Cash for code

Cash for Code

Programmers jump on the money train.

07/25/2000

Steve Elfanbaum wants to help his fellow code geeks make some extra cash.
Photo: Stephen Kennedy

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Let’s not foster any illusions about open source software: If you’re a programmer, it’s not going to make you rich.

Even as open source makes marketing geniuses and service providers rich, as Linux has done through the initial public offerings of Red Hat, VA Linux Systems, and Andover.Net, the coders who actually built the product don’t generally participate in the upside. Like monks, college professors, and WNBA teams, open-source programmers get their most significant compensation in nobler, less bankable currencies–self-fulfillment, peer recognition, or experience.

Steve Elfanbaum, the chairman and co-founder of St. Louis, Mo.—based Asynchrony.com, wants to change all that.

Asynchrony is building a community of independent software developers who use the company’s Website to form ad-hoc teams, undertake development projects, and eventually, if time and luck allow, produce marketable software. Once a project is complete, Asynchrony will take over the responsibility of testing, packaging, and marketing it, in exchange for a percentage of the proceeds (between 10 and 30 percent). The remainder of the revenue will be distributed to the project’s developers, who will share in the wealth according to their relative contributions.

With Asynchrony, Elfanbaum wants to adopt many of the aspects of open-source approach to software development–distributed teams, attention to detail, high standards of excellence and personal responsibility–while making it possible for programmers to benefit materially from their efforts.

“It’s really taking what we think of as the best parts of the open-source model, such as collaboration all over the world, while at the same time providing the infrastructure to allow the people who contribute to actually benefit,” Elfanbaum says.

Elfanbaum started the company in 1998 with his brothers Bob (president) and Dave (executive vice president of marketing and business development), along with CTO Nate McKie. The company has raised $1 million from angel investors and currently has seven full-time employees. Its site went live in late March.

Programmers can just program

For J. Brandon George, an independent programmer and network engineer living in Gadsden, Ala., the Asynchrony system has given him access to a range of programmers and development projects. George is involved in three Asynchrony projects: a remote-control application for the Palm OS that uses the Palm’s infrared port; a Linux-based Java operating system for the Palm; and a Web-based scheduling application for concert halls, stadiums, and other performance venues.

Most importantly for George, the site lets him concentrate on development. “Asynchrony takes only 10 percent, does all the marketing, and programmers can just program,” George says.

The inspiration for Asynchrony hit Elfanbaum after reading a 1998 Harvard Business Review article, “The Dawn of the E-Lance Economy,” by Thomas W. Malone and Robert J. Laubacher. The authors argued that business will increasingly be conducted by fluid networks of electronically connected freelancers, or “e-lancers,” coming together as needed to accomplish specific tasks.

Elfanbaum, a former programmer and software project manager for GE Capital, saw parallels in his job. Software projects were often slowed or stopped by the team’s inability to find people with the right skills in the St. Louis area. “On the Internet, there’s the opportunity to tap the resources of the world,” Elfanbaum says–but how to find those resources?

One function of Asynchrony, accordingly, is as a place for freelance developers to meet–a marketplace of skills. The community includes more than 2,100 members, not just coders but also technical writers, testers, managers, and others. Members live in the United States as well as a dozen foreign countries.

Tom Robinson is an 18-year-old programmer, just out of high school, who lives in Castle Rock, Colo., about 30 miles south of Denver. He started programming at age five or six, and has taught himself a host of programming languages: Pascal, Cobol, Fortran, C, C++, and others.

Robinson is using Asynchrony to produce a book, tentatively titled The Programming Bible, whose ambitious aim is to provide advice, tips, and tricks for programmers in a wide assortment of languages, one language per chapter. Robinson is writing some chapters himself in addition to managing the overall project, but Asynchrony has enabled him to add experts in several other languages to the roster of authors.

“The fact that I can get on there and post a job for an assembler programmer, and then the guy who’s going to be writing the assembler chapter for us has experience and a master’s degree in computer science–that’s a great thing,” says Robinson.

Splitting shares

Team members working on Asynchrony projects agree on their responsibilities and negotiate how many shares in the project each will receive in exchange for his or her contribution. Team members can, in turn, assign all or part of their responsibility to subcontractors. The project manager is responsible for managing the entire process, contracting out subsets of the project, and ensuring communication among participants.

Throughout the project, participants use email, phone calls, or Asynchrony’s secure bulletin boards to communicate and share code.

Beta testing also is conducted through Asynchrony. Every project undergoes a pre-release testing phase, during which any Asynchrony member who discovers a bug will be rewarded with shares in the project. “If you find a problem, you could potentially make money, so that’s a huge motivator for you to find problems with the software,” Elfanbaum says.

Asynchrony then distributes completed software as shareware, releases it as Asynchrony-certified commercial software, or licenses it to third-party software publishers, depending on the project team’s preference. Asynchrony also supports development of open source software on its site.

In the case of commercial or shareware products, Asynchrony itself owns the intellectual property rights. Elfanbaum insists that this is merely a legal precaution so unscrupulous team members can’t appropriate the code for themselves. “We’re not trying to hoard the code or hoard the rights; it’s just to protect our members,” Elfanbaum asserts.

The first Asynchrony projects are expected to be complete in late summer. If all goes well, Asynchrony-branded software could be on the market this fall–and lucky developers may see their first royalty checks soon after.

“Most software developers have things they’ve been working on in the basement for years anyway, so if they can find a way to work for love and money, we think that’s a great thing,” Elfanbaum says.

For Robinson, the potential monetary upside is only one of the attractions. “If by chance I do happen to make a couple bucks off of this project, that’s great,” he says. “But if nothing else, it’s been a great chance for me to get some leadership skills, and for my team to have some great development experience.”

Considering the paucity of programming jobs for recent high school graduates in Castle Rock, that’s no small thing.

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Dylan Tweney is a writer and content developer in San Mateo, Calif.

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Cash for code