Why open source can thrive in a recession

Dr. Dries Buytaert, creator of Drupal and co-founder and CTO of Acquia, explains why Open Source is more suited to survive, and even grow, in a recession than other software distribution models.
Written by Bill Detwiler, Contributor

Open source will survive and likely grow during the current economic downturn caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic. That's the position of people in the open source community, including Dr. Dries Buytaert, co-founder and CTO of Acquia and creator of Drupal, the open source web content management framework. In a March post on his personal blog, Dr. Buytaert wrote that during periods of economic decline, "organizations will look to lower costs, take control of their own destiny, and strive to do more with less." Adopting open source can help "organizations survive and thrive," he continued.

Matt Asay, who writes a column for ZDNet's sibling site TechRepublic, also wrote about the ability of open source to grow in tough economic times. "One bright spot is that more organizations will turn to open source as they seek to do more with less," Asay wrote, "which was the case from 2007 to 2008 during the Great Recession, as well as during the dot-com bust of 2000 to 2001."

I had a chance to interview Dr. Buytaert about his article, his advice for building successful open source projects and what's happening with the Drupal Association and DrupalCon for TechRepublic's Dynamic Developer video and podcast series. The following is an edited transcript of the the interview.

Note: A version of this article appeared on ZDNet's sibling site TechRepublic.

Bill Detwiler: Dries, thanks for joining me.

Dries Buytaert: Thanks for having me. Excited to be here.

Bill Detwiler: So you wrote a blog post last month about how open source is better positioned to survive an economic recession and a downturn, maybe than other software distribution models, right? The post was in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak and the economic downturn. But we've seen this before and that was the basis of your article. What is it about open source that makes it recession proof, or recession resistant at the very least?

Dries Buytaert: Yeah. No, so I think what tends to happen in these recessions and I actually looked back at the last two recessions. The dot-com crash in 2000 to 2004 and also the Great Recession, 2007, 2008, 2009 if you will and every time actually open source got a boost, if you will. The reason is actually quite simple and intuitive in my opinion, which is when these economic downturn happen, organizations, they have to lower their costs, right? So when you have to lower your cost, I think open source becomes a much more compelling option compared to typically more expensive proprietary software. So recessions force organizations to do more with less, and I think open source becomes a really interesting option and this is what happened in the dot com crash. This is what happened in the Great Recession.

Great Recession was what, 12 years ago? And open source has actually come a long way since then, so I think open source is even more viable alternative compared to 12 years ago in the Great Recession and certainly 20 years ago in the dot-com crash. The other thing, which is maybe a little bit more surprising that we tend to see is that when developers get unemployed and obviously that's a sad thing, but it does happen. Often, they look at open source, or they participate in open source as a way to develop or extend their skillsets. As they have now jobs, open source can be a great avenue to learn new technologies. To upscale, if you will, and then hopefully launch into the next phase of their career. So we actually do see an increase in open source contribution as well during recessions.

Bill Detwiler: You know, that's a really important point, because that was something you addressed in your article also, was the importance of open source contribution, right? From both individuals and organizations. Talk a little bit about how that plays a role in the growth of open source.

Dries Buytaert: Yeah, I think it depends a little bit on the open source project, but we can slice and dice open source projects in many ways, but some of them are really community lead. Which means most of the development is done by a community of people and organizations, and another open source companies are maybe primarily company that orders one prominent company that's doing most of the work. But obviously, in community lead open source projects, the number of contributors and number of individual developers... there's many other forms of contribution too of course, but the number of individual contributors, the number of organizations that contribute to the project has a direct impact on the speed of innovation, the velocity that that project has. Yeah.

Bill Detwiler: Do you have advice for people? One of the things about these projects is building a community around the project and building a vibrant community of people who are engaged with the project. You've been in this game for a very long time now, right. Of taking Drupal from something that you were doing to what it is today, right. So what advice do you have for developers and people who are working on those projects maybe to keeping the community alive, the project alive through the good times and the bad times?

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Dries Buytaert: Yeah, it's a great question. I've been doing Drupal for 20 years, it's a long time. I can tell you that the problems we used to have are a lot different than the problems we have today. I can also tell you that there is no silver bullet. I have a funny story. It might be worthwhile to tell, but around 2005, it's a long time ago, Drupal was still relatively small but I was a student. I didn't have any money and the Drupal website, the Drupal.org was running on a shared shell account is what we called it at the time, but basically a shared server that as running Drupal at Oregon. By sometime in 2005, traffic to the server became so much that basically it didn't scale anymore and was starting to affect the other sites on the server, and at some point, the server melted. Literally, it's too much traffic and we did some quick back of the envelope calculation and we said, "We need $3,000 or $4,000 dollars." I forgot, and we can use that money to buy an amazing server and we can scale and... great.

That was a big problem that we had. It was a huge problem and I didn't have that kind of money. So my best idea was to replace every page on drupal.org with an empty page, and it had a PayPal button that says, "Please donate money. We need $4,000. Once we have $4,000, we'll bring the site back up." Something amazing happened, within 24 hours people had contributed $10,000 and I never had $10,000 in my life and I immediately changed the PayPal password to be this long, right? Of course PayPal blocked my account for suspicious traffic because in the first four years of Drupal, I got 50 bucks total and then all of a sudden $10,000.

But it gets better actually, one of the CTOs of Sun Microsystems, he said, "We've been using Drupal and we're shipping you a server." It was like a $7,000 server or something. It was one of these high end Sun servers at the time, and then something else happened. The university of the State of Oregon- Portland, they basically said, "Hey we have a lab, if you have a server, we will host it for you. We have students. They can help you maintain that server." So within 24 hours, we had $10,000, we had a server and we had free hosting, free electricity, free bandwidth and a team of students that would help us maintain that software, right? So that was pretty special and an early sign of...

Bill Detwiler: Wow.

Dries Buytaert: What a special community that we were building with Drupal. I tell you that story because at the time, $3,000 or $4,000 was a huge problem, but it also relates to your question. How do you build community? I get invited a lot to talk to other companies and individuals building an open source project, and it's really hard. Especially companies, they're like, "How did you grow Drupal so that there's 10,000 people every year that contribute codes? How did you grow Drupal? There's over a thousand companies every year that contribute code."

The thing is there is no really easy answer, and I'm happy to talk more about it, but I often suggest to them, "Maybe you should turn off your servers for a few days and see what happens."

Bill Detwiler: Is it-

Dries Buytaert: But no. Yeah.

Bill Detwiler: Is it really just about creating a product that clearly people found valuable, or that they were passionate about. Is it more to it? Because clearly people came out of the woodwork then, and I know as a result of the social distancing and governments shutting down large gatherings, you're going through some of this with the Drupal Association and with DrupalCon. So is the secret... I mean, there is no secret like you said, but is one of the things just creating a project that people do feel passionate enough about, or they get invested in that they feel like... they take on a little bit of personal ownership, or buy in, and then they're willing to take the next step to invest their time, their effort, their energy in it.

Dries Buytaert: Yeah. I mean, I think... yes to all of it. So I think everything starts and stops with having a good product, right? If the software isn't great, if people don't like using it. If it doesn't meet the needs of users, it's hard to build a community. So it starts by having something that's highly functional and needed in the market, but that alone doesn't create an open source community. I mean, the next step is usually to enroll people or organizations to contribute to your project, and one of the things that I've learned is you have to be explicit about it. You have to actually ask people, and one of the things that I would do often in the early days of Drupal, people would email me and they would say, "Hey, it would be pretty cool if Drupal did this." And I said, "Great. You mind implementing it? I'll help you."

So I would immediately invite them to contribute and surprisingly, a lot of people do when you invite them to contribute. I think there is a huge barrier for people to do it on their own, at least back in the day and still today I think. A lot of people are shy to maybe jump in and do the thing, but sometimes the simple act of asking, "Hey, do you mind? If you have the time, if you have the skills, do you mind helping?" To give people that sense of ownership, they do. They're very often very incentivized to contribute, but that feeling of ownership I think is really important. If I look back at the history of Drupal, that's something that we've scaled and evolved.

It went from me inviting individual people to today, we have a fairly complex governance model that allows people to contribute and fight leadership roles in the project. So yeah, I think there's a lot of different pieces to growing and sustaining an open source project. Maybe this is a good segue to Drupal and DrupalCon as well, but one of the things that really helped us too is in person events. open source is developed virtually in GitHub and similar tools and it's really hard to be frankly, a bit of an ass to other people in these anonymous forums, right?

Bill Detwiler: Right.

Dries Buytaert / The Drupal Association

Dries Buytaert: One thing that was really game changing for Drupal is that from the very beginning, we started organizing in person events. So today, we have DrupalCons, these are our large conferences. We do usually two of them a year. Thousands of developers come to them, but we also have hundreds of what we call Drupal Camps. Smaller events, every weekend there's a few Drupal Camps in different cities around the world. Attracts... I don't know, between 100 and sometimes 2,000 people. So some of them are quite large, and then we also have a lot of meetups maybe at night, in a bar or in an office, right? Once you meet somebody in person and you spend some time together, maybe even a beer together, that relationship changes and it's a lot harder to be an ass when you're interacting with that person. So the human connection has been very important for us too to grow the Drupal Project.

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Bill Detwiler: How soon after you started Drupal and it started to grow did you realize hey, we need to do these in person events? I guess that would be the question that people would have. It's like, "I've got this open source project and I want to grow it," even though it's an internal project that they're working at in their company, or it's something they're trying to make bigger and they hear that advice from you and they say, "Yeah, that really sounds great. That face to face connection, or sense of community by a physical presence and having events where people can share and learn and do that is something we want to do." At one point... again, there's no magic answer for at what point it makes sense in a project, but is there... what was your sense with your experience with Drupal like?

You probably didn't start having the events right away, right? It took a little while for the audience to build and then you said, "Hey look, we can do an annual event and we got the financial resources also to do that and we can have 10 people show up, or 250 people show up." Or whatever it is to be financially successful.

Dries Buytaert: Yeah, we kind of stumbled into it to be honest, but I can tell you a little bit about that, but I can also give you some advice of how I would do it today.

Bill Detwiler: Yeah, I'd love to hear both. Yeah.

Dries Buytaert: Yeah. I mean, I started Drupal around 2000. Released the first version in 2001 and at the time, I was a student. I was doing a PhD in computer science and I would travel the world to do presentations about my work and meet with other researchers. Around 2004, I had to be in Vancouver, Canada to present at a conference and by then, there was the early beginnings of a Drupal community. A whole bunch of them were living in Canada, but also in the U.S. They said, "You know what? We're all traveling to Vancouver. We want to meet you and we want to spend a half day together." I'm like, "Wow. I didn't expect that, but sure. Let's do it."

We had our first informal Drupal evening where I gave my very first Drupal presentation ever and that was a lot of fun. We ended up hanging out and had a lot of fun and we said, "You know what? We need to do this again." So that lead actually to the first DrupalCon organized in Belgium, where I was living at the time. I remember I think 35 or 40 people showed up and at the time, I could not believe 35 or 40 people would actually travel to Belgium to talk about Drupal for days. Because you have to imagine, I was just doing my PhD. Most of my friends an family didn't even know about Drupal. It's not something I would talk to people about. It was just something I did for fun, right? Then all of a sudden, we've got 40 people or so that wanted to talk about Drupal all day. So we stumbled up into it. We created this connection and it was a lot of fun. So we started doing it very regularly. At least twice a year ever since.

So my advice today though, if you have an open source project and you want to grow it, I would start earlier to be honest. I would probably start immediately in my local town to have something, even once a month and if two people show up, great. If nobody shows up, great too. But I would really start early to try and build that community and even the in person interaction. I will tell you, there's thousands of people that contribute to Drupal and a lot of them contribute once or twice and then move on. But there are also people in the Drupal community that have been contributing for 10 years or more, right? All of them... maybe not all of them, but most of them I've met in person.

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Bill Detwiler: Wow.

Dries Buytaert: You know what I mean? Because we have a saying in Drupal actually, it's come for the code and stay for the community. That's actually our tagline. If you go to our website, it's all over in the Drupal world but it's so true. People discover Drupal and get into Drupal because they want to solve a problem they have and they're looking for some software to do it, but then they get... become part of the community and some of them have been in Drupal for 15 years and they're still contributing. I'd say it became a big part of their life. I don't think that happens without physical in person interaction, physical events.

Bill Detwiler: Yeah. So I think that's a great place to end it and talking about this year. With all the lockdowns and the shutdowns and restrictions on large gatherings due to COVID-19. Everyone, not just DrupalCon is dealing with events that had to be canceled. So give us an update just on... and I know you had written a blog post about how that the loss of the conference affects the Drupal Association, because-

Dries Buytaert: Right.

Bill Detwiler: Still a majority of the financial well being of the Drupal Association is built on DrupalCon, these events, just like a lot of organizations. Give us an update on how the efforts are going to raise funds to help the Drupal Association. What folks... and tell us what folks can do to help. Where they can go, give us that information.

Dries Buytaert: Great. Yeah, so first of all, I mentioned this DrupalCon I organized in Belgium at the time, and that was a success. We had 40 people, but it actually lead to us creating the Drupal Association, because I was organizing or helping to organize a conference all from my personal checking account, right? So it's like signing up sponsors, renting venues and a lot of open source developers go through this. It's a little bit tricky, because we had a little bit of sponsorship money and technically, that would have been income for me, meaning I have to pay taxes on it.

Bill Detwiler: Right.

Dries Buytaert: Right. So it just complicates things when you have to do these things on your personal checking account. So it lead to the creation of the Drupal Association, our nonprofit. We've since grown that nonprofit quite a bit. We have... our annual budget is over six million. We have maybe 20 people full time in the Drupal Association, but because it was born out being an event organization, because it was created to organize events, it's still the primary mission of the Drupal Association. So if you look at our budget, over 60% of the budget is tied to DrupalCon. So revenue that comes from DrupalCon. Putting on these DrupalCons are very big operation because we have three, four thousand people at each of them. So obviously, when COVID-19 happens just like every other event in the world, we had to cancel it. For us, given that it's 60% of our revenues, that's a material blow to the health of the nonprofit organization.

First of all, I think Drupal is going to be fine. The technical project is fine. As I mentioned, we have so many people contributing. We're working on Drupal 9. We're going to release Drupal 9. As I mentioned at the beginning of this call, I think open source will thrive and Drupal will thrive. The question is will the Drupal Association thrive? Will our events organization continue to exist? So we want it to exist, because as we talked about, those in person moments are invaluable, very special, very important and so we have been raising money to help bridge the gap, right? Because we're already under a contract with hotels and venues, so we're out a lot of money. Then we had to cancel it, so it affect ticket sales, so we don't have income like we normally would have. So we have a big gap.

We did some modeling and it's about half a million dollars that we need to fundraise and so we've been doing that. I think right now, I think we're close to or slightly over 400. So in just a couple weeks, a lot of people in the community have come together. We have received donations from individuals. Over 700 people actually have contributed money, and many organizations have also contributed money and all these contribution together is getting us pretty close to our goal. I mean, we have a ways to go, but I think we might be able. I see a clear path to getting there and maybe relatively soon too. So that's really has been amazing actually to see how the community has rallied. Also the creativity actually that some people in the Drupal community have demonstrated. People are doing all sorts of campaigns and some people are launching these challenges. They're saying for every module or plugin that gets updated from Drupal 8 to Drupal 9, I'm going to donate 10 bucks, or nine euros to the Drupal Association, and then all these developers are upgrading modules.

I know it's created not just a fundraising movement if you will, but also other campaigns around it that leads to money for the Drupal Association. If you do want to help, you can make a donation. You can become a member of the Drupal Association too. There is individual memberships and organizational memberships. So there is a number of options. If you go to the Drupal.org website, I can promise you there will be a banner that leads you straight to the donation options. So yeah, check it out.


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