Fifteen years in free software

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 30, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Fifteen years ago this week, free software became a major part of my life. It was a change that took me to places I never imagined, and introduced me to people I otherwise would never have met, almost none of which I regret.

At the time, I wasn't a complete stranger to free software. I had tried installing Linux a couple of times without any success. My last contract, too, had been documenting a Slackware system, even though it had been described to me, somewhat misleadingly, as a type of Unix.

Then, I went to an apparently routine job interview that turned out to be for a writer for a new distribution. By the time the interview was over, I had fallen down the rabbit hole.

As Stan Rogers once sang, "it was all so big and new." Being part of a cooperative effort appealed to my strong streak of idealism. I was doing something that felt important -- and I mean important on a global scale, not just personally satisfying. After watching IBM abandon OS/2, I liked the thought that the same thing couldn't happen to Linux. There was everything to learn, and I needed to learn it all at once.

In those days, there was a cheekiness about Linux that appealed to me. It was taking on proprietary software vendors, and offering alternative development and business models. Each time that critics claimed that free software was unable to produce a certain type of software -- usually because it was too big and complex -- a project or two would prove them wrong. Free software was the new kid on the beach, snidely kicking sand in the faces of the reigning cyber-bullies, and I loved the idea of contributing to it in some small way.

Then there were the people I met along the way. At the time I discovered free software, I had been a technical writer for several years, churning out manuals and being steeped in the complaints of my peers about developers. Many of those complaints, I came to realize, were self-fulfilling prophecies. The second I became eager to learn everything I could about Linux, the difficulties I had prying information from developers vanished. We had common values. And, when developers at other gigs learned I not only used Linux, but was publishing articles about it, I effortlessly got the cooperation I needed.

Occasionally, I still came across free software developers inclined to sneer at those who didn't code, but they were a minority. In fact, I soon learned that the more prominent people were in free software, the more accepting they were likely to be; I suppose they didn't have anything to prove.

As for the idea that these were narrow kinds of people, forget it. The top coders were well-educated, well-read people with a variety of interests, and they discussed everything. These were my kind of people, I told myself -- meaning that I was proud to be accepted by them and to have my ideas taken seriously by them.

Then there were the conferences. I remember one of the last OSCONs in Monterrey, where I was put up in a bed and breakfast a block from the conference center -- close enough to walk to the conference, and far enough away for some quiet when I wanted some. That was the year that Sun Microsystems released the code for, and the news that free software now had a mature office suite made everyone walk a little taller. Okay, maybe the community hadn't built it, but the news was one more point of criticism to cross off the list.
Later, I remember flying to Indianapolis once a month for several long, intense days, and feeling it the height of sophistication (I mean the commute, not the destination). I remember doing the LinuxWorld in New York and San Jose, meeting person after person, and realizing with satisfaction that I had a place among them if I wanted it.

I did want that place, I decided. When I returned for a year to a small commercial company, I no long fit, except when hanging from a door frame and discussing the latest reports on the SCO cases in Groklaw. Desperate for a change, I managed to get accepted as a regular at, and I dove out of technical writing and into journalism as quickly as contractual obligations allowed.

It's been quite a ride, ever since. Events like the rise of Ubuntu, the code release of Java, and the writing of GPLv3 may not have been headline news in the mainstream press. But they mattered, and I couldn't have asked for better company along the way.

Working with free software isn't perfect. Specifically, there's a lack of gender diversity, and a lack of awareness of the imperfections of meritocracy. Still, speaking completely on a personal level, I can 't think of any place better or of complaints worth making.So, here's to my previous fifteen years in free software -- and may the next fifteen years be more of the same.

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