Careers in open source: Ada Initiative releases survey of Grace Hopper attendees

In 2011, Ada Initiative Executive Director Valerie Aurora attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Portland, Oregon. As a volunteer on the open source booth on the exhibit floor of the conference, she asked attendees to volunteer to take a one-page survey about careers in open source. (They were rewarded with an energy bar.)

Grace Hopper is attended by students, computing professionals and academics, many of whom are job seekers or at least interested in the computing job market. While this is not a random or representative sample of technical women, and while it did require that the attendee was interested enough to chat to open source booth staff, it provides some initial indications about how aware interested motivated technical job seekers, particularly women job seekers, are of open source careers.

About the survey

The survey was a one page survey asking respondents short questions about their experience with open source and their perception of open source as a career path. The survey form is available.

There were 93 respondents, of whom 91 identified as a woman or female, 1 as a man or male, and 1 as genderqueer.

Experience with open source

In order to gauge previous experience with open source, we asked respondants to list My previous experience with open source. More than one response was allowed, and the totals were:

Experience with open source Number Percentage
I don't have any experience with open source 35 (m)(g) 38%
I know people who work or volunteer in open source 42 (g) 45%
I have done unpaid work related to open source 15 16%
I have done paid work related to open source 14 15%
Other 6 6%
Table key: (m) male respondent included, (g) genderqueer respondent included

Opinions of an open source career

Almost all respondents felt neutrally or positively about a career in open source when asked Rate how you feel about a job in open source:

Feelings about career in open source Number Percentage
Very negative 0 0%
Negative 2 2%
Neutral 20 22%
Positive 36 (m) 39%
Very positive 29 (g) 31%
No opinion 4 4%
Table key: (m) male respondent included, (g) genderqueer respondent included

If we examine opinion of open source careers broken down by the person's experience type with open source, we find that respondents who have themselves done work in open source are more likely have a strong positive opinion of open source careers, with 71% of respondents (10 people) who have done unpaid work on open source describing their feelings towards open source careers as "Very Positive" and 69% of respondents (9 people) who have done paid work on open source describing their feelings as "Very Positive".

Graph showing opinion of open source careers by percentage of respondents with a particular experience type

Comments from respondents: the best thing about a career in open source

A selection of comments from respondents about what they consider the best thing about a career in open source:

Contributions to the community

The feeling of making/doing community service", "Decrease digital divide", "you are contributing to a software that is available for everyone", "Making a difference to keep software accessible to those cannot afford to buy", "Sharing knowledge!", "information wants to be free – useful – better", "It's really amazing to be able to see my impact so clearly", "The opportunity to make awesome software that anyone could use and to feel like I'm making a difference"

Membership of a development community working together

"the feeling that you are part of a Global team", "Collaborating with a lot of people", "Interesting co-workers", "Working w/cool people!", "Collaborating with a lot of people", "collaborative, passionate people"

Career advantages and individual visibility

"having my work visible", "The broad spectrum of job opportunities", "Creating code that is easy to talk about publicly and (if I'm lucky) get feedback from peers outside of my company", "Public portfolio – your work's visible and not locked in to the company", "Being able to talk+ blog about all of it!", "Someone saw my resume and the open source project I worked on and found out I implemented stuff she used", "The learning experience (and getting paid for it!)", "We can laern [sic] some neat programming techniques.", "Access to newest technology", "access to upcoming technology"

Creative freedom

"Being able to choose my own direction", "Freedom to work on things interesting to me." "Small group work, more flexibility", "variety of choices in projects", "endless self-directed opportunities", "Freedom to work on what you like"

Working on quality software

"Raise level of performance reliability and security of software", "making contribution to strong systems that others can use for free", "Advancing the industry"

Comments from respondents: uncertainty about careers in open source

Several replies to the question about the best thing about careers in open source expressed uncertainty instead: "I don't know. Does it pay well?", "I'm not sure what an open-source job would entail. It would be great to develop for open-source but how do you make a living that way?", "No idea, would I get paid?"

Comments from respondents: the worst thing about careers in open source

A selection of comments from respondents about what they consider the worst thing about a career in open source:

Social and community norms

"extreme personalities", "Community feedback! It can be harsh", "Wearing the nerd glasses", "working w/men, all the time", "I'm a little leery of some of open-source culture"

Distributed or informally structured development teams

"Isolation, not working face to face", "Complicated interface w/industry peers", "Lack of a single unified team", "communication issues (over the internet)"

Career stability and salary

"Funding problems?", "sounds like it's not very stable jobs (doesn't pay very well?)", "Underpaid? (no idea! But assuming….)", "Doesn't sound stable or well-paid", "The expectation that you'll do work for free. Open source does not mean that you can underpay me", "Cannot monetize it", "how do you get paid?", "payment??", "We work hard for little money", "Not able to make lot of money (comparatively)"

Working on small market-share products and platforms

"Not working on popular platforms or OS's like Windows/Mac", "Very few people tend to know about software outside of the big-name companies, like Microsoft and Google.", "no one knows about it, Adobe advertises like crazy, open source has a harder time", "fighting to show that open-source projects are just as good, if not better, than closed-source solutions."

Lack of development guidance or structure

"might get difficult to manage", "Communication", "Maybe sometimes the 'no limits' could be overwhelming", "Less control over final product"

Conclusions

We found that this group of respondents largely feels somewhat positive overall about careers in open source. This is not a surprising finding, since even those who listed themselves as not having any experience interacted with the open source booth, but it should be a relief to open source: a negative perception in this group would suggest a very negative perception elsewhere.

Respondents were highly aware of potential impact on their career, both positive and negative. While quoting here of the comments about careers in open source is selective, there definitely was a large number of comments about open source careers being less well paid (or not paid at all), unstable and/or bad for one's long term career. Conversely, while stereotypically it might be expected that women would be driven by selfless motives — and there were a lot of comments about contributing to a common good — our respondents were very alert to the career advantages of doing development in the public eye. This survey suggests that promoting open source development as a career path to women should include career prospects and salary information, as well as appealing to the greater good!

Because we don't have a comparable male population to our 91 female respondents, it is impossible to tell whether there are significant gender differences in perception of open source careers, even in this particular community.

Materials

Additional information about the survey can be downloaded:

  • The survey form distributed to respondents.
  • Survey responses (anonymised). All identifying data has been removed. All replies to the freeform questions about career perceptions by those who refused permission for anonymous quotation have been removed.