August 23, 2022 by Drew DeVault

How does SourceHut's free software consultancy work?

SourceHut offers a consultancy in which we offer our services as experts in free software to work exclusively on free software development. Through this work we have developed improvements to Wayland, graphics, virtual reality, email, and more, entirely through free software developed in public. Our work can take the form of developing new free software from scratch, contributing improvements to projects that our client depends on, offering what sage advice we can spare, or, often, all of the above.

How does this actually work in practice? Following a discussion in our off-topic IRC channel today, I thought that it would be nice to write about the actual logistics of our operation so that others who want to sell free software consulting services are better equipped to do so, and so that future customers know better what to expect from us.

The process begins with client on-boarding. We don’t do much in the way of marketing — customers mostly come to us. When someone new comes to us with an idea, the first thing we do is seek a basic alignment on the project goals and needs, on our process, and regarding our unique free-software requirements. We evaluate proposals based on a few criteria:

Roughly half of our proposals clear this stage. In addition to a reasonably complete project proposal, we need to establish with the client an understanding of our requirements, namely:

Though we require the results to be released to the public as free software, we’re open to assigning copyright to the client. Not all clients want this, though. If the customer has a clear idea of what’s required, a few emails back and forth are suitable to establish a consensus. If a deeper analysis is needed, we might ask for a temporary contract to cover costs of initial research and planning.

Following this, we’ll draft a contract and seek consensus on the expected pricing and effort required. Our contracts are short and simple, generally covering matters like logistics for payment and the contract period, but also explicitly addressing our requirements regarding subjects like software licenses. Sometimes the client prefers to use their own contract templates, which we’re open to, but generally this requires more negotiation to remove “standard” clauses for things like NDAs.

We bill for each of the engineers we plan to bring on board separately. Our pricing is essentially a function of two competing factors: we target free software and small- to medium-sized businesses, which pushes our prices down, and we offer high-end services from an experienced team, which pushes up. Right now this balance settles on a $250/hour and $150/hour standard base rate for our senior and junior engineers respectively.

The rates are generally only somewhat negotiable — but we may tweak our rates depending on things like our perception of the positive impact a contract might have for free software, or the means of the client. An early-stage open hardware vendor might get a reduced rate for our work developing graphics drivers for them, for example. We will generally expect a deposit from unfamiliar customers.

Once everything is signed and it’s off to the races, the execution of these contracts involves a non-traditional planning style. We push back against suggestions like waterfall or agile, and prefer instead to work like a free software project often does — with broad long-term goals, loosely defined, and narrower short-term goals, more concretely defined. We also set research and planning as an objective in its own right, as this allows us to illuminate unknowns and secure a better idea of the implementation process for each task. We prefer to express progress and planning in terms of the complexity of the work required rather than the expected time to complete it.

Facilitating this mutual understanding of the work involves monthly “status update” emails sent alongside the invoices for each month’s work. These updates cover the tasks recently completed and those planned for the near future, and explain how these tasks relate to the broader objectives.

This is a good opportunity for us to seek consensus where required. Often the client will follow up with questions and clarifications, which a brief email exchange squares up. We’ll also use this as an opportunity to seek clarifications on our end, or to communicate when a decision is required from the client. We occasionally will entertain such exchanges mid-cycle as well, but we plan to anticipate decision points well before they become blockers so that we can work autonomously mid-cycle. We seek to understand and internalize the client’s vision so that we can make the right choices autonomously, reducing the opportunities for our team to be blocked and increasing the client’s confidence in the project.

Though this approach is extraordinarily effective, it relies on a great deal of mutual trust. We aim to secure this by maintaining a reputation for careful, skillful engineering, fierce honesty and transparency, and a history of shipping reliable production software. Insisting on working on free software in public puts weight to these words: our results are independently verifiable.

The model works. Our clients have expressed unanimous satisfaction with our services, and we’ve been able to do a lot of great work for the free software community. Our successes includes VR on Wayland and many improvements (1, 2, 3) to the Monado OpenXR runtime, the Wayland software powering the Steam Deck, and a new webmail and a calendaring and contacts server.

If you’d like to hire us to work on your project, take a look at our consulting page for details. If you’d like to emulate us, I hope that you found this resource helpful. Feel free to ask for advice in on Libera Chat.

We have been planning to develop a jobs board for SourceHut users which allows FOSS developers to list themselves for hire called We intend to provide this service as part of your normal SourceHut subscription,1 and will not take a margin on top of your contracts. You would handle your own contracts and billing, control the communication channels with your clients, have the freedom to take clients off of the platform, and enjoy full ownership over your consulting income.

We have not been able to prioritize this work, but we have developed enough of it that we can work with potential contributors. If you’re interested in helping us bring this service to life, familiarize yourself with the existing code and see what you can do. Check out the GraphQL backend first. Patches to ~sircmpwn/ Cheers!

  1. Including for users who receive financial aid ↩︎