Sponsoring free-time Open Source activities

A briefer version of this article has been published in the Futurice Blog.

Right from the start of our Open Source program it was clear that we want to implement some company policy changes beneficial to the Open Source movement.

Starting Nov 2014 Futurice financially sponsors Open Source contributions done by our employees on their own time. These contributions are entirely voluntary and are not related to any company projects. The purpose of the sponsorship program is to sponsor hobby contributions to a good cause.

Why do this?

There are ideological and socio-economical arguments both for and against Open Source. The arguments against, we see both by parties supporting proprietary software with strong copyrights, and organizations such as FSF. The latter see Open Source as inadequate, or missing the point.

While this debate is interesting and worth consideration, we prefer a pragmatic approach.

Reasons to establish this benefit:

  • By being active in the Open Source scene, our people improve their skills at an alarming pace
  • Being a rare benefit, it should give us some recruitment edge
  • It’s the right thing to do, as Futurice benefits greatly from Open Source
  • Our people want us to

Reasons to make use of this benefit:

  • Open Source (or Free Software) gives you a chance to improve your skills (at an alarming pace).
  • While you get wicked good, you are marketing your skills at the same time.
  • You make some extra cheddar by doing so. It’s a sweet deal!

Some collateral good:

  • While our skilled employees contribute, the Open Source projects benefit
  • Our example hopefully encourages other companies to do the same

We wanted to keep both the guidelines and the process as simple as possible. We think this is a borderline success, since there have still been some misunderstandings internally while communicating this.

Acceptable contributions

What do we accept as a suitable contribution? Any project with a license approved by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) is fine. We also accept a subset of the Creative Commons, specifically the CC BY and CC BY-SA licenses. CC0 is also accepted, even though it might not be usable in all jurisdictions, as waiving of copyright is not possible everywhere. Originally we planned to focus the sponsored efforts on some selected Open Source projects, but this quickly turned out to be a particularly unpopular approach. So, anything goes!

The numbers

The sponsorship for any individual is limited to a maximum of 30 hours per month. With our compensation of €15 per hour (or equivalent local currency) that means a maximum of €450 monthly on top of your salary. This hour limitation is to protect the limited budget, not to discourage people of spending more time coding. However, we do have a budget, and it would be better to get many people to contribute some, than a few people to contribute a lot. The 30 hours is not cumulative.

The pilot

The trial period for this sponsorship was Nov 2014 to Mar 2015. Our budget for this trial period was €45000. This equals 3000 hours of sponsored contributions, or 600 hours per month. In other words, 20 people could make the full use of this sponsorship for the five months - or 40 people could make contributions for 15 hours per month for the same period of time. Futurice had about 200 employees at this point.

At the end of the pilot we had only spent a third of our budget! However, even the people who had “not yet had the time to participate” were speaking so highly of the benefit, the decision to continue was obvious.

Post-pilot

We have sponsored hundreds (soon thousands) of Open Source contributions. Currently we are working on better metrics to measure the produced value (for the individual, the company, and the society), and also finding new ways to get people to contribute.

Full-time limitation

Only full-time employees are eligible for this bonus. We are in software project consultancy business. There were arguments that being able to do less than full work week is a benefit as such (it does have a financial impact), so combining a 4-day work week with this open source sponsorship might be both tempting to many, and problematic to the business. Yet we value our part-time employees, and advocate shorter work weeks. This is a conflict that we want to resolve soon.

There’s an exception to the full-time rule, as we learned that it is not possible to offer a benefit to only full-timers in Germany and Switzerland. In those countries our part-timers are welcome to make use of this benefit. The compensation is applied pro rata.

Intellectual property

Futurice makes no IPR claims whatsoever regarding these contributions. This is not work.

Reporting the contributions

The contributions are reported by sending mail to our Flowdock flow. That’s a chat channel, with people who are contributing themselves or are otherwise interested in the Open Source. Each mail contains the following information:

  • The project in question
  • How many hours did you spend
  • Links or descriptions of the commits/PRs/whatever

There’s no automation in place after this, but a designated Clerk collects the hours at the end of the month and sends the relevant information to the payroll. The Clerk will also report the usage and remaining budget to the flow.

Check out this actual report by Oleg:

Example of an open source contribution report

We use the Flowdock tags; #contribution identifies that this is indeed a contribution, and #todo means it’s not been yet handled yet.

Other considerations

The experts in Germany and Switzerland told us it would be a good idea to create a simple one page agreement for people to sign, before they are eligible for this sponsorship. Supposedly the rationale is to get proof that people understand this is not work, but sponsorship for beneficial and strictly voluntary hobby activities. Find here a vanilla copy of the agreement you can make use of. It is CC0 so you can use it without mentioning us.

Initial reception

Offering people money, for something they have been doing for fun, can be a risky endeavour. We will know more in a few months, but the initial reception has been very positive across the board.

Response to sponsoring open source contributions at twitter

Based on the reactions so far, we can encourage other companies to consider this type of arrangement as well.

Background

Me, Matias and some Indian Pale Ale hatched the idea when we were planning this Open Source Program back in late 2013. It was a part of our program road map right from the start, and we first pitched it to our executive sponsor Mikko, who liked it. We included it in our brief program presentation at our Tampere site, and people seemed interested. Our irreplaceable in-house critic Olli outlined us how the system should work; that’s what he does. We invited a dozen developers to a two-week chat to refine the idea further. Mikko negotiated the executive approval, with some figures and limits. We again invited a dozen developers to get the finer details locked down.

The execution required more HR effort than we had estimated and that delayed the launch for about 6 weeks. That doesn’t mean bureaucratic delays within Futurice, no, Emilia and Isabell were really helpful! Instead we had to consult with external experts on German and Swiss law, taxes etc. Not sure how Really Big Companies can get anything done :-o

Communications

Since we know Futurice company culture is of interest to some people, we will include some internal communication.

Known challenges

Currently this benefit is limited to our full-time employees. We are not happy about that and neither are our part-time employees. There are reasons for the limitation, but we hope we will soon find a better solution.

This also easily becomes a benefit solely for the technically oriented. It does not need to, but that’s how the open source scene is — the entry barrier for people who don’t code is high. Artists, designers or analytics experts for example may never have even heard of Git or Github. People with other competence areas and interests will require support, specifically for selecting projects and finding ways to contribute. We are working on that. For the academically inclined, legitimate peripheral participation is a good starting point.

Motivating people

There are many studies on rewards and motivation. The majority of them suggest that (especially financial and performance related) rewarding might not have the desired results; it can turn out to be a demotivator instead, as people easily perceive it as controlling.

Attempts at control generally diminish the motivation. Usually these studies are related to salary levels, but they can certainly be applied to this type of hobby sponsorship. If you want to read more on this subject, some recommended reading:

Having studied this subject, and having absolutely no reason to disregard these findings that are both convincing and interesting, why do we still insist on trying this?

Simply put; this is just one thing we want to try and doing this should make the others easier.

Activities outside of work hours are a sensitive topic. What right does the company have to try to promote uses of your free time? None, really, but sponsoring it in an ‘absolutely-voluntary-no-strings-attached’ manner is hopefully not considered an intrusion. It also shows that the company is willing to give, not just take.

With that foundation in place, we can proceed to figure out how to really motivate people to pick up Open Source contributions as a hobby - or other activities that combine a positive social impact with some relevant personal learning.

Future plans

So what are we really sponsoring here? Let’s distill it into haiku form!

people practising
skills valuable at work
awesoming the world

Open Source is one approach to that, but there are certainly others! Our people are already participating in comparable activities, such as code schools for kids and other voluntary work.

Learning while doing good is now becoming an integral part of our company culture. It will soon no longer be limited to the Open Source domain, but Open Source will pave the way for other activities, while we research methods, metrics and best practises to make this work.