Contributing to the common good

Pay It Forward

Article from Issue 161/2014
Author(s):

"maddog" reflects on ways people can contribute to the present as well as the future of software development.

Once upon a time, there was a movie about a little boy who decided to do a random act of kindness and then asked the recipient not to "pay it back" but to "pay it forward" – that is, to do three random acts of kindness for other people. Over the course of the movie, these random acts came back to help the boy and his family improve.

In the same way, I have seen how "paying it forward" has made a difference in the free software movement, and I would like to share a few of these stories with you.

For example, I have told the story before of how I got Linus Torvalds his first Alpha processor – a machine worth about US$  30,000 in 1994 – not through writing a business proposal or justifying the expense to management but by asking various people for whom I had done favors over the years at Digital Equipment Corporation to "pay me back" for some of those favors.

Likewise, when the Alpha port was done, we produced about 4,000 Intel-based CDs of the first Red Hat release for Alpha, and I began traveling to conferences and handing out these CDs like Johnny Appleseed spread apple trees across the United States. I told people, "If you like the Intel version of this software, you will LOVE the Alpha version."

On one trip, I had a layover in Hawaii, where I visited a friend who was studying marine biology. His roommate was a computer science major, and I gave him a copy of the CD. Later, this student graduated, went to work at one of the National Laboratories, and participated in the production of Beowulf systems. The former student credited my gift of that CD to the fact that Red Hat was for a long time the "standard distribution" for high-performance computing in the National Labs.

On the same trip, I stopped by the University of the Pacific in Fiji and gave them a CD. Two years later, I stopped by again, and all of their notebooks, servers, and desktops were running GNU/Linux.

Many years ago, I was at a conference with Theo de Raadt, the leader of the OpenBSD project. Theo seemed a little down, and I asked him what was wrong. It turned out that the project was short of funds and their servers were going to be turned off by their ISP. The really sad part was that they had a release coming up, and that release would have generated enough CD sales of the new release to pay off their debt. Unfortunately, the ISP was not willing to wait for the release, and the turnoff was imminent.

I reached into my pouch, pulled out my checkbook, wrote a check for three hundred dollars (the amount of the debt), and handed it to Theo. I made sure he understood that this was from my personal funds and not from Linux International. Recently, OpenBSD had another funding crisis, but again they fortunately found a sponsor to help them out.

Last year, I attended a large telephony conference in Rio de Janeiro, when a young man walked up to me and asked that I look at his stand. He was selling a hardware unit that tracked where cars went, how much fuel they used, and other things. He told me that without Free Software he could not have started his company. Now, he is looking for ways to "pay it forward."

Five years ago in Brazil, I gave R$  50 to an Inkscape developer as a donation to the project. While I was at Campus Party Brazil this year, that developer came up to me and told me how much that small donation meant to him and how he has now co-founded a company making 3D printers (Metamaquina) using one of the first "crowd-sourcing" efforts in Brazil.

That developer also took me to a hackerspace he was involved with in Sao Paulo – the Garoa Hacker Clube – which has events almost every night. My friend leads a "retroprogramming" team that works on reverse-engineering "classic" computers and video games, thus preserving the technologies in these old systems while teaching new programmers how the systems were built. The members there are both learning more and "paying it forward" for non-members to learn.

As I get older, I see more and more young people asking not just about making money but asking how they can make a life that means something. To them I say "pay it forward." Mentor younger people; help them to get started. Help out projects with both work and funding, and someday those payments will come back 100-fold.

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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