A few people reached out about my post on my Guide for Grant Seekers with some critical feedback about promoting work-for-free culture. To clarify, this guide was not meant to be an ideal vision for the future, it was meant to reflect the present and help grant seekers achieve their goals.
At the end of the post, I mentioned that this doesn’t serve a lot of different groups. In fact, I think it serves a limited population which is why we see such geographic density of bitcoin FOSS devs. Those who cannot do work for free over a long period aren’t going to be able to make significant progress on becoming a FOSS dev quickly. Working on an all-consuming start-up, raising a family, or living in a place with limited electricity/internet will put grant seekers at a significant disadvantage. Because the proof of work is lower for other projects, this also means that, by default, they are more inclusive. I am biased because free work is such a useful screen. It’s almost unforgeable proof of intrinsic motivation.
A funding bridge
The big gap I see that isn’t currently filled in the funding landscape is for people who can’t quit their job or can only afford to work nights and weekends because of other commitments. Sure we see part-time grants, but building up one’s credibility to get to that point takes investment. Funders aren’t really taking a chance on people. The residency filled this gap for some in the past. It was an almost-guarantee of finding FOSS funding. The residencies were never meant to scale, and they are in hibernation anyways. Instead, we need a pot of cash to fund prospects. Let’s call them bridge grants.
Bridge grants are short-term grants, somewhere between 3 and 6 months, to wean a prospect off their job and give them a runway to show what they can do. They won’t get rich from this funding, but it will be enough to avoid starvation and should inspire them to spend their time wisely establishing a track record that will attract a full-fledged grant.
No strings attached funding provides the freedom to do meaningful work. In an industrialist society that no longer offers much respect to the individual worker, it reflects the trust of the grantee to choose the work that needs to be done. It’s a thing of beauty.
But, without strings, grantees don’t go through the same growth of learning how to be professional – AKA, how to show up when they don’t feel like it. The kind of pain that comes with showing up to a crappy job day after day because you made a promise to be there. No strings attached open-source funding doesn’t help develop young people to be critical of management or understand when they need to quit a job. When a manager isn’t parceling out tasks or providing (even poorly done) performance reviews, I believe it is harder for a green dev to get the feedback they need to grow as a developer and generally be consistently productive. Because FOSS doesn’t signal whether you are performing well, I’ve seen people become demotivated and discouraged without a feedback structure that works (see wildly successful talent recruitment and retention of large tech companies).
Bitcoin open-source development isn’t yet a career. Even in the US, where taking the road less traveled is culturally celebrated, health care is tied to employment. There is motivational value in career progression. While I don’t believe in titles (see my current “descriptive” title - Head of Special Projects), demonstrating career progression is helpful to mitigate the criticisms of friends and family who are already skeptical of the open-source path.
A need for something else
Something is missing from the funding landscape. There now exist a variety of grant programs for established contributors, but we don’t have any with enough margin of error and structure to help bridge the gap to a lot of valuable prospects. We need something that provides both financial safety and modeling – a prospect league of sorts. We have some footholds with programs like Summer of Bitcoin and Qala, but they are still small scale. FOSS development can be hard, so we can either say that single devs with social/economic safety nets and 5+ years of industry jobs are the only people who should attempt it, or we go out and create better scaffolding and structure for those who can’t make the jump on their own.
Thanks to @jarolrod for the review