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Is Open Source Consulting Dead?

Has Elvis left the building? Will we be able to sustain ourselves as open source consultants?

Since I became an open-source consultant in 1999, I've always relied on an axiom of faith: if you write quality software, release it as open-source, and tell people about it, you'll wind up with more consulting work on top of that software than you can possibly handle. I even wrote about this somewhat breathlessly in 2003 because it was entirely true. The axiom has held me in pretty good stead up until now, but I'm starting to wonder if it will continue to be credible. It hasn't been a terrible year so far for our tiny consulting company (Agendaless Consulting), but it also hasn't been a particularly good year either. This year, we certainly don't have enough business to be able to turn much work down, so the work we do end up getting is pretty unglamorous and grotty. The contrast to years past when we were fortunate enough to be able to turn down more work than we accepted is pretty stark. And the trend seems to be that the pool of work from which we are able to choose is consistently shrinking.

In the meantime, I have personally written and released a metric fuckton of open source software over the last four or five years. My business partners have too, although in less volume. This is nothing new; all of us have been inflicting open source software on the world for many years now. But the volume of stuff we've produced in the last four or five years is pretty much insane. I couldn't even begin to tell you how many lines of code we've put out as open source in that timeframe. It has to be in the hundreds of thousands, possibly over a million. Who knows. I'd stop writing this blog post and try to make some sort of computation, but there are so many repositories to analyze that it doesn't seem worth it. If you care, you can take a look at The Pylons Organization Github account, my own Github account, and my profile on Ohloh. I know. Vanity is a sin, I'm just trying to give you some concept of just how much software we've actually produced. It's truly insane. I look at it and wonder exactly what kind of drugs I've been on for the last half-decade.

The software we release is (IMHO) useful and high-quality. Certainly it's much higher quality than software I produced ten years ago that got me lots of juicy consulting work, and it's just as useful if not more. And I do my best to tell people about it, although I'm sure I could do better at that. Marketing has never really been a core competency of mine.

I love doing open source, it's a lot of fun. It has been a constant source of joy for me, and it has put food on my table for more than a decade. But the last five years has really been one long-ass sprint for me. I've put in the time believing the build-it-and-they-will-come axiom, but without being able to choose the kinds of jobs I actually want to do for money, and instead needing to take any old thing that comes along, it's getting a lot harder to justify writing reams of OSS code, doing endless IRC and maillist support, fixing bugs, traveling on my own dime to conferences, and so forth.

I'm lucky to be in a pretty good situation; my overhead is very low, and I can get by making very little, so thankfully I can still turn down some of the truly hideous work. And I'm truly thankful for my existing, excellent, long-time customers who give me really meaningful and interesting work, and who even pay consistently! I am really very fortunate. I am also very grateful to be able to be a part of our little community; I've met so many incredible people and traveled so many places that I never imagined I'd go. But the fact is that my bottom line suffers just a little more every year. I still have fun, of course. Open source is lots of fun, and it's very addictive. but even I have to admit that it's not really 100-hours-a-week-and-a-fifth-of-what-I'd-make-working-for-anyone-else fun. I could have literally made more money working any "real" 50-hour a week job for 4 months than I'll probably end up making for the whole year as a consultant. I'd be entirely miserable doing that work, I'm sure, but 8 months of doing nothing at all could be a good remedy for that.

So, what changed? Is it just-us, or is this trend noticed by other OSS-consultant types too? Is it just the economy or is it that the formula doesn't really work in the space we write software in anymore (for me, web frameworks and content management systems)? If the formula no longer works, is there another similar one that we can try? Do we have to start to make products instead? Do we have to become a startup and cut-n-slash to come up with a (god help me, I think I just threw up in my mouth a little) "MVP"? Do we have to start to put on suits and ties, respond to RFPs, and take people golfing and other stuff like normal people do to chase down business? Do we have to specialize in a vertical? Do we have to reduce our rates? Make it easier to buy a consulting "package"? Does our software just suck and everyone is too polite to tell me (don't answer that)?

I'd love to hear any thoughts. Note that comments are disabled on this blog except for a few grandfathered-in folks, but I'm on Twitter or you can email me if the topic strikes your fancy.

Created by chrism
Last modified 2013-09-10 10:33 AM