“GitHub also has a kind of Utopian software development community hope for the program — one in which software developers can make a living working for several companies rather than having to sign on with a single corporation to further their careers.“ - https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-08/amazon-amex-to-fund-software-developers-in-new-github-program

How much you have to change the previous quote to describe Uber/Deliveroo/Just Eat workers?

Those Gig Economy corporations make a lot of money by not respecting the workers right. Not only that but in that case they also outsource certain risks, like: the car (or the bike), the risk of the employee getting sick, maternity/paternity leave, vacation. Workers become just an EC2 instance, if it crashes, you can easily replace it.

“It’s about building a new 21st Century model of employment for developers,” Friedman said. “A lot of open source software is written by full-time engineers who get hired by one of the companies that depends on the software that they build. They’re hired into this 20th Century full-time employment model. We don’t think that’s what the future is going to look like.” - https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-08/amazon-amex-to-fund-software-developers-in-new-github-program

It’s important to notice that the Gig economy is not really a freelance economy or a contractor one. The price for the hour is not defined between two “equals”, but rather by the powerful company. Most of the times, those apps include hidden features to make the workers available for extra hours, such as: you can only deliver in a region with higher tips if you worked X hours in the last month.

There is even a word for those workers “Precariat” (from Wikipedia):

In sociology and economics, the precariat (/prɪˈkɛəriət/) is a neologism for a social class formed by people suffering from precarity, which means existing without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare. The term is a portmanteau merging precarious with proletariat.

Unlike the proletariat class of industrial workers in the 20th century who lacked their own means of production and hence sold their labour to live, members of the precariat are only partially involved in labour and must undertake extensive unremunerated activities that are essential if they are to retain access to jobs and to decent earnings. Classic examples of such unpaid activities include continually having to search for work (including preparing for and attending job interviews), as well as being expected to be perpetually responsive to calls for “gig” work (yet without being paid an actual wage for being “on call”).

Can Software Engineers be precariats? At first, seems very unlikely, there is a lack of engineers in the market, big corporations take months to hire someone and they are paid high salaries. Though, if we take a look at Github, how many people are writing opensource for Big Tech for free? Let’s pick an example, how many wrappers for private companies APIs are in GitHub and maintained by people during their “free time”? Like Slack, Spotify and so on? Those companies don’t need to spend a single cent by supporting it, and when that software become important they can invest some money on it adding a contract that is much worst than normal employment (e.g. goals that the engineer must keep or else, termination of the financial support without warnings…). It’s very important to remember that companies do not donate money, they invest and expect an ROI.

Looking at the definition of precariat: “must undertake extensive unremunerated activities that are essential if they are to retain access to jobs”. Isn’t all the free work put at open source exactly that? You get all the risk (maybe no one wants the wrapper you are creating, maybe the company will never pay you for that work…) and when there’s a proof of the software value, maybe a company will step up and pay you for it.

I’m not saying free and open source software is a bad thing, or that companies should not pay for it when they use. But the model where they remove all the rights of classical employment and you must undertake several jobs to be able to pay your bills is not the same thing as paying for F/OSS that you need. Again, I quote Friedman here: “A lot of open source software is written by full-time engineers who get hired by one of the companies [..] We don’t think that’s what the future is going to look like”, the problem he seems concerned with is the software engineer working full time for a company and not the software engineer doing open source for free.

We need to watch the movement of those companies. They should pay for all the free work people put on the F/OSS they depend on. But people should not be forced to undertake the gig economy.

Also, big tech and most tech companies will never only live on that model. But they can for sure reduce their costs by doing it on some (open) software they need.

There’s the bright side. On this model, especially due to the covid19 and remote by default, will allow people from the Global South to be paid by the North to work on software. Given the cheaper salaries, it seems natural that this model over the years will favour people living in low-cost regions.

Can Github implement it? I believe it can. Both corporations and workers are already there, and already doing more or less that. Though, today mostly based on gift economy (or incentivised by unemployed engineers looking for the next company). Will this be the end of highly paid software engineers? Of course not, those companies still will need to keep their main software up and running, thought they will save some cents with this new model.