Major Open Source Project Tried to Pay a Developer and Now it Has No Money

The original creator is alleging Babel misused funds and paid a developer that "didn't actually work on the project."
May 12, 2021, 1:00pm
Major Open Source Project Tried to Pay a Developer and Now it Has No Money
Image: Babel Blog

On Monday, the core team of Babel―a free and open source JavaScript compiler―announced it was running out of money after what it described as an “experiment” to pay a couple of its core developers. 

“Since 2018, Babel has been doing a funding experiment: can full time work on Babel be sustained? We've learned the answer might be no,” the core team said in a statement. The news adds to an ongoing conversation about both the funding and labor models of open source development projects, many of which have become critical to the core functionality of many tech companies (who seem to have no problem making money by leveraging open source code) and the internet as a whole.

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A post called “Babel is used by millions, so why are we running out of money?,” sketches out a timeline of how things got to this point, beginning when their steward, Henry Zhu, left his job at Adobe. Using fundraising and memberships through a platform called Open Collective,  Babel decided to pay him $11,000 per month to work for them full time. At the time Babel had corporate sponsors and a large grant that made the salary seem workable.

"We thought that by demonstrating our ability to create and pay a strong team, more features and improvements (and in turn, value) would be delivered via Babel, which would continue the momentum of funding and sponsorship," the team wrote. They brought on more people, paid them each a “part-time” salary of $2,000, kept fundraising, and assumed funding would grow enough to sustain Zhu and eventually bring on everyone full-time. Despite the fact that Babel is "used by thousands of companies all over the world" and hits 117 million downloads each month, this never quite panned out.

According to Babel, many companies use its tools without knowing, making it hard to "for our users to justify sponsoring us to their companies." They also point to the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming that they "lost some big sponsors" and one team member was forced to leave for full-time work elsewhere. This is a massive problem with free, open source software, as Motherboard has explored before. It’s extremely critical to many companies’ operations, and yet most people who work on FOSS are not paid for their work. When they are paid, open source projects often can’t make ends meet. 

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But on Twitter, Babel creator Sebastian McKenzie tried to suggest something else happened entirely. "The reason there's no money is because someone took a $130k annual salary and didn't actually work on the project,” McKenzie wrote in a tweet.

That person, McKenzie reveals, was Zhu who "created 12 issues, commented 25 times, and created 29 pull requests" for Babel in 2020. "Sorry but that's DEFINITELY not $132k worth of work. Especially when there are other contributors who are working free doing much more. Obviously everything isn't on GitHub, there's work in private but it is representative," McKenzie adds in a thread.

While McKenzie is the original creator of Babel, it's worth noting that he hasn't been involved for well over five years. McKenzie left Babel to join Facebook in 2015. In 2020, McKenzie left Facebook and started working on Rome Tools, a Babel competitor he created while at Facebook. Still, he claims that he raised the issue in March and is speaking up now not only because "it's hard to see so much sympathy for a self-inflicted problem that isn't being honestly publicly addressed” but that mismanaged situations make it even harder to get funding for open-source projects.

"The salary amount isn't unreasonable or excessive. It's the lack of material output that makes it unjustified,” McKenzie adds at the thread’s end. 

Nicolo Ribaudo, one of the Babel members brought in at a part-time rate, tried to explain his take on Hacker News hours after McKenzie's thread to push back. 

"Henry is the one who contacts companies trying to explain to them why they should support us, the one who gives most talks at their internal events: he's the one working on fundraising for the team,” Ribaudo writes. “Even without him, many companies would probably donate, but I don't think we would have ever reached the current levels that enabled us to pay a small team."

Ribaudo also tries to explain that while Zhu may code less than any member of the team, the team never felt he was "doing nothing" but they did feel they deserve higher salaries because their work "wasn't less valuable than what Henry was doing" and because Henry was earning more largely because he was the first paid contributor, with the others―including Ribaudo―dividing what was left. 

The Babel core team's statement suggests as much, saying that Ribaudo, Zhu, and Jùnliàng--another contributor paid at a part-time rate--will now all get $6,000 a month which is sustainable until the end of 2021.