Experts say that contributing to open source software can be a smart investment in your career and help you learn new skills in between jobs

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Experts say that contributing to open source software can be a smart investment in your career and help you learn new skills in between jobs

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst

Red Hat

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst

  • The open source software industry thrived during the Great Recession, and experts expect similar dynamics during any downturns caused by the coronavirus crisis.
  • For developers who find themselves with a need to sharpen their skills or their resume, experts say that contributing to an open source project can be a hugely beneficial investment in future success - it could even lead to being in the right place at the right time for founding a startup.
  • "A coder who just lost her job?" one expert said. "That gives her credentials for her resume and also is the basis for forming a business. It's kind of like planting a victory garden."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As coronavirus spreads around the globe, fears of an economic recession loom. Already, layoffs have swept Silicon Valley, with many startups cutting their headcount as a way to control costs as revenue threatens to dry up.

For many, it's reminiscent of the Great Recession that began in 2008, where a crash in the housing market dragged down the entire economy, causing ripple effects that saw unemployment spike. It's entirely possible that history will repeat itself here.

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But experts say that for those developers who find themselves out of a job, one of the most productive things they can do is contribute to open source software - projects that are built largely by unpaid volunteers for anyone to use, download, and modify.

"A lot of people are going to lose their jobs, and a lot of people will have more free time on their hands," Hadi Hariri, vice president of developer advocacy at JetBrains, told Business Insider. "Software will increase and contributions to open source may even increase."

While the software is free, however, it's also serious business: Open source software like Linux or Kubernetes powers much of the modern internet. Indeed, the 2008 financial crisis didn't slow down open source, with companies like Red Hat and the Linux operating system it helps to develop only continuing to grow amid the downturn.

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That means that investing now in getting involved in open source can lead to new skills, new opportunities, and perhaps, in a best-case scenario, even being in the right place at the right time to help create the next billion-dollar software company.

Overall, contributing or building an open source project can be hugely beneficial to a developer's career in the long-run, says Heather Meeker, an open source licensing lawyer and portfolio partner at OSS Capital - even if the gig doesn't pay.

"A coder who just lost her job?" Meeker said. "That gives her credentials for her resume and also is the basis for forming a business. It's kind of like planting a victory garden."

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'By starting to contribute, you're recognized as an expert'

Dries Buytaert, co-founder and CTO of the web platform Acquia, says that it's not uncommon for a developer to dive deep into open source if they find themselves between jobs.

"Often when a software developer gets unemployed, it's not unheard of he or she will invest their time and talent back into an open source project," Buytaert told Business Insider.

Meeker even points out that many of the best open source projects start during economic downturns, which could then in turn lead to launching successful companies. She says the 2008 financial crisis was "instrumental" in helping the open source operating system Linux take off.

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"People are in between jobs, they want to improve their resume, and they want to do something when they're out of work or underemployed," Meeker told Business Insider. "What tends to happen is after the project has gotten going and with the economy picking up again, these projects become extremely valuable."

Buytaert also recalls that during the recession, many people became active contributors to Drupal, the open source content management system that Acquia maintains. That work made the developers involved into Drupal experts, which in turn helped them find a job later.

"There's more of an individual dynamic where open source is a great place to be for upskilling and using that as a jumping board to find a place to work," Buytaert told Business Insider. "At the time, these market drivers were starting to adopt Drupal, there's also a growing need for Drupal experts. By starting to contribute, you're recognized as an expert."

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'Open source is a way that you develop a lot of value with very little resources'

John Newton, founder and CTO of the information management software company Alfresco, says that like Acquia, during the recession, he saw code contributions to Alfresco's projects go up as developers and partners experimented with its software.

"It went up during the time of the recession and immediately afterwards," Newton told Business Insider. "We saw more people looking at what we were doing. There was more exploration that was going on."

Red Hat CTO Chris Wright also says his company's projects didn't slow down when the economy got tough, but rather evolved and thrived. He says that, in part, it was because Red Hat's own engineers were bolstered by the teams of volunteer open source developers also contributing to the Linux operating system.

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"That means you're not beholden to your own engineering team to deliver all the functionality to build your own product," Wright told Business Insider.

In other words, open source companies can develop more with fewer resources, provided that there's an active development community around the project.

Experts describe this dynamic as a win-win for companies, who get better products, and for the developers, who get to sharpen both their skills and their resume by contributing to huge, often-vital software.

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"Open source is a way that you develop a lot of value with very little resources," Meeker said. "The projects tend to be geographically distributed. People are mostly doing work virtually anyway. People are operating under resource limitations. Because it involves a lot of volunteer work, it's a good way to develop a lot of value without spending a lot of money."

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