GitHub is widely considered to be the center of the open source community, where programmers (and designers, and writers) contribute their expertise to free software projects that anybody can use.
Open source, in turn, has become increasingly important to the way the world works. The open source Linux operating system powers a ridiculous proportion of the servers that make the internet run, just as one example; the Facebook-created React Native project powers the interfaces in apps from Walmart, Uber, and others, for another.
Less certain, though, is how those coders, themselves, get paid. Because open source software is, by definition, free for anybody to download, remix, and use for any purpose, there’s no financial obligation involved. Programmers donate days, months, or years of their lives to these projects, and often never see a cent in return — even if their code gets used by the largest of large enterprises.
That’s where GitHub is coming in, with the beta launch of GitHub Sponsors, a new opt-in feature that will let users provide financial support for those people who contribute to and maintain open source software — even if it’s only a few bucks at a time. There are zero fees for giver or recipient, and to give Sponsors a boost, GitHub is pledging to match contributions to each enrolled developer up to $5,000.
Devon Zuegel, senior product manager at GitHub, says that it’s intended to help developers generate a little cash for their efforts. For some, the contributions might be enough to help them pay their rent that month, “or maybe you just want a little bit of extra cash to justify why you’re spending your Saturdays coding,” she says.
There are other ways for developers to take contributions: Some open source developers rely on services like Patreon to appeal directly to their supporters for the funding to continue their work.
However, Zuegel says, there’s been a lot of demand from the community to build this straight into GitHub, since it’s where most of the code is hosted and shared. It’s designed to be super-easy to kick a small contribution to a developer without leaving the site, she says, removing a potential point of friction.
Also of note, says Zuegel, is that it can be used to support those who write documentation or contribute design, not just programmers. Indeed, she says, GitHub sees this kind of financial support as a new way to contribute to open source, just as valid as any donation of technical skill or other kinds of expertise.
In the bigger picture, Zuegel says, relying on the generosity of strangers isn’t necessarily the single answer to helping those who contribute to open source get paid.
However, she says, the launch of GitHub Sponsors reflects the company’s belief that those who donate their time and energy to constantly improving open source software deserve more recognition than they often get. Zuegel doesn’t just want people to make a little pocket change from GitHub Sponsors; she sees it as a way for the premier open source developers to find a way to truly thrive.
“These people should be rockstars,” says Zuegel.
A small acquisition
Beyond sponsorships, the company is trying to help open source project maintainers with updates to the core platform.
Among other big updates, GitHub has announced the acquisition of Dependabot, a small but popular tool from London-based developer Gray Baker, who will be joining the company. Dependabot helps scan open source software projects to make sure that all of the various underlying technologies that power a software project — known as dependencies — are up to date.
Outdated dependencies can leave open giant security holes, but the menial labor of scanning open source code and ensuring that everything is ship-shape is a drain on time and resources, says GitHub VP of Engineering Dana Lawson. It’s a task that not many relish, she says, and so not many do.
With Dependabot, now integrated with the GitHub platform, Lawson says that open source maintainers get the rough equivalent of another programmer on staff — one who doesn’t mind doing that dirty work.
In general, says Lawson, these announcements are reflective of the company’s product philosophy. GitHub sees opportunity in streamlining away some common headaches for developers, whether that’s fixing dependencies or going out and finding support for open source contributions. In so doing, Lawson says, GitHub can help focus on the core work of building software.
“We want people shipping code,” Lawson says. She later said: “How can we get them the tool sets to do bigger and better things?”
Of note is that under Microsoft, GitHub has been picking up the pace with major new releases and features. Earlier in May, it launched GitHub Package Registry, a major new service from the company.