Over the past few weeks I’ve been working on a proposal to establish an open source program office for the progressive movement, modeled on similar efforts at large companies in the larger tech industry. It’s been a pretty interesting endeavor just writing the dang thing, and I hope to circulate it a bit more broadly in the near future. The origin of this idea is simply watching the fate of technology projects across the progressive ecosystem; a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the advantages of open source for the progressive ecosystem at a high level. It seems that by and large they either “graduate” out of campaigns and into for-profit companies, or that they disappear into the ether once the campaign ends. Much more often than not, it’s the latter fate.
I think that’s a shame, in part because it seems like wasted effort, and therefore money, in a context where there’s not all that much money to go around in the first place. More to the point it seems to me like a lost opportunity to persist institutional knowledge and important learnings from one campaign cycle to the next.
Over and above that, it seems like a missed opportunity to engage tech talent from outside the progressive ecosystem. There are plenty of very talented software engineers who don’t work in progressive politics but would probably love an opportunity to contribute their skills to the movement. The problem is that there’s really no easy mode of entry into the movement. Even organizations like Tech for Campaigns and Ragtag, admirable though they may be, require some degree of friction in onboarding. More to the point, they tend to build their programs around the specific needs of individual campaigns - projects tend to be things like “build a website for state senator Jones”, “design an email template for the Puxatawney County Dems”, and so forth. That is excellent and important work! But it is very time-sensitive, meaning that it may not be “shovel-ready” whenever a software engineer happens to onboard. Effectively, a volunteer engineer may have to stick around a while, and furthermore may have to be free at just the right moment, to participate in those projects. I don’t think I’m over-representing the degree of front-end/design work, either - these projects really skew in that direction as a rule. Nothing wrong with that either! But it tends to make poor use of the skills of a (large number of) backend engineers who are not necessarily well-suited to those types of projects.
By contrast, open source projects are 24/7 endeavors, and as a rule there is a tremendous range of tasks among them. I’ve seen some projects that take advantage of fairly cutting-edge algorithmic work that leverages experience from quite challenging corporate projects. These are the kinds of projects that really offer open source volunteers an opportunity to do good while honing their skills, thereby creating a virtuous cycle. That’s exactly the dynamic we want to see playing out in the progressive tech movement.
My current thinking is that this organization will operate somewhat like the Apache Software Foundation, with a budget in the $1-5 million range. There’ll be some important differences, naturally - first, that this project will almost certainly need to be a for-profit company, probably organized as an S Corp. Second, that this project will need to pay its staff well, and won’t be able to rely on, as it were, in-kind donations of staff hours from software engineers in the field. The first year or two will require some jump-start capital, but I believe it could become a financially sustainable operation by Year 3 or 4.
At the moment I don’t have the slightest idea who I would address this proposal to, exactly. High-roller progressive donors are not exactly in my rolodex! Nor am I exactly interested in running such an operation - my day job keeps me quite busy enough, thank you very much! But it’s exciting to put the thing together if only to put together some details on an idea whose time has finally come. If you’re interested in joining me, whether in working on the concept or actually turning it into reality - please get in touch!