End of the year, a decade and an era.


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Jan 01, 2010 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

In 1999 I was working for Digital Equipment Corporation's Unix group as a technical marketing manager, making a "six-figure salary". I had met Linus Torvalds in May of 1994, and had recognized Linux and Free Software as something whose time had come. While most of the world in 1994 thought of Free Software only for technical people, educators and hobbyists, I felt that Free Software had commercial value, and I helped start and drive the acceptance of Free Software, and particularly Linux into the commercial marketplace.

By 1994 I had fairly extensive exposure to end-user written, freely distributed software. I had used it as a university student in 1969 through the library of the Digital Equipment Corporation Users' Society (DECUS). I used it again when I was teaching at Hartford State Technical College as well as various other colleges and (through access to source code in many forms) in most of my jobs. Right before meeting Linus Torvalds I had worked with a team of people at Digital's Unix Group to create a pre-built, pre-compiled and tested version of GNU (and other) software for Digital's OSF/1 operating system which we called "Good Stuff" and which we distributed freely (free as in freedom and as in beer) to anyone who asked for it. I still have a couple of those "Good Stuff" CDs.

In the years of 1995 to 1999 I accepted the position of Executive Director of Linux International, a group of feisty small companies that believed in Linux and Free Software in general, and for the most part "got it" with respect to the community and the people who participated in that community. At first my management at Digital questioned what I was doing, but since I was selling Alpha processors with both Digital Unix and Linux on them, they let me extoll the virtues of Free Software. Some of my management laughed at me for believing in Linux. A lot of that management now works for Red Hat Software.

Over time I could tell that my message of Linux and Free Software was beginning to put a strain on Digital's management, since one of Digital's biggest "partners" was Microsoft, so in 1999 I was offered the opportunity to "do Linux full time", and I accepted, leaving Digital and my "six figure salary."

In many ways the ten years since 1999 have been some of the best in my entire life. I have met and talked with many amazing and passionate people. While I had traveled to many counties as part of Digital's Unix group (both as a trainer and as a marketing person), I often talked only to managers and large groups of people in conferences and conventions.

Free Software brought me the opportunity to talk more with developers, students, researchers and (interestingly) heads of governments who I otherwise would not have reached. Since I was talking about a process of software creation and not a specific commercial product, people listened to me and understood that Free Software brought them a chance to create jobs and take control of their software destiny.

I have done thousands of presentations in the past ten years, traveled to over 100 countries (most of them more than once), and talked to everyone from elementary school children to groups of elderly people.

I gave many different talks. While I re-used some of my material from one talk to the next, I tailored each one to the audience, often writing slides up to the time I stood at the lectern (and sometimes while I was standing at the lectern). I patiently listened to all the "reasons" why people thought they could not use Free Software, until I actually wrote a talk "The Ten Reasons Why You Think You Can't Use Free Software, and The Ten Reasons Why Those Ten Reasons Are Crap!" For some reason most of the organizers removed the word "Crap" and substituted other words, but the talk remained the same.

My method of "screening" invitations to do a presentation was simple: First come, first served. I received and accepted invitations from groups as diverse as the United Nations and a small user group in Fiji. If I had the time in my schedule, I agreed to present.

At these conferences I was extremely pleased when people would come up to me and tell me something alone the lines of "I started my own business supporting Free Software, and I have you to thank you for it" or "I listened to you and today I am a millionaire from working with Free Software." Yes, these incidents really happened...I wish I had asked the second gentleman for some of that money...

Early in my Free Software career I decided not to take honorariums for my talks, since I was making a living with Free Software, and the talks that I did was my method of "giving back" to the community. Sometimes commercial firms took advantage of this, since these commercial firms would charge large sums of money for people to attend their conference, and they got me as a "cheap speaker", but I was still speaking the "Free Software" message, and I felt that reaching some of the people that went to these expensive meetings was good for "the cause". However, while the groups who invited me to speak often paid for my airfare and travel, this did not in any way pay for my other expense items like food, car payments and my mortgage. Those expenses were paid through my consulting and writing.

Unfortunately, while the miracle of the Internet and laptop computers running Free Software allowed me to do some work while traveling to conferences, the amount of work I could do and the amount of concentration I could give was less than when I was in my office. As Free Software became ever more popular, the amount of travel increased from 30% to 90% of my time, meaning I could do less "real work"....and my income dropped. In addition, as more people understood more about Free Software, the amount of paid consulting began to dwindle.

We will not even discuss the nightmare that air transportation has become, and that at the tender age of 59 sitting in an airplane seat for ten hours is not fun.

In the past five years things I am passionate about started to become more of an issue to society in general. Energy consumption, environmental issues on recycling computers (I have about one-half million US dollars worth of old computers that it would cost me 200 USD to have taken away) and ease of use issues. My talks started talking about the use of Free Software to extend the life of computers and computing, and making computers easier to use by tailoring the software to our needs and making money with Free Software. Finally, the economic crisis of 2009 jelled a plan for creating badly needed jobs, and out of this plan came "Project Cauã". Unfortunately in the past year I have had little time to work on Project Cauã due to all of the travel I have been doing.

So I have decided to taper back on my traveling, and concentrate more on writing and getting Project Cauã off the ground. I will be taking some of the talks that I have given over the past fifteen years and putting them into a form that other people can present to the managers and customers they wish to convince about the benefits of Free Software. Instead of fifty or a hundred people hearing the arguments, thousands will hear them....just not from me.

I plan on blogging more, so those who like my writing will have more to read. In fact, my blogging will take on more of a technical side as well as a business side, and I hope will facilitate a two-way conversation as I ask your opinions about Project Cauã and other issues.

While I plan on cutting back on my traveling, the traveling will not stop completely. I have several outstanding speaking requests for 2010, including one in Ghana, and some conferences where I will be attending because "old friends" (and you know who you are) asked me to attend. And some conferences will be "must do", and I will drag the suitcase out. Therefore do not be afraid to ask me to come to your conference, just be understanding when I say "not this year".

Finally I would someday like to start a school for graduate students. I have talked about this for years, and some people think it is only a joke, but a few people know I actually have a sustainable business plan for the school. I call the school "maddog's monastery and marina for math, music, micro-computing, micro-brewing, micro-winery, micro-distillery and bait shop", and after listening to me talk about the "monastery" most people say "Please include me in your plans." I need to start working on facilitating that project too, but we will save that discussion for another blog.

And as I hear the fireworks outside my window for the turn of the decade, I hope that you all have a very wonderful 2010.

Carpe Diem.


  • "maddog's monastery and marina

    Actually you are talking about something my friends have said before. While they didn't say Marina I know of a few Engineers who have run marina's as refugee's from corptopia.

    So instead of making it a graduate school start it out as a week summer camp for geeks to develop business plans. Monastery's have always provided a refuge of sanity in an insane world for people for a week or two.

    Perhaps take part Microchip's example in the Masters Conference, perhaps part of Steve Cirica (Circuit Cellar) and perhaps part of a church service project.

    Have a good new decade and please don't disappear.

    Cheers John
  • Happy 2010!

    Looks like 2010 is going to be a very exciting year! I look forward to hearing more about your project and your other adventures!
  • Your accomplishments

    Hey md,

    Great article about your impressive contribution to what Free Software is nowadays -- your life.

    I hope you accomplish all your plans for this year and have it full of health, work and joy!


    Joaquim Rocha
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