by Tamás Deme
January 17, 2022

The unique accessibility of software development and how trying to add value for others actually adds value for yourself

Webster's Dictionary doesn't define what polywork is, yet - but our generation and the ones following are truly embracing it more and more. We are often not just our “9 to 5” job anymore; we do more to improve ourselves, to collaborate and create, to keep things exciting and interesting. (And not to shut out realism, often just because we have to.)

The IT industry specifically, seems to be a special snowflake: we did polywork before it was cool. Uniquely, the culture of open source, self-learning and accessibility has been at the core of it all since the very beginning. It's not required, nor is it expected (and it shouldn't be, to ensure healthy boundaries in life) for people to work more - yet many still do: adding new features or squashing bugs, providing feedback, mentoring, making presentations and guides, writing books... the list goes on. It's maybe the only industry in the world where all the materials you need to become a professional are readily available for free.

As someone who has from a very early age used these tremendous resources - created by the people who worked more - to learn and discover, I decided to be on the same path. Starting at 15 with design tutorials, running a news site 4 years later and finally doing devrel-like efforts in the Windows development space... it all led to great friends, an amazing professional network, repeated Microsoft MVP awards and finally, simply, overall a better career path.

I work, and then I often work more. The types of my contributions are varied, although the pandemic definitely pushed me (and many others) more towards open source. (It's 2022, therefore, it's mandatory to mention the pandemic in every blog post.)

Why do Open Source?

A few years ago, while reading Chris Hadfield's book "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth" I've read a passage that managed to put my somewhat vague thoughts on "why do I do all this" into words:

In any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn't tip the balance one way or the other. Or you'll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.”

I think even during “normal times”, open source is possibly the best way to value add. Both for the public, and, by happy coincidence, for my selfish reasons too.

I can work with technologies I wouldn't get the chance to during my main job. Learning new things always excites me and ensures I keep up with the rapid speed of innovation and don't lock myself into a technological bubble. During the past 2 years, I've spent time working on PugetSound, a web app that allows groups to listen to Spotify together. I wrote a lot more JavaScript here than usual. I've made a few plugins for the Obsidian note taking tool in TypeScript. Finally, I tested the waters of modern React by building a fun emoji-making tool.

I can give and receive feedback to improve the output of others and myself. Open source platforms like GitHub enable me to provide other projects with both feedback and code, while at the same time letting others do the same with my projects. Discussions in and out of pull requests often lead to improvements in both implementation and logic. Kind strangers have reported multiple bugs to me in my repos, and I've contributed to several libraries over the years, like the Windows Community Toolkit, or PRISM (not the NSA one).

I get to know new people, and people get to know me. I love building professional relationships - they yield opportunities for mentorship, creative collaboration and more. Nowadays ,seeing how networking is quintessential, every new avenue to do it counts.

Working in public increases trust, and ideally security. While there were more than many examples (even very recently) for critical security issues in open source projects, I still believe that having more eyes on something should result in less errors. And just the simple fact that open source is, well, open... people can read the code before they run it, and make sure it doesn't do anything malicious.

And finally, to close with something personal: I get to show off my expertise and experience. This could lead to skipping a technical interview or whiteboarding, or - taking a step back - simply to a job offer.

I think out of all the mentioned types of contributing, open source might be the most controversial. It is often thankless, hard to make a living out of, and those lacking understanding keep asking questions like "Why would you give your work away for free?". Despite all this, I hope my reasons above are enough of an answer. To alleviate some of the very real negatives, don't forget to go out and support your friendly neighborhood open source projects and their maintainers! There are a handful of ways to do that, directly like GitHub Sponsors or Patreon and indirectly such as Flossbank.

It's challenging but worth it

When you see someone use the results of your work it’s always a satisfying feeling. For me, somehow, this is even more true  for my polyworking efforts…I'm wondering if this is true for others as well. Either way: a good feedback after a presentation or a thankful note left in a repo is definitely something that releases the happy chemicals. The ultimate prize of course is inspiring someone to go down a similar path, to see them join the culture of adding value. It's like compounding interest on the efforts I've put in, and it's definitely something that can make my day. I hope if you're reading this that you've been inspired too.

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