futureofcoding.org

31 - Sustaining the Underfunded: Nadia Eghbal

10/11/18

In May of 2015, Nadia Eghbal left her venture capital job with a question: “What is not venture backable in tech right now?”

Nadia cast a wide net. “I went through AngelList, CrunchBase, accelerator portfolios, blog posts, articles, and Twitter accounts hunting down names of interesting companies, organizations, and projects. Each time I asked myself, Is this venture backable? and if the answer was no, I added them to a spreadsheet.”

But when she tried to convince funders to back some of the efforts she found, they weren’t convinced. So Nadia changed her question: “What is not venture backable in tech right now, that tech absolutely cannot do without?” “If this project disappeared tomorrow, would Silicon Valley notice?” When she was done, there was one thing left on her list: open-source infrastructure.

She was reluctant to look into open-source, because she was assured that “oh no, that’s how open-source works. It’s totally fine. It’s just this like community participatory thing. I know it sounds really weird, but it just like, it works great.” But upon closer examination, Nadia found that the open-source community was brimming with issues. Funding sources were slim and unreliable. Maintainers were speaking out about being overworked and burned-out. Large corporations were using open-source without giving anything back to the community. Nadia had “stumbled upon the internet’s biggest blind spot.”

Now funders started listening to Nadia’s message. The two open-source security bugs, Heartbleed and Shellshock, had broke recently and were top of mind. “It seems like we’re all relying on this critical infrastructure, that doesn’t have any way of sustaining itself…. [We have all these examples of] open-source projects causing problems for other people because they were kind of being overlooked or under-supported.”

Six months later, Nadia got her first external validation in the form of a grant from the Ford Foundation. In July of 2016, Road and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure was published. This report was posted and reposted all over the tech communities on the internet. It felt like she came out of nowhere, but suddenly we were all on her newsletter and would discuss her writings at dinner parties.

One month later, Nadia joined Github. Two years later (May 2018), she joined Protocol Labs, doing independent research into the sustainability of open-source.

Summary

Two years ago, Nadia Eghbal “stumbled onto the internet’s biggest blindspot”: sustainability of open-source. Her Ford Foundation report “Roads and Bridges” became an instant classic. She shined a light on the underappreciated roles of maintainers and how difficult it was for even vital projects to get enough funding for a single person full time.

In this conversation, we discuss how she found “stumbled onto” this problem initially, and her road from the Ford Foundation to GitHub and now Protocol Labs. We discuss the challenges of indepdendent research and remote work… and how being able to find amazing friends and co-conspirators on Twitter somehow makes it all better. Nadia lays out her vision for the future of open source, and how we can tackle the human side of scaling open-source development. She also gives us a sneak preview of her current work on a new economic model for understanding how open-source software consumption scales. It doesn’t scale costlessly, because “you have to make continual changes to it, either because people are submitting changes back to it, but also because software degrades over time. Knowledge degrades over time. You can’t just release something once and be done with it.”

Transcript

(Transcript sponsored by repl.it)

00:00:00
SK:
Welcome to the Future of Coding. This is Steve Krouse.
00:00:04
SK:
So I have two big pieces of news today before I introduce our guest. Firstly, my paper on the Comprehensibility of Functional Reactive Programming was accepted to REBLS at SPLASH this year. My first academic paper that I wrote was accepted. Yes, it was an in-progress paper, and this is also a workshop at a conference which I think is much more informal, but I'm still very excited, and I will be in Boston from the 4th of November to the 9th of November. So, reach out on whatever platform you can, if you're in town and want to meet up. I'm very excited about that. And as far as the paper goes, I have half a mind to read it right here on this podcast in its own episode, but that kind of seems difficult just with voice to explain without slides or any visual aids. I'm working on the talk version of the paper now, so maybe I will just link to that YouTube video that I come up with when it is done.
00:01:05
SK:
Secondly, I was approached by Amjad at Repl.it to sponsor this podcast. I was very flattered when I got that email, and I'm really, really excited to work with him and his company. They're just a really cool group. I worked with them briefly a few months ago, but, apparently he started following the podcast and likes what we're up to here and I wanted to be a part of it and help move it forward. So it's really exciting. In part, he's paying for episode transcripts. The first one was the last episode, which actually James Koppel paid for himself, but going forward, Repl.it is going to be paying for episodes, which is really exciting. It's been really frequently requested that we get transcripts for episodes. I was almost going to set up a Patreon to pool the money of people, who listened to the show already and wanted transcripts, because people were actually paying for it individually, and that's how we should pool resources for something like this. But then the problem was solved by a third party. So we don't have to do that yet or whenever maybe. So anyways, without further ado, here is my very first message from our sponsor.
00:02:20
SK:
Repl.it is an online repl for over 30 languages. It started out as a code playground, but now is goes up to a full development environment, where you can do everything from deploying web servers to training ML models, all driven by the repl. They are a small startup in San Francisco, but they reach millions of programmers, students and teachers. They're looking for hackers interested in the future of coding and making software tools more accessible and enjoyable. So, email jobs@repl.it if you're interested in learning more.
00:02:50
SK:
And now to introduce our guest. I'm really excited. I have, someone really special today, that I really, I was a little shocked when she agreed so easily to be on the podcast because, in my mind she's a very big deal at this point. So Nadia Eghbal is an independent researcher at Protocol Labs now. She has become the leading voice on a topic of sustainability and open-source, practically starting the conversation, or at the very least drastically shifting it single-handedly with the publication of her paper with the Ford Foundation, "Roads and Bridges".
00:03:25
SK:
It's a wonderful report and it doesn't take nearly as long to read as it may seem because it is like 80 pages, but the spacing is such that, it's you could read it in a single sitting in like an hour or so if you got into it, which I suspect many people who listen here would. On the bright side, in this conversation we go over many topics that isn't in that report. We kind of go beyond the report and also beyond her other writings that you'll find on the internet.
00:03:58
SK:
In preparation for this episode I read everything I could find of hers on the internet because she is really brilliant. So we've gone on the less traveled roads here. So that's on the upside on the downside, this podcast won't be a replacement for reading that report and reading her other work, her report and her other writing deal a lot with the essential role of the open-source maintainer, which today is more part of the conversation that maintainers are overworked and undervalued, and any activities they do are so essential, even more so than a lot of the code activities that are essential to, open-source.
00:04:35
SK:
So, but anyways, read the report maybe even before you listen, pause this and go read the report and then come back. But you could also just listen to this and read the report some other time. One other note, just a reminder, now that we have Repl.it sponsoring this episode also comes along with a transcript, which you could find at, futureofcoding.org/episodes/31, and then if you just scroll down you'll see a transcript. You could also just go type #transcript at the end of the URL to get to the transcript. And if you have any feedback on anything as always, but especially now with this new sponsor, please feel free to tweet or email me. I am excited to hear your feedback. So without any further ado, I bring you Nadia Eghbal.
00:05:23
SK:
Welcome Nadia.
00:05:24
NE:
Hi Steve.
00:05:25
SK:
I think a number of people who listen to podcasts have likely heard about you and your work before on the sustainability of open-source. But for many people, I think myself included, it seems like you kind of came out of nowhere with all this amazing work. And so, I'd like to start from before you started writing about open-source sustainability and hear a bit about your background, where you came from originally.
00:05:49
NE:
I still kind of feel like sometimes I came out of nowhere too, but I guess it's been a few years now. I kind of stumbled into open-source unintentionally. There were two tracks of things that happened. One was that, I've never considered myself to be a software developer, although I've written code that I have deployed here and there sometimes, but I'm by no means a software developer.
00:06:17
NE:
But when I was learning how to code, I remember just sort of being struck by how easy it was to learn, which I guess is not, not always what people say about coding, but it was just very easy to get, like a very basic application up and running. For someone who had no background in coding, I was just like surprised that, that was the case, and realizing that there were the reason why it was so easy it was not because I was like totally brilliant and wrote everything myself, but because we could rely on other people's tools, other people's frameworks and libraries, and I mean even languages, that made it such a quick and easy experience for me.
00:06:55
NE:
And so I think that was something I kind of like that stuck with me over the years, that I remember that coding is not just about the actual code that you personally are writing, but you're kind of standing on the shoulders of these other giants. So that was kind of like one thread. And then the other thread where I kind of more directly came into open-source despite not really knowing anything about it was, I was working in venture capital briefly, before I started doing the open-source stuff.
00:07:24
NE:
And even before then, I guess like I'd for the past few years up to that point, I'd been really interested in understanding, opportunities in technology that were really interesting and really important, but weren't obviously fundable by a venture capital. And I just experimented with a few different permutations of that. But I just sort of feeling like, landscape wise, it didn't really make sense to me that, venture capital is this very extreme experimental form of funding that made sense in the early days of software because software was this like risky, unproven thing.
00:08:00
NE:
So you have the risky, unproven sort of capital to go with it. But it seemed that as software is maturing, that we should be finding other just a great diversity of types of funding that would lead to different outcomes in tech. So it's just really interesting in this question of like, what else is out there for funding besides venture capital to fund things that are useful in technology.
00:08:25
NE:
And after I left the firm I was at, I was sort of just like flailing about and looking for answers to that question. I didn't really have a plan, which was definitely like a difficult time, but I kind of just treat it as a sort of like intellectual problem, and I had enough money to make that work for at least a few months, and would just start like digging around on the internet, looking for interesting things that I thought should exist in the world that didn't seem obviously suited to a venture capital, and just cold emailing people and asking them, hey, like how are you founding yourself? Or how is this work being funded?
00:09:07
NE:
Funny story, that's actually how I ended up at Protocol Labs now. I met Juan because he was one of those people that I like stumbled upon IPFS and I was like, this is really cool. And I just emailed him, asking you about like, how they were being funded. And so I just pulled like a huge list of all these different projects that I found interesting. And they weren't all open-source they were just like anything technology related that I thought was interesting.
00:09:33
NE:
And after going through that list I kind of realized that, there were a lot of these things were sort of, I guess like theoretically interesting or yes, maybe they should exist, but like they didn't already exist. It was kinda harder to make a theoretical argument for like, someone ought to fund this thing. Whereas I noticed for this other category of stuff which was open-source projects, like they already existed and people already relied on them.
00:10:01
NE:
But they didn't have any sort of clear funding model, despite talking to the maintainers of these projects who seem pretty frustrated about their situation. And so that was kind of, I think the moment where I was like, there's something really interesting happening at open-source. And I started kind of like, digging into that question, and talking to friends who knew more about open-source than I did.
00:10:23
NE:
And I think this is kind of like the fun part of an outsider's perspective. You often don't have a lot of context on a situation which can sometimes make you kind of naive and like do dumb things, but it can also give you a fresh perspective on a problem. And a lot of people I talked to were like, oh no, that's how open-source works. It's totally fine. It's just this like community participatory thing. I know it sounds really weird, but it just like, it works great.
00:10:51
NE:
And from my view it was kind of like, well, I don't know if that really makes sense since it seems like we're all relying on this critical infrastructure, that like doesn't have any way of sustaining itself. And this was around the time that Heartbleed happened. There was like Shellshock that happened around then, and since then we've had like the Equifax thing that happened. So there's just like more and more examples of open-source projects causing problems for other people because they were kind of being overlooked or under-supported. And that's kind of how I ended up in this space, as a long way of saying that.
00:11:27
SK:
Wonderful. That definitely answers the question. There were two interesting threads in there that I wanted to double back and ask about. The first one was, so it sounds like you left your VC job with a question, like almost like an academic intellectual question, like you said, that you wanted to answer, and it sounds like to solve a real problem. And then like eventually you find your way to a problem that, then you wrote about it or worked on solving.
00:11:58
SK:
It's just to me it sounds like, a very interesting way to think about your career. It's like a way that, I happen to also think about my career in a kind of a similar spirit, I think. But I think it's pretty rare to on your own leave, and just like think deeply about what's wrong with the world and how you're gonna solve it. So maybe you could talk more about that decision, and where you got that idea from, and just that whole.
00:12:27
NE:
Looking back on it, I mean it seems like almost a little bit dumb, like I'm glad I did it and it worked out great. But sometimes you kind of look back in those moments you're like, what was I thinking? It was definitely like the most difficult time in my post-college life was that year between, not working in venture anymore, and then by the time I guess around the time I joined Github about a year later, just because it's really hard to explain to people what you're working on.
00:13:01
NE:
I remember like the first couple of months I was just like, people are like, you just lost your job. Of course, you're exploring whatever. But by the time I got into like a year into that, you're working on something that you can't really articulate because it's, I think this is actually the thing that is still, I have to keep reminding myself of that... sustainability is... I can now say like, sustainable and open-source and it's like shorthand when people understand what I'm talking about.
00:13:28
NE:
But at the time it was like a really long winded, like abstract explanation of this thing I found vaguely interesting that no one else really did, and you just kind of sound crazy. Like I remember definitely avoiding a lot of social events that year because I just didn't really want to have to explain that I was doing this thing that made absolutely no sense.
00:13:55
SK:
I think it's really funny that you say that because, my brother is going to a job interview right now, and before he left he was telling me that, probably the biggest perk about getting this job will be that he has a career that he can tell people about at parties.
00:14:09
NE:
It's so funny. You tell yourself that like it doesn't matter, but it really does when someone is like, what are you doing with your time and you can't answer in one sentence. You're like, God, what am I doing with my time?
00:14:20
SK:
Of course I struggled with this a lot as well. It's really hard with parents and adults, people whose approval you really care about. In my experience, a solution that I found, who knows if it's an actual solution or not. But what feels like a solution is, I felt like I needed to find a community that would value the contributions that I wanted to make to society somewhere else, because the communities I was in was like, I'm living in New York City and it's a lot of finance people.
00:14:50
SK:
But then on the internet I found people who really get the work, and I feel like you definitely have found the same. But I'm wondering if you think of it in the same way, that the communities you found online, validated your work in a way that helped you that in person conversations with people in real life like your parents or whoever who don't get it.
00:15:06
NE:
Definitely. Yes. I think that was a very difficult mental break for me to make, living in San Francisco and working in tech, because I think the dominant theme of conversation in tech here is, like startups and venture capital. At least that was the world I was coming from was like, if you say you work in tech people assume that you're really into startups, or you say you're either going to start a company, or you're going to start funding companies. And those were like the two main career paths.
00:15:33
NE:
And so I think it took me some time to realize that there is a ton of people that work in tech that don't do stuff like that. But I really had to find the community of people that would value that. And I think I found two types of communities. One was around, just open-source developers themselves, like I spent a lot of time just really deeply immersed in that, and it wasn't just because of the work I was doing, but also because I think spiritually it was just like, I just really enjoyed being around developers who cared a lot about software, who cared a lot about tech, but we're doing it for these very intrinsic motivations.
00:16:09
NE:
I just found that like really restorative to be around. And then also I think there's just more of like a meta-community that I've found now, that took me sometime to get to where they might not necessarily understand day to day what I'm doing, but they understand the process of, I am working on something that I really care about personally that I think is different and interesting. And we all have our own weird problems that we're all fascinated by and enjoy digging in on, and there's sort of like this mutual respect.
00:16:39
NE:
The first question out of their mouth is not going to be like, are you going to start a company around it? Because if you don't start a company then, why are you even doing this? Which is the kind of conversations I was having like a few years ago. That felt very disheartening.
00:16:53
SK:
I know exactly, I also come from those communities. But I have a different ethic around it now.
00:17:00
NE:
I think it is ... I don't know if it's that I'm finding more of those communities or that things really are changing. I feel like they really are changing, especially after the last presidential election. I feel it was just like more people that are kind of interested in a different side of tech, which is nice.
00:17:15
SK:
That's interesting. In my experience, the people I meet in real life are the same. It's almost to me it seems like they've regressed, which isn't true. It's just that, I spend so much time with people online who are like, who think like me, that when I talk to a random people in real life, it's like such a shock.
00:17:35
NE:
It's entirely possible. I just avoid those people now and I just pretend they don't exist.
00:17:41
SK:
I imagine, so you and I met through various online activities, and now I was trying to make a list, and I had to stop when I reached like 80 people. I have so many hundreds of people that I've met from Twitter and Slack, and other various online places all over the world. Do you feel like you too have like, all these friends from the internet that you...?
00:18:00
NE:
Yes. That's definitely changed. I think like, most of my friends who were in San Francisco before that were in tech and now, and this is just a general kind of tech also. But now I feel like there are people just like all over the world, especially given I guess that I spend more time now in open-source communities that are more distributed. But I mean, Twitter has been lifesaving. I think it's just so, I've met so many great people just through conversations on Twitter.
00:18:27
NE:
I mean, usually now if I'm hanging out with someone in real life and someone asks like, how did you two meet? It's almost always like, Twitter, which is funny thing to explain. But really cool. I think it's just, it's so great that we can unlock, just like similar minded people and connect to each other from around the world that you might not have otherwise found.
00:18:48
SK:
And it's just crazy. People always laugh when I say, that I make friends and we talk about research on Twitter. They're like, who are these people? I'm like academics, other programmers, hobbyists. It's just like, but it's only like 140 characters. How do you say anything interesting?
00:19:05
NE:
It is funny to think about because it's like, it's not even necessarily that we like are tweeting back and forth or something, but it's that you just read their tweets and you're like, I mean, it's the same as blogging I guess. As long as you see their thoughts online and you're like, that's a person I want to spend more time with, and then it might facilitate like an offline interaction or a private conversation.
00:19:25
SK:
Totally. Well, so, the other thread from your story was that, you took time off and you kind of self funded this few months or like kind of a year of work on your own to find an interesting problem to work on. And the funding of the finding of problems, first like crossed my mind, I think Bret Victor or Alan Kay mentioned it, like that's an area where people don't think about funding things.
00:19:54
SK:
And that's like a tricky one because, you usually like to be incentived, you want someone to work really hard on finding something good so then we can reward them when they've succeeded. So I don't know, I wonder if you've had thoughts on the funding of that part of the journey.
00:20:11
NE:
Like whether it's a good idea or not?
00:20:12
SK:
Or just like, I know you've done a lot of, thinking on the sustainability of open-source, and existing open-source projects that people already rely on. That's like an obvious, it's a clear place to make ... to fund that. So I'm wondering, if you've done the thinking on the funding of, the finding of the problem, because clearly you think that's you are someone who would understand why that's important because you had to fund it yourself the finding of the problem.
00:20:40
NE:
It's really tricky. I feel like my views are always kind of changing on it. I absolutely think that if you can afford to do it then, and if you can afford to do it and there's no other path out there, then like why wouldn't you? I couldn't afford it in the sense that, I wasn't like rolling in dough or anything, but I had enough money that I knew and I didn't have debt. And so I knew that I could do it and survive.
00:21:07
NE:
I definitely like, the Ford Foundation funded me after I think about six months into that, which at that point was getting kind of necessary. So I didn't manage to find funding here and there. I think it's just an interesting question because it really gets into this question of like, what is the point of having money? Not to go super deep or anything. But I think like, having other people fund what you're doing can also tell you that you're onto something.
00:21:42
NE:
And so I think it can be, and also like having funding can give you, it can help convey a message, or convey that you're working on something important. So like once I had funding from Ford, it was definitely different for me to say like, I'm being funded by Ford to do this thing. Even though they weren't paying me like gobs of money, it was just like being able to say versus like, I'm a crazy person who's just doing this out of my savings and cold emailing people. Like it doesn't sound, it sounds kind of sad and pathetic. Always I felt sad and pathetic.
00:22:13
NE:
And so there is something useful about having someone fund your work that is validating. But I think in those really, really early stages, it can be very liberating to say, well, I have the money to do this. I might as well just like ... Like in the end if there's something you really want to do, and you can't find any funding for it, or maybe you just haven't built up enough. Like I couldn't have asked for funding before I did any work.
00:22:38
NE:
I think the reason they did fund me was because I said, I've already had conversations with like 100 people about this. So they like knew I at least had done some work. But if I just started out cold asking people for money, I probably wouldn't have had much luck. So I don't know. It's a really hard question, and the more I get into... I think, I mean the more like I've eventually come to appreciate the value of having funding, whether it's an employer or whatever, just because it does convey some sense of worth at least even to yourself.
00:23:16
NE:
But I do find it really liberating. I also think, sorry I'm just rambling a little bit about this but, I think it felt like a really bad use of my money at the time, and that I was just like throwing it down the drain to work on a problem. But in the end, I ended up like basically breaking even that year I think. And when I think about people that are going to grad school because they don't know what they want to do, like you're going into like, potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to find yourself.
00:23:49
NE:
Like if you have the savings already, you might as well not go into debt than just like spend a year learning a lot. Basically like, I think it sounds financially risky, but it's actually not that risky compared to some of the other ways that we funded those kinds of journeys.
00:24:06
SK:
I would agree with that as someone who didn't graduate college, but it's now doing academic research. You definitely don't need an institution to help you figure out a lot of things.
00:24:18
NE:
And even beyond official school or anything, but people just spend tons of money on these investments that sound good for their careers or good for lives, I think because they are like, we all get so uncomfortable about, not wanting to sound like we're not doing anything useful.
00:24:39
SK:
I think on the Recurse Center website. Recurse Center is like a three month long retreat in New York City for programmers and I think on their website they say somewhere that, the basic point of Recurse Center is that when people ask you what you're doing with your life, you can say, I'm at this thing called the Recurse Center as opposed to, it took three months off to just like code on random shit.
00:24:59
NE:
That's so great. So we just have shallow organizations that people create. So you have some fancy title to point to.
00:25:07
SK:
Well I think that's definitely the easiest solution. I feel like the solution that I just, my heart's in because I like feel the love is, like just you need to find your community, because they exist on the internet somewhere. There is a group of people who will validate your choice, your like lifestyle choices.
00:25:26
SK:
I guess now that it sounds like it could be a bad thing, like if you can come up with any destructive lifestyle choices and someone will support you on it. That's not what we want. But, I guess we want people who have positive but like counter cultural choices to be able to find people who can respect them for it. So, anyways, enough about that. Let's talk more about your direct work. I think we got a little bit too meta too quickly. Let's talk a little about-
00:25:53
NE:
I was enjoying it.
00:25:54
SK:
... open-source. Me too. Let's talk about the sustainability of open-source. I thought a good place to start because, I over-prepared for this interview, just reading and rereading all, like everything you've ever written.
00:26:08
NE:
I don't want to reread some of that.
00:26:13
SK:
I was like, she's blogging in 2014. Let's see if that.
00:26:16
NE:
Oh God, no.
00:26:21
SK:
So I saw in various places you talk about the distinction, the beginning of free software, and you distinguish it with open-source software, and then you come up with your own term, "public software". So I thought maybe you could walk us through the history a bit and contextualize the differences between these movements.
00:26:41
NE:
I mean short answer is, I still don't have a good ... I kind of played around with some terms and ideas back then, but I still use open-source primarily now, but I still don't like it. I think, so the funny thing is that free software and open-source software have the same literal definition, and both sides will acknowledge that, there's nothing like technically different about free versus open-source software in terms of like, the four freedoms or whatever.
00:27:11
NE:
But they obviously convey like very different cultural connotations. And I think there's some like third connotation now that, isn't adequately captured by open-source and that, because most software that we're putting into our proprietary software is open-source, which wasn't true like, even 10 years ago. Most of the software we're building on is just open-source at this point, which is just like so obvious now that you don't even have to say it.
00:27:51
NE:
Using the term open-source is just like kind of meaningless. And I think there's a very clear wave from the early 2000s of people who like very strongly identify with the idea of open-source. And I think are mostly focused on licensing issues. Whereas like this, whatever this other wave is, it's just like people that are writing stuff and sharing it under very permissive licenses and just sort of like, I mean, it doesn't even occur to them to think about what that means, because of course, why wouldn't I share my code with other people.
00:28:25
NE:
Those people I think are more concerned about sustainability than maybe the second generation. Oddly I think they have some things in common with free software people, more than anyone would care to admit. But, I mean like there's, because I think it's also so obviously where I'm like, while I'm writing code at my job, I'm writing code for fun. Like, why would I not get paid to write code in whatever shape or form. It's just like an obvious question.
00:29:00
SK:
I think in your writing you refer to this like, I think it was a tweet, like a post open-source software. Like where people were just like, screw the license. Like, I'm just going to commit to GitHub, and I am definitely of this generation. I feel like I don't even think I've read any license all the way through. Like I don't even know the difference. I think I know that MIT is like the most permissive, but besides that I don't really know anything.
00:29:25
SK:
So and usually when I start a project, it's a 90% not going to turn any into anything. So I don't even want to invest the time to figure out the licensing. But I think I've also seen your writing that you say that it's important to pick the right license. So maybe you could give a plea or educate us on why it's important.
00:29:44
NE:
Well long story short, when I joined Github one of my colleagues, Mike Spear, creatived really great website that's just called, choosealicense.com, and it's like the easiest thing to understand. So if you ever needed to choose a license, just go to that website. But I think the ...
00:29:56
SK:
Is it important to do it at the beginning of the project or you can do it anytime?
00:29:56
NE:
It's important to do in the beginning because that way everything that is, it's hard to change places as retroactively, or if you do then you have to, then like all the former contributions will be under one license, and the all the other ones would be on another license, like relicensing is a little bit of a legal headache. So you might as well just throw something on, especially on Github. How'd they make it really easy. You can just add a license file when you start a new project, and just at least put like MIT on it and be done with it.
00:30:28
NE:
MIT is like by far the most popular license at this point. I mean the main ones are MIT. Basically it's like, MIT is super permissive. GPL if you care about copy left, and Apache if you point out if you're business is I think like the shortest tweet length version of how to pick a license. What was I gonna say?
00:30:51
SK:
It sounds like a good valuable tweet.
00:30:54
NE:
I mean, I think like the reason I think it's actually like, not a good thing, but it speaks to the success of the early open-source movement that people don't really care to think about licenses now. And it is problematic when like, there is no license on the project, but, I think ...
00:31:11
SK:
Why are they problematic?
00:31:13
NE:
Because like if you don't have an open-source license on your code, it's not actually open-source even though you might be sharing it around with people. So if someone really, really cared they could do something about it.
00:31:25
SK:
So who is liable to risk? Like it's not open-source in what sense? Like if someone used it and I'm the creator, I can sue them because I didn't put an open-source license?
00:31:35
NE:
Yes, or say someone took your code and they put it in something that hurt someone, I don't know. Like maybe the code malfunctioned and something horrible happened. I don't know. Technically I guess you could, there might be an argument. I am not a lawyer so I don't really want to go super deeply into this. So one of the important parts of an open-source license is that the software is provided as is, and that you're free of any liability associated with it.
00:32:04
NE:
Whereas if it's your code, I guess, I don't know which argument is worse, that they took your code without permission, or that your code is in something that might have harmed someone that I guess you're technically liable for. The point being, I guess that like, early open-source people worked really, really hard to make licenses. Like the concept of licensing sounds really complicated but really like, there are basically three main licenses that people choose from, and they worked really hard to standardize and simplify that stuff.
00:32:36
NE:
So it's really easy to just add an MIT license file on GitHub, or like copy paste that text and just like stick it on there. And I think that's sort of the defining difference between that earlier generation and the current generation where like, they had to really fight for that stuff because it really, really mattered then because, the stuff wasn't standardized. I mean if you think about it, it's pretty crazy that, like open-source itself simplified the legal process so that, the legal files themselves are just as standardized and widely shared as open-source code.
00:33:14
NE:
Imagine if you had to hire a lawyer to draft something every time you wanted to release code, that would be crazy. But they made it really, really simple. But now it's like so simple and so obvious that, people that are writing open-source code now don't even think about or understand the differences.
00:33:35
NE:
And it feels like that's always really frustrating for earlier open-source people because they're just like, why don't people care about the licenses? And it's like, well, because you did such a good job making sure that no one had to think about it. Like, this is actually success for you. Don't be frustrated.
00:33:44
SK:
That's funny. So next topic. I want to talk about, like the dream of open-source. I think a lot of people have different, have had different dreams over the years.
00:34:00
SK:
One of the original dreams is the Bazaar I guess versus the Cathedral. And I think I've seen you on different places talk about how things haven't quite lived up to that dream in different places. And so I thought maybe I'd give you the opportunity to craft a new vision for what the dream of open source could look like. Like what's, what's realistic to hope for.
00:34:20
NE:
I think it's sort of just understanding what is actually happening now compared to when something like the Cathedral and the Bazaar was written. It was written in such an early time and open sources life and who knows, they were still at very, very early times that a lot of it is just sort of like theoretical. And whereas now I think of it less as like I want things to be a certain way but more of let's look at what's actually happening and does that match up with this rhetoric that we've been holding really strongly onto.
00:34:48
NE:
Um, so like one reason I think free software people and like modern open source people, which I hate to use ... I mean, they're modern software developers that are also free software people. But if we're thinking in terms of like waves or whatever, whatever's happening right now. The reason why I think they actually have more in common than they realize is that free software people also really cared about sustainability. But a lot of those projects and like at the time of the free software movement, like there were just such fewer people working on software. So you had like, you know, let's say you had 10 developers who are working on this project and everyone is, it truly is this peer production comments kind of thing where everyone is participating. Um, they have a much smaller base of people that are using the code. And so like everyone really does feel this sense of ownership in the software commons and so they really care about sustainability. But sustainability works very well when you don't have that many people using your projects and everyone who's contributing is like very active. Um, there's an expectation that users like try to solve their own problems or that they're talking to developers and like working through stuff. Um, whereas today at scale, like it's just impossible to expect that everyone who uses open source software is going to be able to contribute back. Like these products have gotten super, super complicated, you have like millions of people that are using them, relying on them. Um, and so that idea of this sort of like happy little peer production commons of like small groups of people working on something sustainably is just like not really possible at scale.
00:36:19
NE:
And so what I'm trying to understand better and sort of develop a theory around is what does it look like to kind of separate out the production and the consumption of something like software so that the consumption of software is still very highly scalable. Um, I think like, ideally if you're just taking the code and running off into the sunset with it, like there is no real cost to the producer associated with that. That's the promise of all digital goods, right? That you can consume them kinda costlessly. Um, and it doesn't matter if like a thousand people or 10 million people use it. But the production side of it I think does have some finite limiting factors. And you can only. And I think the limiting thing about the rhetoric that we have really tightly held onto in open source right now is that it's supposed to be this 100 percent participatory commons kind of thing.
00:37:15
NE:
Um, but like, it's just impossible to expect that out of millions of users who don't have the same context for the production side of that project. And in some ways I think this mirrors what is happening on the Internet in general. Like we thought the Internet is this super democratizing place and if only everyone can talk to each other, we would just all get along. But like I think everyone is quickly realizing that like if you just don't have the context to understand... You can't just walk into someone's community and then demand things because its democracy and its the internet and anyone can talk to anyone. Like there are kinda like rules around how you participate in conversations or how you approach people you don't know on the Internet. Um, and I think it's the same thing in open source. We're just kind of seeing that same trend being mirrored. Um, so what I would like to see, I guess like the dream of open source to me would be to be able to still like reassert what does that, what does that smaller ... like maybe slightly more semiprivate or just higher context production commons look like that's separated out from the thing they're producing, which can be consumed costlessly by anyone.
00:38:16
SK:
Hmm. Interesting. So, um, as a part of that vision, like I know you talked, you used the metaphor of infrastructure to talk about open source in a lot of different places. And you make the comparison between like trucking companies don't have to pay for roads because the government taxes all of us and then pays for roads. But as far as I could see in your writing, there was, I don't think you ever mentioned like, oh, like maybe the government should tax people and then the government should somehow sustain open source software. Is that something you've considered at all?
00:38:49
NE:
It was something I thought about early on. It's been kind of funny how, I don't think I've ever talked about this really, but the process of trying to work through solutions for open source has definitely changed my politics or challenged my political beliefs. Which I won't get too deeply into. But um ...
00:39:10
SK:
I'd be fascinated if you were comfortable to share but ...
00:39:12
NE:
Yeah. Well I'll try to think of a nice, not .. less, slightly less controversial way to talk about it. So this is one reason why Elinor Ostrom's work has really resonated with me. And so she wrote this book Governing the Commons and it's about um, her ... She's basically documenting all these examples from like fisheries and farms and things like that of people who sustainably self managed a commons. And a key part of her thesis is that we assume that the tragedy of the commons needs to be resolved either by the market or the state. So like the government is intervening or we have to price it or something. Um, so that people don't like over, over extract from the commons. But she's, in her examples, she's like documenting all these cases of commons where they didn't have any external intervention and people just learned how to manage it themselves. And I think her work has resonated a lot with like the times right now just in general, um, and I've noticed like a lot of pickup from like crypto folks right now as well.
00:40:14
NE:
Um, and I think there's just something there around the idea that external intervention can kind of feel like this bandaid response of like maybe the government doesn't know the best thing that the commons need to, you know, care for itself or whatever. Um, and so I've kind of taken those views to heart around open source where like from the beginning, it's very obvious to me that like open source is different from sustaining other things because it's so decentralized. Um, it's kinda hard. You can't really imagine it being something that the government manages because like it would take away one of the best things about open source, which is in theory anyone can really like jump in and get involved. Um, there is no central entity. It's not even all in the same country. So it's really hard to picture, like how would, how would government even really sustain it unless we're talking about like the UN or something.
00:41:06
NE:
Um, and that happening in conjunction with I think in the past year or so, just a lot of, there's been a lot of critique of the tech industry and a lot of scrutiny and I think we're seeing two types of responses coming out of that. One is an increased interest in regulation of tech from the government. And the other is people who have sort of lost faith in the ability of the government to regulate. Both people might care about the same thing. Like, I mean if you look into my writing from like 2014, I used to advocate a lot for regulation of like monopolies and things like that in tech but I definitely lost a lot of faith in that, especially in the Facebook testimonies that happened this year. Just seeing that like I don't know that the government knows how to resolve these problems because I don't know that the government understands tech well enough. And maybe it just can't move fast enough to really respond to these things.
00:42:03
NE:
And so while in theory I would love someone to like help step in and solve things for open source, I don't have a lot of faith that one that anyone has the knowledge to really do that, including government. And two, that adding some sort of centralized aspect to open source can just kind of destroy the whole point of it. Um, and so yeah, I think I've, as I've tried to think about sort of like, well what is that like? What does the commons of software producers look like? I think that is like a government in the sense of, in an opensource project, there are gonna be some people who just make more decisions. This is why I really care about emphasizing the role of maintainers because I don't think maintainers get talked about enough as a separate group from open source contributors. Um, and so maybe like maintainers are like the government, but like it's still not literally the government.
00:43:03
SK:
Fascinating! You bring up a lot of things I want to respond to and push on some more. So I think the first place I want to ... I just want to put out there that I'm mostly playing devil's advocate. I don't necessarily believe. So I, I'm with you in that it'd be neat if we could solve this without government. But the example you specifically point to is how like roads and infrastructure weren't government things. They were just like things that people did like, you know, in the same ... just because they had pride or whatever and they just wanted to do it. And Andrew Carnegie and other people took it upon themselves to do it for their own reasons. But then eventually the government adopted it once it became obvious that it was a government thing. So I just bring that up just to push back a bit and say like, it may not seem like a government thing now, but maybe it will become that way as it's more and more obvious that these open source libraries are like core infrastructure for the world. And then the second point is ... I want to say is, I guess open source is new, so maybe it's like unlike anything in history, but I can't think of anything else in history that's been so core and fundamental and yet has remained independent and like contributor volunteer. So ...
00:44:20
NE:
Yeah, I really struggle. It's unlikely to stay that way, is that the ...
00:44:28
SK:
Yeah. Yeah. Or just ... like it's hard to point to a success story from the past. Which doesn't necessarily mean it's impossible because we have all these new, like the world's so different now than it is in the past. So it's not to say it's impossible. Um, I don't know. I just wanted to push back one last time because like, just to be totally up front, I too am fairly like anti-government or not anti-government, but I'm fairly like ... I believe in people to solve their own problems. So I'm, I'm with you. I just in the interest of like seeing the other side, I thought I'd push back a bit more.
00:45:05
NE:
I think I still have the underlying role of what government should be doing. Like, I'm still on board with ... well, a couple things. Okay. So one ... just the idea like, you know, roads weren't managed by government and then they did become that way. I think yeah, I think there's like a parallel trajectory in the sense that roads were sort of like disorganized and not really thought out or planned well. And um, yeah, I mean the history is just so vast. I did not know until I started digging into this stuff that just like travel used to be like really dangerous and like people were ... like dangerous because the roads were bad but dangerous because they were like bandits on highways and stuff. And like, I mean it's just like crazy and now we don't worry about that stuff when we drive. Um, and so like, yeah, there's some, some ... I guess the trajectory that like somehow the system needs to become a little bit more coherent and organized and thoughtful. Like I think that is inevitably going to happen. Because like you said, that's just sort of what happens to all of these things as they become really widely used. Um, but I just don't know that government is a literal, like literally the government. I don't know whether it'll be that. Partly because again, we're just like dealing with a different level of scale on the Internet that I think is fundamentally different from physical problems.
00:46:28
NE:
Like, yeah, dealing with the roads is, you know, in the 1800s was just very different from dealing with like Internet scale problems today that are not just confined to one country. Um, but yeah, I do think that there needs to be some sort of coordination, like thoughtful coordination around how to address these problems. But I think ... or I hope people will be able to self organize to do that.
00:46:56
SK:
Yeah, I find myself kind of thinking that we're gonna ... we're kind of waiting around for the Andrew Carnegie of our day to like ... like some tech billionaire to be like, you know what, like my problem. Like the thing I care about is opensource and that steps in...
00:47:11
NE:
Wow, that'd be great.
00:47:12
SK:
I mean, really it just takes one, given the consolidation of capital these days.
00:47:16
NE:
It is so funny. I mean like one of the things I just continue to be delighted by and frustrated by is like ... sometimes I get like really in my head on like what would be the right solution to these things? And then I realize that like there's still so many people that love open source because open source is totally undefined. So if someone came through and was like, I'm going to solve this problem, they'd be like, well, who are you that you're supposed to, you know, going to solve this problem. Like it's so crazy like people that get upset about like tracking in open source, it's just like, you know, basic usage metrics are not available to maintainers of open source projects. They could be managing some of the most widely used software in the world that we all rely on and they have like no idea who's using it, which is crazy. But if they like, you know, try to add any sort of analytics, people just freak out. Or like adding any sort of commercial license option, people go crazy. And so, um, yeah, I, I find it just like really wonderful. But it sort of keeps me in check of every time I feel this desire to be like, well maybe someone will just magically solve it tomorrow. Then they would hate that, wouldn't they?
00:48:27
SK:
I guess that brings up the question of like incentives and intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation and the volunteer culture we have in open source. Which feels like this really delicate thing that we want to protect and encourage. And yet also it's like the same. It's this exact thing that prevents us from being paid regular salaries for doing this work. That, yeah, that feels like a really difficult problem to solve.
00:48:53
NE:
Yeah, it does get right back into these ... these sort of cultural clashes around ... And I think some of this is just like norms that will eventually have to change. So the example I always go back to is the nonprofit sector where yeah, there's a lot of altruism in that sector and there's a lot of people that might just volunteer because they want to volunteer. But like I don't think anyone questions the idea that like someone needs to get paid to manage that work or coordinate. There's, there's some overhead cost, right? And ...
00:49:26
SK:
Back in the day, maybe like the only people who could do charity and nonprofit where rich people who could fund themselves. But today it's like understood that it's like a job and you should get paid a salary to do it.
00:49:38
NE:
Yeah. There's different reasons why you might want to go pick up trash on a Saturday morning with your friends versus like run a nonprofit. They're like really different incentives. One might just be 'cause it feels good or you want to spend time with your coworkers or something like that, or you just want to feel like you made a difference. Um, and another might be, well, I don't know. I'm not gonna ... I'm not gonna manage the accounting and billing for people's donations or something. I'm not going to do that just because it's fun. I'm going to do it because I'm getting paid to do it. Uh, and yeah, I think similarly in open source, there's some, like writing code is often, I don't think we really need to like intrinsically motivate people to write code that is fun for them. Um, and I think that's usually what people point to when they say open source is working just fine because people are intrinsically motivated to do this stuff.
00:50:28
NE:
And I think that's, again, like in the free software times like that made perfect sense because they were just working on whatever they felt like. But if you're dealing with like, you know, support tickets or bug reports, like not a lot of people love doing that in their free time. Some people do, but not a lot of people do. Um, but then it becomes really interesting to think about what, what are, what are the levers that we can pull. So in the example of support, which is kind of top of mind for me because I've been digging into support research these past couple of weeks. Um, yeah, like a core developer might want to write code for the projects, but they don't want to do like, you know, reading through bug reports or answering user questions. Um, so you can either pay them to do that, which is why I think a lot of products will monetize through support of offering some kind of paid support option. Because then there's like at least an ... an extrinsic motivation of like, alright, at least I get paid to like deal with this stuff.
00:51:20
NE:
Um, or you can find someone else who is intrinsically motivated to deal with that. And so like the reason why you have people on stack overflow asking ... answering tons of questions from users even though they're not core developers on the project is because, well maybe they're some power user that wrote a book about R or something and they're really excited to show off their knowledge or it helps make them an expert on the topic. So like they have their, they have their own motivation for wanting to answer questions even though a core developer might be like, oh, this is the worst thing, I don't want to do this. Um, so yeah, I guess just like being explicit about like who's intrinsically motivated to do this job and then how do you find the right person to do it. And acknowledging where sometimes intrinsic motivations just fail and we just need to pay people to do certain types of work that no one else wants to do.
00:52:12
SK:
Yep. That brings up a lot of interesting problems. The question of non code work and opensource like documentation and answering support questions. I'll just list a few, a few related topics and you'll respond to them as you see fit. Another thing is scaling all the things that maintainers do because that's like a really tough thing, to scale. And something that you've brought a lot of attention to. Also, uh, people talk a lot about scaling first time contributors, but it's really the second time contributor that's the thing we want to improve... And then the last thing I'll bring up is that, uh, it seems like it isn't always the case that money is the problem. Like you gave us one example of, of a developer or someone who, who, who wrote a check to an opensource project and then checked back in later and he didn't spend any of the money because he didn't know how to spend the money.
00:53:10
NE:
Yeah, I think that was Jeff Atwood. Yeah. That's something that I've been learning over the past few years too, is like the idea of sustainability is not just about paying people. Like in some cases it is absolutely about paying people. And in other cases it's about figuring out how to distribute a certain like workload or burden off one maintainer and find other avenues for them. Um, and those are really intertwined. But like, yeah, I mean in the end it's just sort of about like figuring out how to manage coordination costs for an open source project. But yeah, I mean the not knowing how to spend things is a little bit interesting just because like money means different things at different scales. So like something I'll hear from maintainers sometimes is I would rather get paid $0 to do something then $1 because if it's $0 I'm doing it because it's fun and I enjoy it as soon as they get paid a dollar, then it's like, wait, all this code I wrote is worth like 10 bucks in Paypal donations to you.
00:54:11
NE:
And it kind of upsets them more than if they had just never been paid to work on it at all. Um, which I think is just like, so. Yeah. It's just so interesting from an economic perspective, right? Like that, like the value of a dollar is not actually linear. Um, and then like, yeah, at higher scales, it's, I mean even like some developers ... open source developers who are getting paid to work on open source, I mean the best paid examples I can think of are you know, maybe in like the $100,000 range. Not ... some people are getting paid full time as like employees somewhere to work on open source. I'm not counting those, but just people who have raised money independently. And like that's not a ton of money for someone who's like a really, really, really high valued developer. Like they can make way more money just working in industry. If you get paid like you know, $5,000 a year or something that's not enough for you to quit your job. And neither is like $50,000 but would $500,000 be? Sure. But like yeah it makes these really awkward like timescales where like $50,000 in donations is a lot of donations but it might not be enough to pay for one full time developer. So what do you do with that money? It's just awkward.
00:55:20
SK:
Yeah, you're right. That is an interesting valley of awkwardness. So back to the division of opensource. The vision I have for open source is different and I propose to get there or like the way I'm trying to get there is through technology in a way that's kind of a, like a different path than you're taking. I think we're just coming up. It's the same problem from different perspectives. Um, so my vision for open source kind of hearkens back to I think more of the original vision that like anyone who uses the thing and has an idea for how to change a thing or make it better can just do that. Um, and there's like nothing standing in their way. But I guess there's the obvious problem that you were saying that software's just so big and complicated that that's just impractical. So the strategies that I'm working on is to just solve that problem directly.
00:56:19
SK:
Like, just to design programming languages and programming systems to lend themselves better to comprehensibility so that one day maybe it could be realistic to expect to like, uh, not, not my grandma, but like someone who uses Excel every day and it comes up with it. So I say Excel because they're like pretty computer literate. But then they come up with a way to make Excel better just for themselves or their company and they could just do it themselves even though they're not like a real programmer. So that's kind of the vision of the world I'm shooting for. So I'd be curious to get your quick thoughts on that perspective.
00:56:53
NE:
So you're focused on people who would be able to do that as in like create a solution for themselves, right? Not necessarily contributing back upstream to a project.
00:57:06
SK:
Uh, yeah, I didn't make a clear distinction. I think either would be great. So if there's something that I think would benefit everybody. Well, so I imagine the way it would happen to most people is like, oh I just think this would be better for me. And then you do it and then it's like as a second thought, oh maybe my friend would like this or maybe like the entire community would like this. But I think as a first step, I just want to customize the software for me and then maybe I'll, I'll share ... like maybe other people would find it valuable and they can optionally adopt it.
00:57:33
NE:
So I think the complexity and challenges that I was alluding to are probably less technical and more people ... really are just coordination related. Um, but I do think both are important, so I think ... but they end up almost sometimes being in conflict with each other. So there's a whole body of interest around making it easier for people to make first time contributions and this kind of gets to what you were alluding to with the first versus second time contributions, um, where, yeah, I mean it should just be easier to make to make a contribution than it is right now or just like it should be more obvious on how to do that.
00:58:16
NE:
And then maybe that's sort of like, and it's not just sort of like how do I make a pull request, but also like, can I even read what is going on in this code so that I can make a meaningful change? Um, but then there's the, like the vision of the project, right? And like maybe you really care about making some change, you feel really passionate that this change should happen. Like if you're using Excel example, if only Excel were like open source or something. Um, and you discovered something that was really useful for your own use case and you're like, alright, maybe other people would benefit from it too. And you're really excited to submit those changes upstream and the maintainer tells you, no, we don't need this. Like, that's a really, that's a conflict that needs to be managed. Right?
00:58:58
NE:
And so like the stuff that's good for someone individually is not always great for everyone. And I think that's one of those hard maintainer jobs of like how do I know which contributions make sense to accept versus not. Um, and I think thankfully in open source, like at least like you can always fork the project and um, and have your own personal version of it, right? Like if you're like, well, I like this better than, you know, merge them into your own version of the projects and keep using that. Um, which is really nice. But yeah, I think it's hard to manage the like, like how do you know when something is good for you versus when is it actually good for everyone else? Or do you just think it would be good for everyone else?
00:59:40
SK:
Yeah, that's a tough one. I don't know if it's actually possible, but I'd like to believe that with the right sort of programming language and tooling we could have our cake and eat it too in the sense that I can like propose some change and then it's ... so like the core of the project is, is relatively stable and like a nonpartisan, almost like kind of unbiased and then which would allow other people to like make almost plug-in-y things. So there's less of a single point of like one person just deciding for everybody what's right and everyone can kind of decide for themselves. I feel like that's kind of the vision that, that would bring the most happiness to the most people.
01:00:25
NE:
I mean, yeah, I guess in a sense of like you should be able to break apart the projects essentially forking again of people should be able to work on their own versions of things. But in terms of returning back to the main project like ... I think it'd be like chaos if everyone could just put in whatever they want. Right? Because like what if you have an idea and someone else has literally the opposite idea and I guess it's sort of like the problem of like democracy at scale, right? Where maybe both believe really passionately that your ideas make sense, but like whose ideas should make it in and only one person's can.
01:01:02
SK:
Yeah I guess I'm saying that ... So it'd be neat if like the core could be something that is kind of what you're saying, you, you don't fork it that often. It like has a pretty unified vision, but it allows for an architecture where ... where people can disagree and not affect each other because it's kind of like a la carte more.
01:01:23
NE:
Yeah. I like thinking about that just for society in general. Like I don't think filter bubbles are a bad thing because like, I don't know, inevitably we all need our own little spaces to do our own things and yeah, it's sort of like I don't, I feel like software architecture really mirrors society in some ways or the other way around of like, yeah, sometimes you just need to break things apart and let people have their own spaces to do whatever it is they care about.
01:01:53
SK:
So, kind of on like a different tact. Um, I'm sure you're familiar with the phrase, I've been "benevolent dictator for life." I think this, this, this week is a particularly interesting time to talk about that phrase because I guess a few months ago Guido stepped down from that position at for python and then I think just this week, or maybe it was yesterday, I don't know. It was very recently, Linus Torvald also stepped down from Linux. I think that they stepped out for different but very related reasons that I imagine you would have some, some comments on.
01:02:28
NE:
Well, I think they were pretty different. Without knowing a whole lot about the back channel history in either of those situations. I think on Linus' side, it was sort of he's been infamous of being a maybe not so benevolent dictator for life and that's been like a point of contention for a very long time in that community. Whereas with Guido, I think it's been more that like, I think he's had a pretty positive reputation of ... at least maybe I, maybe I only talk to people who like Guido but, um, but yeah, I think is the sense I got from that just from the outside was a little bit more like he was tired and had been kind of burned out by some of the conversations that were happening and kind of just wanted to move on. Um, I think Linus actually said like I'm just taking a break, I'm not, I'm not burned out and I'm excited to keep ... stay on this project for a long time, I'm gonna come back. Um, but yeah, it is pretty crazy to see like a couple, a few of the biggest BDFLs stepping down, um, in the past couple months. And I, yeah, I don't know if that's just sort of a generation of developers is starting to turnover or, or what.
01:03:40
SK:
Yeah, I thought you'd find it funny. When I googled BDFL there was like a list on Wikipedia of all of them and do you know who's at the top of the list? I don't know what the list is sorted by so it just random. But Juan Benet is at the top of the list.
01:03:55
NE:
Wow, no way. Juan is a bdfl? I guess so. It feels like the for life seems like you have to ... your projects have been around for decades before you can say for life. That's funny.
01:04:12
SK:
So I guess that's an interesting segway. So I'd be curious to hear about your experience of Protocol Labs how it's like working on the distributed team. I don't know if you go to an office every day, who do you work with? You know, how, how has, how has that life kinda been?
01:04:25
NE:
Yeah, it's pretty great. We don't have a physical office so I worked at Github before this. Github is pretty remote friendly or at least I think it's very remote friendly. So I thought I'd be really prepared for Protocol Labs but Protocol Labs is like ... takes the concept of remote friendly and like 10x's it.
01:04:45
NE:
So yeah, I mean everyone is totally distributed. Uh, we have about 100 people now, I think. Um, yeah, it's been growing a lot and uh. We're ... so part of why I was interested in joining Protocol Labs is because the organization of the company itself is kind of an experiment I think that I wanted to follow along with. Um, so we have sort of like different groups of people that work on ... different teams of people working on different things and everyone is a little bit like self manages their own little pod or node. And then we have like another group whose job it is to be sort of like the connective tissue within each of those groups. Um, so like I'm under the research org, which is probably a little bit, I think consists of more like independent self managed people than maybe like the FileCoin team or something where people are working with each other all the time.
01:05:32
NE:
Um, but yeah, it's a really interesting setup in that it's meant to be sort of like little pods of autonomy that are all connected with each other. Um, I've been given a lot of freedom and autonomy at Protocol Labs, which I'm extremely grateful for. Um, they really respect the idea of a research culture and um, because we don't have managers, we have a totally flat hierarchy. Um, there's sort of like a, I guess a team lead or someone who stewards the research organization. But we don't have literal managers, at least not right now. So I'm able to sort of structure my day however I see fit. Um, it's been ... So when I joined Github, I didn't ... Github used to not have managers, but by the time I joined there already were managers and like more ... a more formalized structure. So this is the first time I've worked in a company that's big but doesn't have managers or I guess relatively big.
01:06:32
NE:
So yeah, I've been trying to like figure out how do I even have like accountability and stuff. And so I think that idea of just for like internet, Twitter communities and stuff that we talked about earlier, like that's been really useful for me. I think I spend most of my time collaborating and talking to people outside of my, like actual company or employer. But I still feel like I have a lot of colleagues and a lot of people to bounce ideas off of just like in the world all over the place, which is great. Um, I started doing this thing that like I really enjoy. That's sort of inspired by something we were doing at Github where like I just keep a Google doc that ... of like weekly updates that's like a little captain's log. Um, and some people in the org have access to it.
01:07:15
NE:
And so if anyone's sort of like wondering like, what does Nadia do all day? I just try to like keep a log of the things I've been doing that we can just keep a running list. Um, it's kind of nice for me to be able to look back on and see like what did I do? What have I been doing with my time? I guess it's also just a nice gentle accountability mechanism of like, you should have things to write down, but it's entirely up to me what I want to write down. Having a newsletter has also been kind of a nice accountability mechanism in that I send out a newsletter every month and like I want to have writing in it or I want to have something to talk about in it and that's sort of like. But yeah, it's sort of like I've had to come up with my own, my own ways of measuring progress. Um, besides like a traditional, I guess formal kind of employer, employee relationship.
01:08:04
NE:
Yep, same. I've had to deal with a lot of those issues. I also keep one of those logs.
01:08:14
NE:
It's funny. It's like, talk to yourself in there.
01:08:17
SK:
Yeah, it's great. I actually publish mine as soon as I write it.
01:08:20
NE:
Really?
01:08:22
SK:
Yeah. I stole the idea from other people on the Internet who I saw doing it, and it just gave me so much value into their ... To what they're actually working on, and their meta-process of how they get through things. I just really wanted to pay it forward. It's been really great. One of my favorite things about it is the linkability of it. I deliberately use header for everything. It's hosted on GitHub Pages, so everything has a link to a specific place in the log. At this point, it's 50,000 words or more. It's the length of a novel, but can link to a specific paragraph elsewhere in the log, or on Twitter, or in conversation with people.
01:09:05
NE:
That's great.
01:09:07
SK:
Yeah. I would encourage you to do the same, just for the selfish reason that I would read it.
01:09:15
NE:
Yeah. I feel like I would be a little bit nervous to publish it. I don't know why, though, because I publish other things online that I shouldn't feel self-conscious about.
01:09:25
SK:
The way mine happened kind of is I have a personal journal, like diary I guess where I talk about my own life, like all sorts of stuff that I definitely wouldn't want to be public. In there, I would also have work stuff. It was like, "This is kind of silly. A lot of this stuff has nothing to do with my life, my personal life, and other people would find it useful. I just got to separate these two." Potentially there was things that you don't want to be public, and you can keep some of it as private. I imagine a lot of what you write about in that log is totally benign.
01:10:05
NE:
Yeah, that's why I'm surprised that I would find myself feeling awkward about sharing it. Yeah, I'm not journaling about my private life in there. It's almost I think the fear of judgment of what if I think I'm doing tons of stuff, but really I'm not doing that much at all? Which is stupid.
01:10:22
SK:
Wouldn't you like to know?
01:10:24
NE:
Yeah, right? It's funny with the newsletter they sent out, because I have a section where I share books that I've read that month that are relevant. It's not even all the books that I've read, but the ones that I think are semi-relevant to the work that I do. I also ashamed because there's three books on there a month or something. I've had multiple people respond and be like, "Wow, you read so much. How do you do that?" I'm like, "Really?" I guess it's all relative and we should stop trying to measure ourselves to other people. I also feel like I don't read enough or I don't read fast enough.
01:10:54
SK:
I think part of it is I think people get the sense that you're not sharing everything. They know that. They just see what you do share. They feel a tip of the iceberg kind of thing. It's like, "Man, what must be under there?"
01:11:06
NE:
I'll just continue to convey that mystery. Yes, there's so much going on here they don't know about.
01:11:13
SK:
I'd be curious to hear if we get a sneak peak preview of the new threads or research you're working on. I know it might be fuzzy, but I thought that's what podcasts are for. Just unstructured where your thoughts are now.
01:11:23
NE:
Yeah. I'm about to go heads down on this in the next couple of months, which I'm very excited about. There's something nice about writing long-form, I think, as I've just been full-time research for the past few months. I think I've been doing short-form research sprints and blog posts, but they can feel a little bit cyclical. It'll be nice to do something longer. Most of it is actually what we've already been talking about. Sorry to say, but this idea of separating out a commons into both a production and a consumption side, and trying to understand how they perform differently.
01:12:03
NE:
I think it's this odd thing. There is a field of economics that looks at digital goods, but at least in my study of it, and I've talked to other people who have not disagreed with this that the research on the economics of digital goods basically looks at stuff from free software era of this idea of pure production. You have people in a commons, they're all contributing equally. They all just feel this shared sense of ownership, and that's what a commons is. It doesn't really hold up at all to what we see from digital goods today. I think there's this harmful, I think somewhat harmful belief that digital goods scale costlessly.
01:12:56
NE:
Some of them do. If you write a song and you post it on the Internet, you don't go back and revise that song according to the feedback people give you. For something like software that's being produced in the open, it's not that you just release once and that's the end of it. You have to make continual changes to it, either because people are submitting changes back to it, but also because software degrades over time. Knowledge degrades over time. You can't just release something once and be done with it. We don't really have a great model to understand that right now.
01:13:31
NE:
Yeah, if we're challenging this idea that digital goods don't scale costlessly because there is some non-zero cost that goes back to the producer, what does it look like to sustain and maintain that? Stuff like patents, for example, work really well because you release or create something once, and so you're incentivizing the innovation cost, I guess, or you're rewarding innovation cost, but you're not accounting for maintenance into perpetuity. Yeah, that just requires very different models. Basically what I'm trying to look at, what is the actual finite resource in the production side of the commons?
01:14:17
NE:
Mostly looking at the idea of attention, and where is attention finite or scarce, and how is it a resource that we choose to allocate or not? Which I think dovetails with how we think about attention economies right now. Attention economics is focused on me the individual making a choice of how to spend my time versus me, an individual choosing how to spend my time on behalf of a commons. That's a whole thread around it, and then just getting to the contributor incentives, and try to split apart those different kinds of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that we talked about.
01:14:58
NE:
Yeah, hopefully it'll all wrap up to something nice and coherent. Right now it's a little bit all over the place. Yes. I think they all point to this picture of digital goods that scale, that function differently from how we understand them thus far.
01:15:13
SK:
Yeah, I got it.
01:15:16
NE:
Okay, great. It's slowly becoming more legible. Very, very slowly, but I still feel like it's messy.
01:15:25
SK:
Yeah, I think because I've read your other work, the framing of ... I think elsewhere you talked about, the woman you mentioned-
01:15:35
NE:
Elinor Ostrom?
01:15:37
SK:
Yeah, who recontextualized the conversation around public goods. She didn't reframe everything, just extended an existing framework. It sounds like that's what you're trying to do.
01:15:46
NE:
Definitely, yeah. It's about extending. It's not about replacing.
01:15:51
SK:
In this vein, it sounds like the work that you do, the style of work you've been doing is a independent research, which is a phrase that I learned about from you. You wrote a blog on independent research. You talk about that it's not this new weird thing, but it's been around for a long time in science, and it works, and it should be more respected. That's actually how I guess partially how this conversation came about, so I thought I'd bring up that topic, particularly under the context of, I recently ...
01:16:24
SK:
Actually, largely because of your influence writing that article, I found myself a mentor, or he found me through your work. Jonathan Edwards, I mentioned in the last episode. He's agreed to mentor me almost in an academic sense, like as if we were both in the same institution, but instead neither of us are at institutions. Anyways, I thought I'd ask about if you consider yourself an independent researcher, if you have a mentor. What sorts of things a la carte are you taking from academia in research, or what sorts of things are you not dealing with?
01:17:02
NE:
Ye ah. The short answer is that I'm definitely still learning. I do consider myself to be an independent researcher, although I have a full-time salaried position, just because it's an unusual setup. I've been trying to challenge certain ideas that I think would have come if I had been in academia. One thing I do hold very firmly to is I don't believe that you need years and years of training before you can be an effective researcher with interesting things to say in the world. I did consider doing a PhD, and I had a few institutions approach me to talk about that in the past couple years.
01:17:44
NE:
Although I love the idea of doing research in that way, there was just something cultural that I didn't necessarily align with, which was this feeling that if I study everyone else for the next five to seven years, then maybe I'll be qualified to make a useful statement about the world at the end of that. I think that might be true for other disciplines or for other problem statements, but at least for my own personal experience, the way I came into this was by finding a different angle on something that I think lot of people were talking about.
01:18:23
NE:
I'm naturally just going to be a little bit not into the idea of having to do it that way. Yeah, I do love that my situation right now means I can just ... If you have ideas and you care about studying them, you should just do what you want to do, and publish stuff online, and maybe you're repeating other people's work sometimes. Whatever. You're there to learn. I think that's a really important part of independent research, but definitely I think the harder part's going to be around collaboration and around validation. I feel like I had no shortage of great people to talk to about ideas and things like that, but there's something about a deeper collaboration.
01:19:03
NE:
A lot of people I will talk to about ideas are people who are doing other things full-time. I don't have a lot of people who are full-time devoted to the same field and the same problem statement that I am. While we can have great conversations about things, I really wish there were other full-time researchers working on the same problem as me. I've only found people that are really tangential, or touch a part of it, or are really interested in the topic, but are doing something else full-time. I think that can be a really difficult thing. That might also just be because me.
01:19:35
NE:
Then the validation part ... Maybe not validation is the right word, but the work product I think is something that I'm experimenting with. When I first started in Protocol Labs, I was like, "I don't want to write any papers because I believe if you have interesting things to say, you should just be able to publish them wherever." That's why I've only been doing blog posts, but there is something weird about if you spend ... Some of the blog posts I've done recently took a really long time to pull that data together. At least for me it felt like a long time, like three weeks or a month or something of spending a lot of time on it.
01:20:08
NE:
In the end, you end up with a blog post. Then I have other blog posts that I can write in literally an hour. It's just like, "Wait, but both of these are blog posts?" There is something about having a paper that can feel just a little bit more polished, and I think that people are more comfortable citing, which is something I found from when I published Roads and Bridges, the longer report that I did. People are very comfortable. There was something about it that felt more legitimate just because it was a published report versus a blog post, which is why I want to do something long-form this Fall.
01:20:42
NE:
I've come to accept that, okay, maybe it doesn't make any sense, but there are some things that are just better done in a slightly more polished form. Yeah, that's something I'm still experimenting with, and I don't really have answers to yet.
01:20:57
SK:
Cool. I'm glad that you are at least talking about it, because I think you're quite good at putting vocabulary to things that the rest of us have trouble talking about.
01:21:12
NE:
I'm glad we're all struggling with that.
01:21:13
SK:
The last thing I want to mention is I didn't even realize until I was doing research for this episode you have this thing called the Helium Grants. I would be curious to hear about why you started that, and how it's going, and under what conditions you'd encourage people to apply.
01:21:28
NE:
Yeah, definitely. Helium Grants came out of an experiment that I did, I think last spring. I had this idea for a bit. I feel like Internet audiences are sometimes very under-leveraged. You have people who are listening to you. You can just share and do weird experiments all the time. I wish I did more weird experiments on my own audiences. Yeah, and I think I just had had the thought of, "What would happen if I'm going to give away?" At the time, this was $5,000. What would people do with it? What would people ask for? I was talking to a friend about it last spring, who was like, "You should totally just do it," and offered to also match that.
01:22:17
NE:
I had two $5,000 grants to offer, and so just wrote a blog post last spring, and put it up on the Internet. It was really fun to get responses from people. I got I think that time, I forget the numbers now. I think 2,000-ish applications, which all came to my inbox, which was a lot of email for a while. Yeah, decided to keep doing it. I'm doing it now as on a slightly more rolling deadline. There are $1,000 grants once every quarter, but I've also made it so anyone can sponsor one with me. Last quarter, we had 12 grants. It's been fun to see random things people apply for, but it's also fun to have random people emailing me being like, "Hey, I'm going to Venmo you $1,000. This seems cool."
01:23:09
NE:
Yeah, just doing that with strangers on the Internet is also really fun, just more Internet friends. The goal of the ... Sorry.
01:23:20
SK:
No, I'm sorry to interrupt. I just wanted to confirm. It sounds like you are giving a bit of your own money, and then people from the Internet are matching, as well?
01:23:28
NE:
Yeah, that's the way it's set up right now, has been ... Yeah, I put up $1,000 every three months, and if anyone else wants to join in and match that, then they can.
01:23:39
SK:
That's amazing.
01:23:40
NE:
It's fun. Yeah. Mostly I think it's been fun for me because seeing the types of applications around the world from just ... I've been trying to find the right messaging for it. What I really would like to fund are people that are just obsessed with some sort of idea that they really want to be working on, and they need some capital to get them going. It's not really meant to be a GoFundMe type thing. It's also not really meant to be a Kickstarter type thing. Yeah, it should just be like, "Hey, I can't stop thinking about this thing. If only I had a little bit of extra cash to make it happen."
01:24:23
NE:
Not necessarily always because people don't have the money, but because maybe it's a really weird idea that they don't want to spend $1,000 on, or whatever. Finding that sweet spot of just the right project can just be hard to convey. Regardless, the applications I see are so, so interesting. Just the crazy stuff that people come up with that they can think to spend $1,000 on. I always get really inspired by people that are doing weird and interesting things.
01:24:55
NE:
I feel like Helium Grants are basically a funnel for me to have an opportunity to read about weird and interesting things from thousands of people around the world, and that's why I really enjoy doing it. Plus it's easy enough just to do.
01:25:10
SK:
Yeah, can you share a fun story from your application reading or granting?
01:25:15
NE:
I'm trying to think what I can share, because I also made a whole thing about keeping applications really private. Yeah, I'm trying to think... What can I share? Some of them are just really creative. One from this last round was a woman who wanted to write. She was a Rhodes scholar, and she needed to finish her PhD thesis, but she had a young daughter. She just couldn't afford the childcare to get some quiet reading time in. She was using the money to pay for $1,000 worth of childcare, which translate into, I don't know, 40 hours or something of ... I don't know what the math is on that.
01:26:01
NE:
Some significant chunk of time for her to do writing in private, which I thought was cool. I remember from the beginning. One of the applications last year was someone who wanted to fund an Uber or a Lyft driver to commute them back and forth to work so that they would have an extra hour and a half in their day to work on whatever their project was. I didn't end up awarding it to them, but I thought it was an interesting creative idea. I'm also tickled by the creative ways that people are trying to create more hours of uninterrupted time in their day, which is slightly different from funding materials or things like that.
01:26:43
SK:
It's funny because when you ask for $1,000, it's not like, "Oh, if you give me this $1,000, I'll put it in my bank account, and then it'll help me abstractly." You have to explain how we're going to use it, and it's going to directly help.
01:27:01
NE:
It's also crazy to see in some geographic locations $1,000 goes really, really far. Someone wanted to name a build or something after me in the first set of applications. I was like, "Wow." That was for $5,000, but still I was like, "Man, $5,000 can get me a lot in other places." Whereas you don't get people like that in San Francisco.
01:27:25
SK:
Yeah. I wouldn't be surprised if in a couple years you only gave grants to countries where it went far.
01:27:33
NE:
Spreading, yeah. Yeah. It's also an interesting balance to manage. It's really hard to pick applications for this, just because it's not that many grants given the volume of applications. Making the trade-offs of where will $1,000 go further? Is always interesting.
01:27:58
SK:
Cool. I think now just in the interest of time, it's a good time to wrap up. I want to give you just one last opportunity if there's anything you wanted to plug, or if you're looking at. I imagine this wouldn't be applicable for you, if you're looking to hire people or work with people, or just generally places on the Internet you want to meet people, or talk to them, or whatever. Now would be actually for that.
01:28:20
NE:
Yeah. I like talking to people on Twitter, and you should totally sign up for my newsletter, because I like talking to people on there, too.
01:28:29
SK:
Sweet. Awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time. It's been a lot of fun.
01:28:31
NE:
Thanks. It's been great.