The Open Source Development Model makes it easier to solve other people’s problems

Or at least that’s what Daniel Pink suggests in this article. While he doesn’t specifically mention open source development, he does mention Wikipedia as a loosely collaborative model that can help us solve problems faster and better:

  • Rethink the structure of your firm.

    Perhaps loose alliances of distantly connected people – think Wikipedia or a Hollywood film – can produce more creative products and services than fixed rosters of employees in traditional arrangements. And maybe those consultancies, which all of us love to malign, are offering a valuable service after all by providing distance for hire.

This is the reason why sites like StackOverflow have taken off and have answered millions of people’s questions about programming. The distance between you and your local coding problems is short, meaning you think about your problems more concretely. On StackOverflow, the problems you are helping to solve are further away from you, and according to this research, this lets you think about them more abstractly.

I suspect this is why there is a culture on IRC and Usenet and newsgroups and in programming/hacker communities of finding out the overarching goals you are trying to accomplish by asking a question. When you ask about fixing some line of code, other programmers will usually ask why you’re doing things that way in the first place. According to this research, this review at a distant will be far more fruitful than you staring at your own code for hours trying to figure out the problem.

So there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this idea that the distance between you and problem is a spectrum between concrete and abstract thinking.

The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

You may recognize Daniel Pink as the author of the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, in which he says that it’s easier to motivate us with intrinsic rather than external rewards such as money.

There are three factors, according to Pink, to motivate people beyond basic tasks:

To motivate employees who work beyond basic tasks, give them these three factors to increase performance and satisfaction:

Autonomy — Our desire to be self directed. It increases engagement over compliance.

Mastery — The urge to get better skills.

Purpose — The desire to do something that has meaning and is important. Businesses that only focus on profits without valuing purpose will end up with poor customer service and unhappy employees

We can see how effective this has been in the development of the GNU project, the Linux kernel, GNOME, KDE, Mozilla Firefox, Apache and nginx and all sorts of free/open source software. The open source development model gives people lots of autonomy because you can work on whatever interests you.

Not only do free/open source projects give you an opportunity to improve your skills, they give you the opportunity to be recognized and to show those skills off. It’s easier to find the best programmers in the world if they’re actively demonstrating and showing those skills with free/open source code as portfolio pieces.

The most meaningful purposes are also part of free/open source; you are trying to build a tool to scratch your itch, or you’re patching some code in Firefox a popular web browser that affects millions of people’s lives, or you’re improving the design of a healthcare application.

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