COVID-19 isn’t slowing open source—watch for developer burnout

Commentary: New data shows that open source development remains resilient in the face of global upheaval due to the coronavirus pandemic, but developers’ work-life balance may be paying the price.

work from home. people making video conference with colleague via laptop computer during home quarantine to avoid spreading illness transmission of COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak. Social distancing

Image: asiandelight, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Though life has resumed a measure of normalcy for many in the wake of COVID-19, earlier in 2020 life came to an abrupt stop. No more travel. Tightly restrained social interaction. Widespread adoption of work-from-home policies. Everything changed.

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Everything, that is, except open source software development. 

Despite the difficulties of WFH arrangements (increased childcare duties, social isolation, unfamiliar work arrangements, etc.), open source software developers didn’t miss a beat. In fact, as evidenced by data from the Apache Software Foundation (ASF), code commits increased in the wake of the global pandemic. As ASF president David Nalley related in an interview during Apacheon 2020, “The asynchronous, distributed communications and decision-making of open source development has made us resilient to the types of stress the pandemic has applied to other organizations.”

SEE: Policy pack: Guidelines for remote workers (TechRepublic Premium)

The code must go on

Since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, noted Nalley in his ApacheCon keynote, ASF projects have produced almost 500 software releases. Despite the global turmoil during this time, if you look at the number of active contributors and the amount of code that’s being contributed since the beginning of the year, it has remained remarkably consistent (Figure A).

Figure A


Image: David Nalley/Apache Software Foundation

If anything, ASF data shows the number of commits jumping slightly in March and April, up to roughly 19,000 commits in each of those two months, compared to roughly 17,000 commits in January and February.

This phenomenon is not reserved for ASF projects. Developers hosting their repositories on GitHub have shown the same resilience, as GitHub wrote in May

Developer activity remains largely consistent or increased compared to last year. Developer activity—including pushes, pull requests, reviewed pull requests, and commented issues per user—shows slightly increased activity year over year. This suggests that developers have continued to contribute and show resilience in the face of uncertainty.

Open source development didn’t stop. This might be a problem.

The workday never ends

Behind every open source pull request is an open source developer. As noted, these developers have shown remarkable resilience in getting code published despite global turmoil; unfortunately, it seems to be coming at a cost to work-life balance. 

According to Nalley, “One thing that has dramatically changed is when people are working on open source. Looking at commit activity by hour by workday, it was clearly all packed into a 9-5 workday…” (Figure B

Figure B


Larger, darker bubbles indicate concentrated activity.

Image: David Nalley/Apache Software Foundation

“…and now it’s far more consistent across the board” (Figure C).   

Figure C


Image: David Nalley/Apache Software Foundation

The separation between home and office seems to have disappeared, with open source developers never truly leaving their work. As the GitHub authors suggest, developers “have consistently increased their work volume compared to last year…,working longer days and doing more development work.” Though this may sound great, it could mean they’re “feeling pressure to push more often,” perhaps because of job insecurity or other factors.

SEE: How the coronavirus pandemic is affecting developers’ mental health (TechRepublic)

In other words, we should be grateful for open source development processes for making work not merely possible, but highly productive despite serious global uncertainty. At the same time, we need to be careful that developers don’t burn out.

Disclosure: I work for AWS, but the views expressed herein are mine, and don’t reflect those of my employer.

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