What the open source community means to me

Some very personal thoughts on what the open source community means to me and why contributing can enrich your life

Everytime I tell my friends about my hobby which noawadays has also become my job I face lots of questions. A worldwide community? Contributors around the globe? An open source community? Can you eat that?! Well, actually sometimes you even can eat it. ;-) But seriously - today, I’d like to share with you my very personal view about what the open source community means to me and why it’s not only fun to get active there, but also a big benefit for your whole life.

A long, long time ago…

Back in the good old days around 2003/2004, in my early twenties, I was just a casual user. Broadband connections and flatrates have just become popular apart from the early adopters, and so communication around the globe all of a sudden became possible for everyone. Besides Linux, more and more free software made its way onto people’s computers. Although long before open source operating systems for smartphones and today’s internet of things, e-mail clients, browsers and other software was already available for download as open source. Like for many others, my primary motivation was about the price, simply because the programs were free of charge. I was hinted already that these were driven by a community, but I didn’t fully realize what this was all about. The availability of the source code at least, being no developer, was no compelling reason for me personally - neither me nor the software would have taken any advantage if I had started coding.

From User to Community Member

During these early days already, the idea of a free office suite tempted me, and so it finally made its way onto my harddisk. More out of a coincidence than out of a plan I subscribed to the project’s mailing list, and for sure my curiosity was much larger than my understanding of things, but luckily that didn’t keep me from doing things. ;-) Time had gone by, autumn arrived, and the inevitable time of trade shows started again. Once again without really knowing what the heck I was doing I offered to help out at a Munich trade show, notwithstanding the fact that I neither had any clue about trade shows, nor about the software itself - you see, conditions couldn’t have been worse, actually. I have been quite sceptical, a bit shy (who could believe it?), but exactly that probably contributed a lot to the fact that this has been the best documented trade show we ever had - needless to say, it was quite a success for us. Back in the days I met a colleague with whom I still work together closely today, who took me by the hands and never had given me the feeling that I’m just a useless rookie. Rather the contrary, from the very beginning I was a full and respected member of the community whose opinion did matter and sooner than I had thought I was responsible for topics that I never had done on a professional basis before. To my surprise, it made a lot of fun and ultimately became the start of something shaping my life so very much.

Credit of Trust

Then, things happened just within a glimpse of time - as soon as I had started, open source excited me and, contrary to large corporations with their hierarchies and complex structures, I could actually just do things in a very relaxed and easy way, and it made a whole lot of fun. This credit of trust I received is something that still touches me today. After contributing in some areas - opportunities I owe to people who believed in me from the very beginning - I had to the honour of meeting a wonderful human being, my mentor and my good friend John, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Together with him I had the joy of shaping our project’s international marketing. Even today it is hard to believe this credit of trust, and I deeply value it as a gift that is anything but usual. Over the course of time, I had been introduced to more and more areas - next to my activities in marketing, I was also responsible for the distribution of files on our mirror network, co-organized several events and had the honor of co-founding most likely the first German foundation tailored specifically for the needs of the open source community.

Friends Around the World

By my activities over the years, I met lots of wonderful human beings. I’m not just talking about colleagues or contacts, but about true friends around the globe, with whom I not only share the interest in our community, but also lots of private moments and wonderful discussions. Of course, I don’t meet many of them regularly given the sheer travel distance, but that doesn’t change a bit in our mutual trust and the proximity we have. My favorite memory is a friend from Rio de Janeiro, whom I’ve been knowing since early 2000, having helped him with a problem on his Linux server, but whom I’ve never met until a 2013 vacation. Even if we never met in person before and language barriers were high, we had an amazing evening amongst two good friends, 10.000 km from home and we are in regular contact up to this day.

Broaden your Mind

Having friends around the globe also gives you an amazing insight and widens your scope, helping you to redefine your own point of view. Heading to the Vatican after a conference in Italy, John once joked how fascinating it is seeing where free software can bring you to. Besides trips to foreign countries to attend conferences, often organized by local colleagues and thus so very different from the usual tourist trips, the personal contact with my colleagues helps me learn a lot about the mentality, the philosphy and the reality of life in other countries. Several times I had the chance to meet contributors from poor countries, people with a very touching personal story or colleagues who, despite a big language barrier, went on the long trip to an English conference, and whom I admire a lot for doing so. The lifes and vita of many colleagues are often truly inspiring, as open source projects are open to everyone, independent of age, profession, education. More than once it became clear that the supposed barriers of culture, language and time merely exist in our heads, that they can be crossed in harmony, something that can serve as such an important model for all of us, especially in these complicated times. One of the colleagues who impressed me the most lives in a country far away and always asked for conference merchandising articles. One day, he revealed that these goods we usually throw away quite fast have a price tag attached for him that can even exceed an average monthly worker’s salary. Moments like these make me think a lot - similar to news reports about violence and war in countries where I have friends and colleagues and worry about their well-being when all of a sudden all the formerly anonymous pain and suffering has a name and a face, so looking away is no option anymore.

A Life’s Philosophy

Looking back at all this, open source not only is a license or development model to me. It’s so much more: an open mentality, mutual respect for everyone, trust in newbies, appreciation and valueing other people’s opinions, having joint goals and shared ideals - for me personally, this widens the scope of open source to data privacy, civil rights, free knowledge, open standards and many more. Actually, I even tend to say it’s a philosophy of life by its own. For sure everyone has their own definition and like in any social setting, open source projects are no short of discussions, arguments and discrepancies, there’s not only sunshine, but also rain - very often you’ll meet strong characters and learn that e-mail as primary communication channel can lead to a lot of confusion. With mimic and gesture missing, things can easily lead to misunderstandings. Still, none of this changes any of the fact that the shared attitude of all contributors is very open, very motivated and at the same time very motivating, creating an incredibly welcoming and inviting environment to contribute, which besides the technical aspect also reveals a wonderful human side of things.

Reality of Life

After all these years, open source has finally arrived, thanks to so many people spreading the word and living the ideals. Ten to twelve years ago, we have been literally aliens at trade shows, but nowadays, not only the development and license model are well recognized and appreciated, but even more, they are an integral part of many companies’ business, with even the largest corporations covering open source in their portfolios. Still, the way from pure buzzwording to an actual understanding of the model beneath is quite challenging, especially for traditional companies. Even more delighted I am that I can work with more and more companies which actually do understand the model, contribute to it and according to its principles, and therefore become an equal part of the open source community as any individual contributor. In the beginning, this has been a bit of a balancing act, but nowadays most projects and companies excel at it, which makes me quite happy, as it clearly shows that the open source model has become mature. The only thing I’m sceptical of is the growing use of the term “community”, as nowadays every company with more than a handful of users on their platform claims this, even if it’s just about a proprietary product and their marketing aspect overweights the community one by a lot. Nontheless, it’s great to see that even conservative companies open up their minds and try to touch base with their customers - likewise, customers can achieve things by involving the general public, something that was hard to believe some years ago.

The Future is Open

Even after one and a half decade in open source, every day is a new beginning, every day is exciting, there’s always something new to discover and the number of successes grows just as the new challenges do. I am quite excited and curious where things will lead to - not only in the projects and the software’s code, but even more political, in user’s heads and decision maker’s minds. All of us benefit at least indirectly from the achievements of the projects and the people driving it, and so for sure the open source community will bring me in touch with new topics and connect me to new people who’ll enrich my life a lot. I am looking forward to this and am proud and happy to be a part of this movement, which allows me and many others to experience day after day the fact that mutual respect, trust and shared ideals helps moving things forward. For sure, especially these days come with many challenges - but I’m very much looking forward taking these together with the wider community.