May 13th, 2008

Party Of One: Surviving A Hobby Open-Source Project

Last week’s JavaOne had a separate track on open source, and there’s been a substantial number of very interesting panels, discussions and presentations. However, i felt that these talks concentrated mostly on big, well-established and very broad open-source communities. While it is perfectly understandable, the few dozens of these high-profile communities do not reflect the specific problems of a much vaster landscape of the open-source in general. Here I’m talking about literally hundreds of thousands of projects that only have a single active developer. I call it the “party of one” type of project, and these pose a number of quite significant challenges to their “owners”, especially if it is done as a part time hobby. I had a number of such projects (where i am the only developer) over the last decade, and some of them are still quite active. This series talks about the specifics of one-man projects and how to maintain a long-term level of commitment.

First, a little bit of statistics from SourceForge:

Statistics, of course, can be used to back up pretty much any point of view, but i do believe that the numbers above are a good reflection on what happens when a developer out there has an idea. Nowadays, it is extremely easy to find a free web-based code repository and wait for the entire world to come. However, the absence of any entry-level barrier to create a project quite often results in the idea being just that – an idea. Just over half of SourceForge projects have any kind of downloadable content, and i’m sure that you saw your share of great ideas that died once their creator faced the first major implementation hurdle (or even when his level of interest in implementing the idea never matured to the actual coding).

While it is difficult to create even a first implementation, it is even more difficult to maintain the level of commitment and arrive at a stable release. As you can see, only one in every six projects were deemed to be stable by their own developers.

When all you need to create a project is an Internet connection and enough imagination to come up with a name, you have another interesting side effect. While every project has a potential to reach millions of developers, they all compete for the eyeballs and attention span of those few tens of thousands that are looking. You can have a great idea, you can even have a great implementation, but most certainly you can’t expect everybody to come. It is a big world out there, and the competition for the attention is even bigger.

It takes determination, commitment and perseverance to be willing to continue working on a project when nobody but you seems to be interested in it. It takes discipline and clear prioritization to understand that while coding is fun, every project has less pleasant (to us as the developers) tasks, such as bug fixing, testing, documenting and promoting. It doesn’t matter if your project is big or small. However, if you’re the only one working on your project (and here is specifically don’t use “the only developer”), you don’t have anybody else to do the “boring” tasks. And without understanding what these tasks are, and being ready to step up and make sure that all these secondary tasks get done – you might as well not begin in the first place.

 The next entries will talk about the specific project tasks.

  • Part 2 talks about the development
  • Part 3 talks about the maintenance
  • Part 4 talks about the promotion
  • Part 5 summarizes the discussion


The images are available under Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial license from the following flickr.com streams: