. 

This was an interesting concept that came up at the Open Source Leadership Summit (OSLS) that I wanted to touch on because it is fundamental to open source projects and assumptions about them. Bathrobe People are the mythical creatures that are somehow going to pop up and, like the elves in the shoemaker story, contribute to your project by:

  • Fixing your most boring bugs;
  • Write the difficult part of your code that you have given up on; and
  • Add sections of the code that you designated as needed to be done at a later date or a nice-but-not-need-to-have.

They do all of this for a project for free while they sit in their bathrobes in their parent’s basement.  Honestly, before I joined the VMware Open Source Program Office (OSPO), I might have thought this was the case, too.

Yes, some people do contribute to a project during their non-work hours because that project holds interest to them in some form or another.  But there are also many people who contribute to an open source project for their job at a company.  The latter scenario means they are being paid to contribute to an open source project (whether a third party project or one originated by their company), because that project is a benefit for their company and most likely for users outside of that company.

This highlights that in an open source project the dynamic is quite different than the typical “hire resources to do exactly what you want.” There is a component of social engineering that proprietary projects lack and running an open source project needs serious thought about how to get the resources needed to make a project successful.

Monetary Compensation

As I pointed out above, there are two types of contributors:

  1. Those who give their time to an open source project free of monetary compensation,  aka the Bathrobe People, and;
  2. Those who are compensated monetarily to give their time to a project that is funded by their company; which signifies that open source contributors do not all work for free.

However, no matter where the contributor is located or what he/she wears while submitting his/her contributions, the people in the open source community are to be valued and treated as equals in a project, even if that project has originated from a company. This is a much more complex topic that I am completely oversimplifying for the sake of keeping this post manageable. I hope to write more on this topic of the open source community as time goes on.

Diversity & Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are long-standing issues in not only the corporate world, but in the open source community as well.  It is common knowledge that in industry there are fewer women than men in the software-developer world, which in turn means there are also less women in the open source world. A fact that was glaringly obvious to me while attending OSLS.  However, I would like to point out that this does not give anyone the right to treat these women any differently than you would in your own development teams.

I have to say, even though all of my chosen fields to study/work in are male-dominated, I will never get used to being the lone woman in a room of men. Feel free to insert “someone different from the norm” in place of “women” in this paragraph, as concerns with diversity and inclusion apply to more than just women.  In short, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  These developers may not work for your company directly, but they are a part of the same project, which makes them your coworkers.

Treat them with the same respect you would treat any coworker and remember that very few people actually do anything to earn your derision.  I like to think of all of us lifting each other up and not stomping on someone to make yourself appear more knowledgeable.

In short, Bathrobe People do exist, but you need to remember that these open source contributors are real people that have set aside their time for a variety of reasons. They come from different backgrounds, ages and socioeconomic standing. This means that whether or not they are compensated monetarily for your project they must be and deserve to be respected for their work just like any other company employee in your internal teams.

In fact, some may argue that the Bathrobe People should be treated even better than your company coworkers since they are donating their time for a project they voluntarily work on that you and your company are benefiting from.