In this audio interview, CoinDesk’s Leigh Cuen and researcher Nadia Eghbal, author of the upcoming book “Working in Public,” talk about open-source software projects. From platforms like Github to software languages like Rust, Cuen and Eghbal explore what the open source movement looks like in 2020.

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This episode is sponsored by Crypto.comBitstamp and Nexo.io.

There are people who understand bitcoin yet aren’t obsessively bullish on it. (I know, it’s weird. Like, how?)

Eghbal, a Protocol Labs alum who is familiar with bitcoin, is among them. She described bitcoin as a rare example of a project growing throughout a decade and continuing. Many people measure growth in terms of unique contributors, users or profits. For Eghbal, looking at different types of “activity” might offer a better spectrum. 

“Measuring activity is maybe a better way to think about project health … some projects also don’t need to be as actively developed as others,” Eghbal said. “I was also looking at things like maintainers’ responsiveness.”  

In short, are problems promptly fixed before they affect users? The quality of contributions should be evaluated in addition to the sheer number of contributors. Do the people who use the software get unique value from it when they need it?

Another useful metric, she said, can be “work done,” including “how many pull requests are being merged or how many issues are being closed.”

And, luckily, Eghbal isn’t the only researcher who understands bitcoin without being “active” in the “Bitcoin community.” (To be fair, I use these silly words more than anyone.) Privacy tech legend Claudia Diaz, Nym’s chief technologist, said she believes there could be value in cryptocurrency projects, although that’s not her focus nor passion. 

“Cryptocurrency offers an option for the people who use the systems to fund them,” Diaz said.  “I’m interested in making systems that make sense and self-sustain because everyone has the right incentives.”

Incentives

There are many different types of value people derive from open-source software projects. 

Sometimes they use the software, sometimes they use public work to develop their own personal brand. Eghbal said some of the most widely sought after engineers are “building an active fanbase for whatever they are creating.” 

She added there are “different types of open-source projects” with passionate fandoms, like Rust, plus open source developers have “a lot in common” with other types of online content creators. These public displays can lead to dramatic Twitter feuds and heated rivalries, just like other personality-driven roles like TikTok stars and podcasters. 

“I’ve been told so many things are definitely, absolutely true, yet are all conflicting with each other,” Eghbal said of her research. “If I’ve learned anything it’s that developers have opinions.”

This is why Diaz’s token-funded startup, Nym, is developing a privacy layer comparable to Tor, the latter of which she said is heavily reliant on government funding. In contrast, her startup Nym raised $2.5 million in a private token sale in 2019.

“Tor offers different trade-offs,” Diaz said. “We built Nym and the applications on top can be messaging applications or cryptocurrency applications … using the infrastructure to protect their metadata in the sense the network can’t figure out what services you are accessing or what they might be doing with those services.”

Open Source Motivations

Diaz considers herself somewhat of an outsider to the open-source developer community, like Eghbal. Their motivations are primarily research-oriented, because research is their job. 

Nym co-founders like Harry Halpin have more experience in (ideological) open source software development. Even coming from different perspectives, Halpin, Diaz and Eghbal all agreed that collaboration and interdependence are the crux of the open source development process. 

“Now instead of relying on a couple of other developers’ code you may now be relying on hundreds of thousands of people’s projects and you don’t even know who these people are,” Eghbal said. 

As such, Halpin said Nym works closely with teams contributing to other open-source projects, like Rust, Cosmos and Zcash. In addition, his team often works with independent (quasi-celebrity) developers like Amir Taaki. Sometimes people contribute as a hobbyist or a user with specific needs, other times they are paid. There are many reasons why people work on cryptocurrency projects. 

“I think it would be great to have an infrastructure that could support privacy in a variety of applications,” Diaz said. “Cryptocurrency offers an option for the people who use the systems to fund them … Privacy technologies have been very difficult to market.”

On the other hand, Eghbal described bitcoin as moving more slowly than some other cryptocurrency projects. 

“Trying to prioritize stability is a very different development style rather than allowing people to have lots and lots of features,” Eghbal said, describing Bitcoin as relatively “stable.” 

And even if the price of the asset never goes “to the moon,” perhaps continuing to provide reliable software tools can be a metric of success in itself. 

For more episodes and free early access before our regular 3 p.m. Eastern time releases, subscribe with Apple PodcastsSpotifyPocketcastsGoogle PodcastsCastboxStitcherRadioPublicaiHeartRadio or RSS.

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