In the past two decades, software has become increasingly important for the successful operation of any kind of business. In this context, the role of software developers has changed fundamentally – according to Stephen O’Grady, they are considered the “New Kingmakers”, i.e. the real decision makers in technology. One major disruptor that drove this shift in the role of software developers is the rise of open source. With open source becoming ubiquitous and professionalized, financial constraints have been removed and developers have gained access to software and tools that they need to be productive and that they could obtain with or without approval from their employers or third-party money lenders. For organizational software developers, this means a profound gain in decision-making power and independence from traditional procurement departments. But does this really lead to a “newly empowered developer class”?
O’Grady’s thorough assessment led my research attention towards this question. While there is a wide array of research that focuses on technical, financial or strategic aspects of open source, the impact of open source engagement on the role of software developers, on their working conditions and on their scope of action within corporate organizations are often lacked. During a sequence of field studies, I talked to organizational software developers about their contributions to open source communities, their work and their working conditions. I also analyzed their respective working environments and processes. On this basis, I gained a first insight into the question if and how open source engagement can lead to more empowerment for corporate software developers. The interviews show that open source communities offer a powerful source for developers to expand their skills, their scope of action as well as their decision and bargaining power. However, the extent to which this potential can be used in practice depends heavily on organizational structures, incentive and governance mechanisms and the interests of corporate stakeholders.
Drawing on in-depth interviews with corporate open source software developers in Silicon Valley and Germany, I want to tell the audience about
- the changing role of software developers and open source in the digital age,
- the perceptions of corporate software developers on their engagement in open source,
- the potential that open source engagement offers for strengthening the empowerment of software developers,
- the challenges and organizational pre-requisites that promote or impede the emancipative potential of open source engagement in corporate working environments,
- and last but not least, the importance of empowerment for having happy developers and sustainable working conditions.