Episode 206

Sophia Vargas of Google on Funding and Motivation in Open Source


November 3rd, 2023

42 mins 16 secs

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Special Guest

About this Episode


Sophia Vargas


Richard Littauer | Leslie Hawthorn

Show Notes

In this episode, Richard and Leslie welcome guest Sophia Vargas, a Researcher and Program Manager at Google. Sophia’s journey from data center research to the open source ecosystem is explored, and the tactical support she provides to projects. She highlights the challenge of understanding contributors’ motivations, particularly in the context of financial incentives. The episode explores Google’s role in open source, delves into the complexities of funding and motivation, and uncovers the often unseen “glue work” that binds open source communities together. Tune in to gain insights into the dynamic world of open source sustainability and the quest of a balanced ecosystem. Download this episode now!

[00:02:07] Sophia explains her transition from data center infrastructure research to open source ecosystem research. She discusses her role in understanding how Google interacts with open source and supports projects.

[00:05:26] Sophia emphasizes the importance of understanding motivation in open source contributions, noting that financial incentives aren’t the primary driver. She discusses Google’s role in open source and its investments in various programs and engagements. Her research also delves into understanding why people contribute to open source and what keeps them engaged.

[00:09:42] We hear how Sophia overlaps between her work in the CHAOSS community and her research at Google, particularly in metrics and understanding project dynamics.

[00:12:16] Richard raises a question on how open source projects can receive funding without becoming overly dependent on it. Sophia explains that she’s actively researching this topic to understand the dynamics of funding and motivation in open source. She mentions her previous research has focused on contributors’ motivations, and now she’s investigating how money impacts those motivations.

[00:16:48] Sophia emphasizes that the core focus of her research is on understanding individual contributors and how money might affect their involvement. She points out the challenges of determining the impact of different funding levels on contributors’ behavior.

[00:18:25] She mentions the potential impact of formal agreements and expectations tied to funding and the discussion touches on how projects can shift from being hobbies to more professional roles due to funding.

[00:20:31] Richard asks about existing research in fields beyond open source that might shed light on this issue, and Sophia mentions volunteer energy research and discusses the gaps in understanding the complex relationship between individuals, their motivations, and funding.

[00:22:49] Richard raises the questions of whether the motivations of young individuals, particularly from the global south, are aligned with contributing to open source, and Sophia shares her thoughts on this explaining how it’s difficult to measure.

[00:26:51] Leslie discusses the challenges of quantifying and acknowledging engagement that doesn’t manifest as code commits or traditional contributions. Sophia adds to this highlighting the “glue work” that often goes unnoticed, including tasks related to communication, event management, and coordination. She talks about ideas such as adapting processes to better track non-coding activities and using existing communication channels to reveal hidden contributions.

[00:33:13] Richard wonders how one can effectively limit and define the scope of open source given its extensive nature. Sophia cites a research effort by the Complex Systems Center that aimed to count open source activity outside of GitHub to highlight the ecosystem’s size, and she emphasizes the importance of seeking exposure to diverse open source spaces, projects, conferences, and ideals to avoid bias and gain a comprehensive understanding.

[00:36:32] Find out where you can follow Sophia on the web.


  • [00:37:24] Leslie’s spotlight is her first boss, Joseph Nguyen.
  • [00:37:53] Richard’s spotlight is the Green Mountain Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club.
  • [00:38:42] Sophia’s spotlight is Inessa Pawson, a maintainer at NumPy.



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