London, UK, 1997: I’m an Applied Computing student at Middlesex University, mainly on the course for the third year module on computer graphics, which involves programming on the Sony PlayStation. One of my fellow students introduces me to MUDs, and after a while playing, I become bored of interacting in someone else’s world and decide I want to be a “Wizard” on a MUD of my own. Realising that the Solaris machines at the University do a much better job of hosting this kind of thing than the Windows machine and the Atari ST I have, and that if I were to run such a system on those machines I may find myself in pretty hot water, I set off in search of a way to install UNIX for free.
Back then, freedom of use was not top of my list of priorities – free of charge was all that mattered. I would have been quite willing to pirate software to achieve my ends, but I stumbled upon NetBSD, which was available for download as a series of approximately 25 floppy disk images, seemingly free of charge, and seemed to do what I needed it to do. Unfortunately, floppy disks were notoriously unreliable, and somewhere in the large set of media, something got corrupted and the whole installation effort came grinding to a halt. So I raided my savings and bought a 4x CDROM drive and a copy of Slackware Linux Unleashed, Third Edition, complete with an installation CD for Slackware 3.1, which still sits on my bookshelf today. And so my adventure with Linux and Free Software began.
The MUD never took off. I finished my degree and in 1999, I started working. My first job was as a systems administrator and developer. As well as looking after the office Novell Network (which we later migrated to an NT4 domain), I was tasked with making sure we got accurate sales figures from our tills. The software the company had purchased was not very robust, and it was not uncommon for the tills to crash, so I started hacking small programs together using Cygwin and GCC to recover the corrupted data files. Free Software made this possible, but I was on my own – I was the only one actually writing code, and actually using and promoting Free Software.
Since then I’ve had three other jobs. I have been fortunate to work on some really fun, interesting and exciting projects with some exceptionally smart, talented people. But somehow, something was missing.
In the roughly 12 years I’ve been working in the IT industry, I’ve used a lot of Free Software. A LOT. GCC, Apache, Tomcat, Eclipse, JBoss, various Linux distributions, a myriad of GNU software, Python, PHP, MySQL, Firefox, Thunderbird… I could go on and on, but my point is simple – my working life would have been much more difficult had it not been for the availability of Free Software. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, none of the companies I ever worked for, who made such extensive use of Free Software to achieve their ends, ever contributed anything back to the projects upon which their profits were built.
As time went on, this increasingly irked me, and I started to look for ways in which I could individually give something back. Fortunately, around the same time, someone else was doing the same. One Mark Shuttleworth, who had had some success with a company selling SSL certificates and sold that company, and now wanted to give something back to the community that had enabled that success. He created the Ubuntu project, which ended up having quite a community following and a certain ethos that made it quite easy to contribute.
I contributed. Not much, but little bits here and there, often via the Ubuntu UK LoCo, because it was now OK just to do a little bit here and there. I continued with my day jobs, I did what I could in my spare time, but always vowing that if the opportunity arose for me to be paid to work of Free Software, especially with Canonical, who seemed to be taking things forward and understanding the people who made this stuff happen, I’d take it.
Fast forward to August 23rd 2010, six months ago. The opportunity arose, I took it, and since then I’ve been living the dream. I found it hard to believe that the way I imagined Canonical to be, looking from the outside, could possibly bear any resemblance to what actually goes on inside. But I’m pleased to be able to say, so far at least, it’s everything I hoped it would be and more.
Everywhere I look, there are smart, dedicated, ambitious people doing what they enjoy. People are actively encouraged to participate in discussions and empowered to bring about change. Things move quickly. Hackers are allowed to be hackers, and valued for it, instead of being rail roaded into becoming project managers (although the path is there to be taken by those who want it). Collaboration is just part of a standard day’s work, not some amazing special thing that needs to be highlighted, although notable examples are praised. We actually have productive, frank, grown-up conversations about what we can improve and how, without resorting to name-calling.
On Day One, I said “I feel like I’m mingling among rock stars at present!” and six months on, I still do. The difference is that I’m now starting to feel like one of them. It’s amazing what being around such brilliant people every day can do.