Open Source, Farmers Markets, and Amateur Economics

I sometimes wish I had learned more economics than I have -- something more than that couple of hour I spent reading Thomas Malthus because I was studying Darwin. I think knowing some economics might have helped me quickly explain some things which otherwise puzzled me for a long time.

One such puzzling thing that I think economics might explain is why farmers' markets are so popular while nobody but me is talking about employee owned source code. No really, try looking up the Twitter #EmployeeOwnedSourceCode hash tag. I pretty much own that hashtag, and that's not because of my Twitter dominance, because I have even less of that than I have knowledge about economics.

One might naively chalk this up to Farmers being more sociable than programmers, but I don't buy it. Sure, we programmers have a reputation for burying ourselves in our text editors and avoiding sunlight, but inherently that's no more anti-social than scrabbling around in dirt and making food for a living. But now here we go, amateur economics to the rescue: According to, the median salary for Software Developers in the US is \$67,773 annually, while the median salary for Farmers is \$33,653 per year. So given that farmers' markets may offer higher profits because the middleman is not in the picture, and given that at a low enough salary even a modest difference in salary may make a huge impact on one's life, there's a lot of incentive to co-operate.

Moreover, if you think about when this co-operation happens, it's on the marketing side, not on the production side. CodeSolid is working on Goalboost, which is a crop that has yet to bear fruit. This is a relatively hard sell compared to the farmer market case. If I already had a bunch of leftover summer squash, it'd be a lot easier to find folks who had leftover artichokes hanging around with whom I might go conquer a mall parking lot.

Venture Capitalism

I had lunch with a friend who's now living in the Bay Area as I once did, and along with our Indian food my friend enjoyed a small aperitif of what I like to think of as Bay Area Kool-Aid. Specifically, when I mentioned that Goalboost was intended to be both a time tracking application as well as an underlying time tracking API to attract other employee owned applications, he suggested that the core of the app might be employee owned source, but that others might seek venture capital to write applications against the API.

Imagine my surprise.

When I've suggested collaborating on applications with others in the past, I've gotten the same refrain: "Well, we should go get some venture capital." Developers who build software all day long can't seem to get their head around the idea that they're the ones who build software, and that they could go out and sell it. Meanwhile, farmers who make half as much money as we do, seem to have no problem understanding that if they raise some crops they have a choice of where to sell them.

There's no shortage of folks looking to take advantage of this blind spot in software developers. When I write about being an employee owned startup, sometimes the word startup will be the only thing that stands out in someone's search filter, and I'll end up with a follower who specializes in helping others perfect their "startup pitch", as though what I really want to be doing is not collaborating on code with other fun programmers and building a business, what I really want is to be working and sweating the load over whether I can successfully beg some rich guy to own 70% of it.

Let me be clear here: Screw that rich guy. If you're a developer with some spare turnips, meet me in the mall parking lot, and we'll set up some tables.

The Other Programmer Blind Spot

On the flip side of "I can't create software products unless some rich sugar daddy approves of me" is the idea that giving up one's salary altogether in the form of working on open source projects represents some sort of freedom. On the Tech Co-Op mailing list that I read when I want to escape the venture capitalism consultants, I hear things like: "We want to see co-ops more embracing free/libre/open (FLO) values and FLO advocates embracing co-op values."

To my fellow programmers, I say this: the unfortunate consequence of beginning with the wrong premise that the value of your product springs from the wealth of some plutocrat is that it softens your mind to the point where it can accept the wrong conclusion that working for free is the definition of freedom.

It's time for programmers to reject open source. How many static web site generators is enough? How many Javascript frameworks do we need?

Now to be clear, I'm not saying you shouldn't USE open source. No, by all means, if a zillion of your colleagues are uninformed about the value of their work product to the extent of giving away their labor for free, you should take advantage of it. This is just common sense. In the same way, if someone were giving away \$20.00 bills on the street corner, you should get in line to get yours. Free as in speech, free as in beer, and free as in "Thanks for the free \$20.00 bill -- sucker!"

I'm saying I set my value higher than that, so I am dedicating 10 hours per week to building a product and a team to work on it. If you set your value higher than that, CodeSolid is looking for collaborators. On the other hand, if you think we're just another plutocrat trying to get over on you or you don't want to join us, that's fine. But I invite you to explore your value as a developer on your own terms, and not to accept the false alternatives of wage slavery versus wageless slavery.

Build something and sell it. It can't be that hard. Farmers have figured it out.

Written by John Lockwood in misc on Tue 01 December 2015.