"[For the] entirety of the history of technology, open-source software developers have had to live like paupers."
While this is a bit of an exaggeration, Kevin Owocki has a point: making a living can be rough for developers of open-source software, that is, software for which the code is made freely available to use, modify and redistribute under licenses that mostly preclude hallmarks of ownership such as patent rights.
As the founder of Gitcoin, a decentralized bug bounty marketplace, Owocki is trying to fix that.
And this push comes at a time when many open-source developers are lamenting the struggles of their passion, as a Medium article called "A Bitter Guide To Open Source" makes its rounds.
Speaking to CoinDesk, Owocki described the categories open-source maintainers and developers fall into: either they work on their pet projects for free outside regular work hours (which can be draining); they solicit donations from the users of their software (which generally doesn't garner much pay); or they work under the auspices of a corporate sponsor (which turns off some developers that appreciate their autonomy).
None of these are perfect options, so Gitcoin, launched in September 2017, aims to create a marketplace whereby open-source developers – particularly those that focus on ethereum and the decentralized applications or "dapps" that run on top of it – can get compensated for whatever work they want to do.
"Open source produces billions of dollars a year in economic output, but the expected value is free," Owocki told CoinDesk in interview, adding:
"Somewhere between those two numbers is what a rational market would actually pay for open-source software."
Gitcoin, a closely allied platform to Bounties Network, and others aim to build that "rational market" by establishing marketplaces where developers get paid in crypto. And already, Gitcoin and Bounties Network are attracting active users – though, admittedly, still small ones.
Still, since these marketplaces are also dapps in their own right, they're challenging the narrative that many that have raised money don't have solid use cases or good intentions. Looking ahead, Gitcoin and other dapp developer marketplaces could change that discussion even further by giving developers some incentive for improving today's dapps or building new ones that users want.
How it works
Both Gitcoin and Bounties Network are two-way marketplaces, in which projects post "bounties" – discrete chunks of work such as fixing a bug in some software – and developers complete them as their skills and schedules allow.
The bounties are hooked up to GitHub, a popular repository for open-source code, and the transactions – priced in ether or any other ERC-20 token – are mediated by ethereum-based smart contracts.
The two projects function in more or less the same way, since Gitcoin adopted Bounties Network's protocol for ethereum smart contracts and IPFS data storage in November. That was around the time that Gitcoin joined Bounties Network under the umbrella of ConsenSys, an ethereum startup and incubator.
Both projects have now begun to build user bases.
Owocki told CoinDesk that Gitcoin has 220 daily active users. In all, developers total have completed 350 bounties on the platform, worth close to $47,000. Bounties Network, meanwhile, has seen 263 users complete bounties worth $97,000, the project's founder Mark Beylin told CoinDesk.
To date, Owocki said six people have been hired full-time after doing work on Gitcoin, describing the process as "try-before-you-buy hiring." Rather than "working with a recruiter who doesn't really understand the position that they're hiring for, or who charges 20 percent of an engineer's first-year salary, you can … buy and build a relationship before you decide to get hitched."
And while the marketplaces function relatively similarly and are interoperable due to their shared smart contract protocol, they each have slightly different focuses.
Gitcoin, for the time being, is concentrating on open-source software ("depth"), whereas Bounties Network – while most of its bounties are still for code fixes – also aims to attract work such as website design and translation ("breadth").
According to Bounties Network's head of community Simona Pop:
"Our goal is to make this available to a whole range of audiences that aren't necessarily proficient in code or extremely tech-savvy, because the wider population actually isn't."
Supply and demand
One of the reasons for these new decentralized marketplaces' success is the disadvantages of today's alternatives.
Christopher Allen, co-founder of the GitHub Blockchain Guild, which provides financial support to open-source developers, described traditional bug bounty programs as siloed. They "are often written in forms that benefit a single company, rather than an ecosystem," he said.
And the traditional platforms that do offer marketplaces of work from different institutions and projects, like Bountysource and Upwork, are generally filled with "noise," Market Protocol CTO Phil Elsasser, who posts bounties to Gitcoin, told CoinDesk.
"We had tried things like Upwork early on, but it was very hard to find solid developers and also to screen through the massive amount of noise on the platform," he said, noting that developers on Gitcoin are easy to come by and tend to be of a higher caliber.
Still, Elsasser's comment hints at one of the hurdles faced by developers on decentralized marketplaces today – that these sites continue to be heavy on developers but light on teams posting bounties.
Owocki, though, put a positive spin on the mismatch, saying that he's proud to be offering an application developers are interested in using.
Still, there are other hurdles.
For instance, because the system runs on ethereum, users must pay "gas" (the unit used to price fees on the network) to commit changes to the blockchain, such as posting a new bounty or sending a payment for work done. If more developers and businesses start using these decentralized marketplace dapps, they could push up against ethereum's scaling limits, a la CryptoKitties, leading to high fees and transactions backlogs for participants.
Plus, connecting "web 3" applications like Gitcoin to "web 2" browsers like Google Chrome requires installing and running Metamask, a browser app designed specifically for interacting with ethereum, which could be a roadblock for some users.
But initial reports indicate that participants on both sides of the marketplace like the service. The organizations that have sourced the most development work from Gitcoin include notable decentralized apps and platforms: Augur, ethereum, MetaMask and uPort.
And Kenneth Ashley, a web developer who's completed several bounties on Gitcoin, told CoinDesk:
"It's really straightforward. You claim a bounty, you do the work, you get paid. There have been times where all this happens within an hour."
Owe it to ICOs
Putting these challenges aside, though, Gitcoin and Bounties Network have accomplished something few dapps have.
They've turned the typical dapp lifecycle on its head, launching live platforms and attracting users without having sold tokens or even published white papers (Gitcoin has a page where you can sign up to receive the white paper "if/when" it becomes available and mentions elsewhere that it might consider a token distribution at some point in the future).
Ironically, though, Gitcoin and Bounties Network owe much of their success to "the whole ICO hype pump-and-dump scene," as Owocki describes it.
"There's actually funding for open-source software right now," he told CoinDesk. "Now, because we have open-source money, there's open-source jobs that are being built on top of that open-source money. As those open-source monetary foundations are looking to deploy their capital, they're going to deploy it in a place that leverages their technology."
As for the possible stumbling blocks, Owocki waves away "short-term concerns."
When it comes to scalability, he trusts the ethereum developers to solve the issue; as for user experience, he suggests that can be tweaked until it's no longer a problem.
Twenty years down the line, he argues, we're likely to see the results of a virtuous cycle, whereby Gitcoin and other decentralized marketplaces lead the dapp space out of the white paper and ICO fundraising stage – not just by example, but by actively contributing to its development.
Using blockchain developer slang for "building," Owocki said:
"The more we focus on BUIDLing, the more dapps launch, the more users they get, the more devs can continue entering the space."
Leigh Cuen contributed reporting.
Old computers image via Shutterstock