- Programmers are constantly being told “If you’re not always hacking, hustling, and thinking about code, you’re not a real developer.”
- So a couple of consulting companies took this idea and turned it on its head.
- Pay people a small hourly bonus to code on their off time, as long as it’s open source, an area that’s in dire need of more helping hands – and limit the hours they could earn a bonus.
- The results were shocking.
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“Eat. Sleep. Code. Repeat.” That’s supposed to be the glorious lives of happy computer programmers who love coding so much, they want to do nothing else.
It’s the mantra of the software development world; a slogan printed on T-shirts and computer wallpaper. It’s the glorified life of a startup, where founders and their early cohort all live together and work until they have to sleep under their desks.
But it’s really peer pressure that drives this work ethic. That pressure says coders should work extra hours on the job (because they love it!), volunteer on open source projects (because open source needs them!) and work on their own passion projects (because they are passionate!).
If they want to do something else like enjoy their families, friends, or hobbies, they can’t possibly be a true programmer.
Now, two companies have come up with a unique way that both supports open source projects and sends a different message about work/life balance. They are paying programmers $US20-per-hour cash bonuses to work on open source projects on their off time. It could be any endeavour they want, whether it’s something that benefits their company or a passion project.
But there’s a twist. They can only get paid for 30 hours a month, maximum.
The limit is deliberate
By programming standards, $US20 per hour is not a lot of money. But it is enough to pay for some new tech toys, a big date night with the spouse, etc. Thereby programmers are encouraged to help out with open source on a regular basis.
The 30-hour limit is deliberate. Instead of telling people to work more, such a limit tells them to stop and go do something else.
Since then, 263 employees have contributed 25,000 hours to open source projects and earned €375,000 split between them. In 2018, they earned roughly €100,000 and this year, it expects to hit €150,000.
We asked the people running these programs at Futurice and Formidable to tell us more about it all: Futurice’s Teemu Turunen, and Jani Eväkallio, VP of Engineering and head of the London office and the Sauce program.
Business Insider: Why do you offer hourly bonuses for after-hours work, instead of, say, 20% free time at work?
Jani Eväkallio: For consulting companies 20% time isn’t practical. Product companies can be fast and loose with their time as long as they deliver results. Our clients often expect to have individuals working full-time on their projects, and having people available only four days a week across the board would make it harder for them to work with us.
Product companies also get more value out of their 20% time, as people end up doing R&D that can directly improve their product. In fact, I’ve worked at a company with a 20% time policy before, and there was pressure to work on things that benefited the firm.
With Sauce, there are no strings attached, and people can feel truly free to work on their passion projects.
Teemu Turunen: It’s always been more about recognition than money.
When we implemented this bonus, it was obvious to us that most of our employees learn new technology and programming during their free time. We wanted to recognise this and at the same time encourage them to try publishing their projects as open source.
Also to be honest, 20% free time at work would be a very difficult promise to keep. I am not aware of it working that well anywhere. It tends to become overtime immediately when projects get busy.
BI: Why do you think it’s important for people to limit the amount of time they code?
Eväkallio: People are more than their careers. The culture of our industry pressures us to reduce ourselves to just our professional selves: If you’re not always hacking, hustling, and thinking about code, you’re not a real developer.
This, frankly, is not true. Some of the brightest minds of our generation gravitate toward technology work, and they have so much more to give to the world and the people around them than just their code, no matter how much they love their craft.
They will also end up being happier. Humans need balance, and programming is almost purely a cerebral activity. By focusing too much on it, you end up sacrificing your emotional, physical, and creative happiness.
When I was younger, I didn’t know this. I spent all of my time coding, either for my employer or my own projects, which led me to burn out, destroy relationships, and struggle with depression for a long time.
Turunen: It would be unwise to create a mechanism that encourages people to spend all their time coding. For instance, we have many employees with young children. They should spend time with their kids, rather than learning Haskell and Rust. Unless they learn together as a family.
The monthly limit has worked well enough for us. A much more generous bonus might also be perceived as unfair by those, who cannot put in the hours.
BI: If 75 employees participated and everyone maxed out their 30 hours per month ($US600/month), that’s $US7,200. Not much per employee, but at 75 employees it’s $US540,000. How can you justify this to whomever counts the beans?
Eväkallio: I sure hope our bean-counter doesn’t read this article and shut us down! :)
Let’s say the program was so wildly successful that every employee maxed out their bonus, it would still be worth it for the increased employee engagement and happiness. Realistically, the average cost-per-employee isn’t anywhere near that high, as not everyone participates, and few of those who do hit the cap regularly.
In the past twelve months, our team logged nearly 5,000 hours on Formidable open source work alone. Open source is a credible strategy for acquiring talent and new business.
Instead of pouring advertising money into Google’s or Facebook’s pockets, or hiring droves of recruiters and sales people, we actually create value to the community with every open source dollar we spend [which attracts business and talent.]
Turunen: For us, competence development alone justifies the expense. Technology evolves so fast! A workforce active in exploring emerging tech gives us an edge. It also makes our people better at what they do, even if the technology isn’t new to them or us.
This is also very much about employee engagement. In a company geographically divided to half a dozen countries, people need things they can feel proud about. Discussing personal projects and contributing to good causes together is a powerful thing.
Additionally, this has worked very well for us in recruitment. It is a rare benefit still, so we stand out.
BI: What else would you like people to know about this method of supporting open source?
Eväkallio: Open source software creates billions of dollars of value to the industry in increased productivity, yet it’s chronically underfunded and unsustainable in the long term. Every company needs to pitch in.
Our model of investing into people’s time, both on and off work hours, works for us but it’s not a silver bullet. Initiatives like OpenCollective are a good alternative to support the OSS ecosystem with cash money that can then be distributed to people who want to do the work.
Turunen: We have studied the benefits of this model quite a bit and have found many positive effects, such as fostering an improved sense of membership in the work community, alignment of values, increased confidence, and autonomy to pursue interests and needs.
The only negative effect is unintended strain from putting in the hours, even when you really shouldn’t. This is what we try to tackle with the 30-hour monthly limit.
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