The Unpaid Labor That Drives Tech Forward
Updated: Apr 20
On Tuesday, Cassidy Williams “spilled the tea” about an unnamed company who reached out asking her to write technical content—for no compensation. The company “graciously” offered to promote her social media, though!
As it happens, Cassidy is a developer with a huge following who works for a company that builds courses, workshops, and corporate training for React devs. And she already produces content that’s free for the betterment of the dev community.
If these requests are made of people with a lot of visibility like Cassidy, what about the similar requests made of developers who don’t have a following? The wonderful thing about software development is that there is a lot of free content online. The access to a plethora of materials makes it possible for people to learn software development on their own and for more experienced folks to give back to others. I have benefited greatly from the generosity of devs in my career. A friend taught me to code, for free, on his couch. Every Wednesday for an entire year, we’d meet up in Midtown for a lesson. I didn’t have a laptop and he gave me an old one to use. I was able to take courses for free, get access to free learning material, and go to conferences for free. This unfettered access changed my life forever. Similarly, I’ve written content and delivered conference talks for free, and will be distributing free copies of my upcoming book (funded by amazing donors) to developers from underrepresented backgrounds.
What makes this possible is choice. As a technologist, I choose to make things available for free, because it makes me happy and because I want to. But when others demand or ask (using manipulative tactics) that I do something for them, for free, there is an imbalance. Another party is asking me to come to the table and set aside my needs in order to prioritize theirs. They believe their reasons for asking me to do something for them outweigh my own. And they offer very little of value in exchange.
This is manipulative behavior, point blank. I have received emails in the past from people who gush about my work and use flattery to grab my attention. And in an unusually chipper tone at the bottom of the message, they’ll usually say: “Unfortunately, we are not able to pay speakers. But if your company pays for your flight and hotel, we can list them as a sponsor on our site!”
Since 2014, I have spoken at 12 events. Only seven paid me an honorarium. I spoke at two large conferences in 2018, both were unpaid. I am grateful I got to deliver my talk to wider audiences, but I will never again speak at a conference for free. Air travel is physically taxing, I have to put in a time-off request at work, and it takes 50+ hours to write and prepare a conference talk. (The last talk I gave took me four weeks to write.) The benefit to me is just not there anymore. And yet, many conference organizers ask speakers to put their needs aside for the benefit of the wider community. But the fact is this: the content the speakers present is the draw. Without the content (speakers), there would be no conference. And if caterers, venues, and other contractors are being paid for their participation at a conference, why are we OK asking speakers—the main draw—to speak for free?
This leads to very real consequences for the diversity of tech speakers. Over the last few years, more and more companies have been willing to pay for their employees to attend conferences. They are willing to pay for travel arrangements (which is fantastic). And many are investing in developer relations teams, many of whom speak at events (among a trillion other things). Developer relations folks are brilliant, very giving, and do a lot of work. But they are fortunate to be at companies that are willing to invest in these kinds of programs. What about the freelance developer who is working on some dope stuff but cannot pay to speak at a conference? The person who does not have corporate backing? Why shouldn’t they ask conference organizers to compensate them for their work?
I am willing to pay for a conference ticket. I would like to see more conference organizers (who are lovely people working really hard to deliver a meaningful experience) work with the community to find a financial model that prioritizes speaker compensation. (Conference organizers, I recommend hiring Ashe Dryden to help you figure this out. She has done this many times before with great success!)
Open Source: GitHub Issues are the New Support Tickets
There is a lot that has been said on this topic, so I’ll be brief. Open-source software is so, so, so important, that it’s used in critical infrastructure for companies of all sizes. OSS projects which started off small have become absolutely critical to the overall health of entire tech ecosystems. Some of these projects have found sustainable financial models, but many have not. In 2019 we have not reached a consensus about what it means to pay people for open source work.
I am incredibly fortunate in this regard. In 2017, I joined Ruby Together, a 501(c)(6) trade organization that funds projects in the Ruby ecosystem. I was compensated very well for my time and I learned a lot. I did not have to extend myself to work 20+ hours a week. I could put in an hour or two here and there after work or on a Sunday and continue on with the rest of my day. There was no pressure or expectation that I would give my life to this work.
Ask open source maintainers about their issue tracker. Issue trackers include everything from troubleshooting questions and bug reports and feature requests. Some people are nice, others are not nice at all. There is an expectation that someone will fix my problem RIGHT NOW and maintainers are under pressure knowing their projects are crucial to many people’s jobs. It is not an enviable position to be in.
When you pay for a service, a company typically has a “customer success” or “customer support” team in place. Since you’re a paying customer, you can open up a support ticket and have someone look into your problem right away. That’s why the company has an entire team devoted to this, because you need people who can focus entirely on helping customers address their problems.
Instead, maintainers wear a million hats. They are technical writers, product managers, IT project managers, software engineers, sometimes UI designers—and they are customer support. Projects that have funding and part-time or full-time devs can allocate resources a little better than projects who are completely volunteer-run. People burn out, features don’t get built, issues remain unanswered, and everyone is unhappy.
We need to reassess what our goals are with open source and what are expectations are as users, consumers, and project creators.
(If you do FLOSS work, read Sumana Harihareswara’s post with grants you can apply for to fund your work.)
There’s So Much More Here
There are many underpaid and vulnerable workers who are tasked with training AI, sometimes at the expense of their physical, mental, and emotional health. There are the people asked to write articles for free on websites that receive a LOT of traffic. There are a lot of people taken advantage of, in the name of “giving back”, because others want to profit from their work in some way or another.
The reason why we have access to many things for free is because people want to give it away for free. We benefit from that generosity. But we also understand that people invested a lot of time and thought into these things. Their needs matter. And if we are asking people to do something, understand it is a mutual exchange.
Come to the table with something that will truly benefit the other party, or don’t come to the table at all.
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